In Glasgow’s competitive list election, ex-MSP Pauline McNeill hopes to make a return to frontline politics
THE GAME ANTI-MONOPOLY sits on top of a stack of games in a Glasgow west-end coffee house. It was designed as an alternative to the mainstream board game – as a playful warning to the dangers of corporate dominance.
In the wake of Panama Papers – following years of anti-establishment discontent – those fears are more vindicated than ever. It’s those reasons that have drawn former Labour MSP Pauline McNeill towards the need for a new political radicalism.
“It’s been five years since I’ve been in the parliament, and in that five years the world has dramatically changed. I would say my outlook on politics has dramatically changed with it. I think people are disillusioned across Britain with the political system,” she explains.
Those five years represent a lifetime in Scottish politics. Since McNeill lost her Glasgow Kelvin seat to the SNP, the shock nationalist majority led an independence referendum and the near wipe-out of Labour MPs in Scotland.
“If you’d asked me at the beginning of December if I’d go back to full-time politics I’d have said ‘No chance’.”
But McNeill links the fall of Labour in Scotland to the capitalist crisis of 2008: “I think this happened because of the financial crash. They [the electorate] have no trust in the system to deliver for them. I now have a much more radical view on how politics should operate and how much power really needs to be transposed to ordinary communities.
“If I was to be elected, I would come in with a different view of the world to the one that I had,” McNeill adds.
It was a relatively last minute decision – just last December – that led to her return to the party political stage. It’s placed McNeil on the precipice – fourth on Labour’s Glasgow list – between a return to the Holyrood parliament and the risk of a narrow, disappointing failure.
“If you’d asked me at the beginning of December if I’d go back to full-time politics I’d have said ‘No chance’. I was doing other things with my life and very much enjoying what I was doing. But with a little bit of persuasion I gave it a bit of thought and I came to the view that it could be vastly different parliament. It’s no secret that Labour will be in opposition, but it needs to be a bold opposition,” McNeill hopes.
“I thought, I can make a contribution to that because I have things to say about how we do our politics. So I’m enthusiastic about that.”
McNeill is on the socialist left of the party, and following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in England she harbours hopes that the party can reclaim its lost ground through a new approach to tax and public services.
When asked what her “different view of the world” would mean now in practice, McNeill points towards Labour’s tax raising plans and support for a Living Wage as proof of her determination to rebalance the economy and tackle inequality.
Yet in Glasgow’s crowded electoral field, those views face stiff competition from a myriad of leftist candidates.
Cat Boyd of Rise and Zara Kitson from the Scottish Greens advocate higher taxes on the rich, as does controversial firebrand Tommy Sheridan. The SNP also presents its policies as a plan to tackle deep seated poverty and powerlessness.
“I think the regional lists across the country – given the likelihood of another SNP majority government – can make the difference in the parliament.”
Labour are likely to return at least its top two Glasgow candidates – Anas Sarwar and Johann Lamont – after which James Kelly and McNeill will face a nervous wait.
While her own fortunes are in the lap of the gods, McNeill welcomes the contrast between the leading list figures: “There are individuals on that list that can make an improvement to the parliament. It’s still very young and it does need to improve its gravitas. It still needs to win respect for the way it does politics.
“There’s a few individuals in that list who could make a difference. You don’t have to agree with them to see they have their own talents. I think the Green Party will always add a dimension to parliamentary affairs. They always bring their own brand of politics, which I always think is quite helpful.
“I think the regional lists across the country – given the likelihood of another SNP majority government – can make the difference in the parliament. What is concerning is an overall majority ties the hands of the influence everyone else can have.
“But I do think there has to be strong individuals in there challenging that notion. And, to be honest, challenging some of the SNP backbenchers who have a duty as parliamentarians to be more challenging of their own leadership. Otherwise, it’ll just be a very strictly run parliament.”
McNeill hopes to be a megaphone in parliament in the same way she often is at street demonstrations – protesting cuts or campaigning for rights in Palestine.
“Despite being the party of devolution – we didn’t embrace it despite being the creators of it.”
However, if she falls short it will no doubt be down to the toxic cloud that still hangs above the party following the independence referendum.
Cut off from the hundreds of thousands of Yes voters who previously supported the party, the challenge remains for Labour north of the border to gain the same momentum that Corbyn has inspired in England.
“Despite being the party of devolution – we didn’t embrace it despite being the creators of it,” McNeill admits. “We should have been further out in front on the new powers.
“Conversely the SNP have done a lot of things I agree with, and I have a lot of admiration for some of their politicians. But I think also they have reaped up the benefits of that failed financial crash and the way people felt about it.
“The role of every Labour politician is to rebuild the structure of the Labour Party. There’s been a lot of ‘mea culpa’ and admissions about the things we did wrong. It’s the only way Labour is going to turn the corner, and to be fair I think you’re beginning to see that.”
“Quite frankly if you don’t have a story I’d question why you’re there.”
For McNeill that means reconnecting the historic success of Labour Scotland – as part of a burgeoning labour movement – to the modern party.
Can any party or government truly change society for the better without a passionate movement campaigning beyond the limits of parliamentary democracy?
“I do think social movements bring people to politics,” McNeill explains. “Everyone’s got a story of what brought them into the party political system. Quite frankly if you don’t have a story I’d question why you’re there.
“How can you have a feel or passion for anything if you haven’t been part of something wider? Machine politicians should be a thing of the past. I believe in Labour policies, but we’ve got to be part of something much bigger.”
For now, the biggest and most realistic ambition of the party in the week ahead is to continue as Scotland’s official opposition. That may be a foundation for the party to rebuild and win back trust. The voters of Glasgow will decide if McNeill’s renewed vigour for party politics will play its part in that challenge.
This interview is part of an election series on CommonSpace. Check out some of our other in-depth election features and have a listen to some of our podcasts:
East Lothian #SP16 profile: A dead cert, or is there room for surprises?
Podcast with Scottish Greens candidate Isla O’Reilly
Podcast with Rise candidate Colin Fox #sp16
Podcast with Scottish Labour #sp16 candidate Monica Lennon
Podcast with Edinburgh Western candidates Alex Cole-Hamilton and Toni Giugliano
Scottish Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jenny Marra
Mark McDonald MSP: “The Treasury were seeking to shaft Scotland”
Scottish Greens’ Patrick Harvie on a council tax alternative, #euref, indyref 2 and fracking
STUC conference podcast with Nicola Sturgeon, Kezia Dugdale, Grahame Smith + more
Highlights: The big political party spring conference round-up
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Pictures courtesy of Pauline McNeill