I spent my Saturday at a rather exciting, well publicised Labour party event at a football ground with the leader. No. Not Jez Fest. I shared a stage with Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard at the home of Hamilton Academical for a fundraiser for Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse Constituency Labour Party.
This about as close as I will get to football during the World Cup. It was a great evening to help raise money so that the local party can be ready for a general election in case one is suddenly upon us. That’s a big part of Jeremy Corbyn’s political strategy, which is why Labour has been busy selecting candidates to fight the next general election even though we just had one last year. That might sound mad, but it’s not a bad idea. Especially given the volatile nature of politics right now and the precarious nature of Theresa May’s leadership, especially with those tricky Brexit votes coming back soon.
Candidates who have more time to establish themselves with their local community have a shot at doing better and it boosts the local party campaigning capacity. When you’re knocking on doors, it helps to have the actual human being who may be the MP present. This is, of course, after you’ve priced in annoying the poor house dweller by disturbing them just as they’ve laid out tea for the kids or they’ve just come out of the bath.
This happened to me once. A very unhappy, almost naked man stood dripping wet at the door as I mumbled whether there were any local issues bothering him. “Do I look like I want a ****ing in-depth chat about local politics right now hen?” he boomed. He got so angry, his towel almost fell off. I scuttled away and put him down as a maybe.
Lanark and Hamilton East have just selected Andrew Hilland as its Westminster candidate. Hilland contested the seat in 2017 and although Angela Crawley of the SNP won, her vote went down from 26,976 to 16,444 with Hilland losing out by 360 votes. Like many of Labour’s candidates and members, Hilland feels confident about signs of a Labour comeback. There is a feeling that Labour is relevant again, especially as there is now a chance of a Corbyn-led government at Westminster. The mood at the fundraiser was more upbeat that I have recently witnessed at Labour events.
Since the wipeout in 2015, the mood in Scottish Labour has veered between suicidal and homicidal depending on who you talk to. I would have liked to put the jolly mood on Saturday night down to my presence, but it was mainly because we had a special appearance from Hilland’s former boss (and mine) Gordon Brown.
I hadn’t seen Gordon in a good while. He has largely kept his head down since leaving frontline politics in 2010, although he made a significant intervention in the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign when he was heavily involved in drawing up The Vow agreement to transfer more powers from Westminster to Holyrood. Many argue this 11th-hour intervention was the thing which persuaded people to stay within the union and that’s either very good or bad depending on which side you’re on.
It was interesting to see Brown back in political action. In some ways it was if nothing had changed and he was in charge. He still has the stature, gravitas and intellectual heft which feels very missing from politics today.
When I arrived at the venue as one of the speakers I was taken to have a private meet with the “top table” and it was like going back in time to when I worked for him and he was Prime Minister. I was led into a boardroom where there were a lot of men in suits gathered round him hanging on his every word. It was like the old days. Except of course, everything had changed.
David Cameron once said that Brown was an analogue politician in a digital age back in 2006, which seems a lifetime ago. Both men have since left the political frontline (I suspect history will be far kinder to Brown) and every rule that they knew in politics has been ripped up.
We live in an age of big feelings over facts. Emotions trump reason and we have decided to dispense with experts for the time being. Those who thrive in today’s political climate need not have all the arguments, like how will you pay for things, they need to be able to speak to the anger that people have.
That’s why we ended up with Brexit. That’s why Jeremy Corbyn became leader and exceeded expectations at the last election. That’s why the SNP still push the case for independence, even though we had a decisive referendum. Even the Tories are at it.
This week saw Theresa May attempt to deceive the public with talk of funding the NHS in England and Wales via a Brexit dividend and “a bit” of other stuff. We all know that there will be no such thing as a Brexit dividend. There will be so many start-up costs to recreate all the administration when we leave the EU, plus the massive divorce bill, and there’s a good chance that our trade and economy will take a hit. This is all a fig leaf for her Brexiteers over the massive lie on the Brexit bus of £350 million a week. We all know that the lion’s share of the extra money for the NHS will come from more taxes and more borrowing, not a Brexit bonanza.
It’s a political stunt but it kind of worked because it got us all talking about more money for the NHS. But we are getting used to that. Just last week we saw the SNP walk out of the Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions in anger at how Scotland was being treated over Brexit.
In a way, fair play to them. If you’re going to pull a stunt, you’d be mad not to do it at the most important event of the parliamentary week. It got everyone talking about the SNP, Brexit and independence, and whether the non-stunt had in fact been a stunt (it had). Perhaps it was to detract attention from the fact that some of the figures in the Growth (or Cuts depending on your point of view) Commission showed that growth in Scotland was likely to be less with independence than it would be under a Tory government. This is important as it points at two choices. Austerity under the Tories. Or even more self-inflicted austerity in an independent Scotland.
Then there was Labour Live. A stunt to show that Labour could recreate the magic of all those young people chanting “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” at Glastonbury last year. Turns out it couldn’t. The party ended up giving away tickets, bussing people in and made a significant loss on the day but it got people talking about Labour, so maybe it was worth it.
In an era of political stuntmen, Gordon Brown probably feels glad he’s not in frontline politics anymore. The closest thing he got to one was an awkward appearance on American Idol, which didn’t go so well. But as he said recently on the Andrew Marr show, everything in politics is a phase.