Lesley Laird: Labour's front line is local government
Holyrood's exclusive interview with the Shadow Scottish Secretary Lesley Laird on rebuilding Labour from the bottom up
Lesley Laird MP - David Anderson/Holyrood
If there was a line-up of those who personify the whirlwind nature of Scottish politics in 2017, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath MP Lesley Laird would surely be on the team sheet.
Having begun the year as the deputy leader of Fife Council, she could not have predicted that pounding the pavements for the local elections would continue into a snap general election campaign, a campaign which would then continue after an inconclusive result.
Laird was selected, then elected, to former prime minister Gordon Brown’s seat, reclaiming the Labour stronghold from the SNP at the first attempt.
She then found herself immediately thrust further into the spotlight after being named Shadow Scottish Secretary on Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench before she even knew her way around the Commons.
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Laird tells Holyrood the whirlwind has not stopped since.
“It’s like we’re in the middle of a Champions League game and you’re suddenly brought on as the sub, and everybody has been warmed up and running about and the game has a bit of a pace to it.
“When you just come on the park, you have to find the pace of the game. It feels like that… you’re put on the park and expected to suddenly play.”
But if the political game is one of football, then Laird was not being brought onto the pitch to make up the numbers. Languishing in the polls and having come third in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, Labour was a few goals behind, and if Laird was a substitute, she was brought on to make an impact.
“Being the kind of person I am, I think I’d feel that sense of responsibility anyway, because I think I’ve got the ethos that whatever you do, you give 110 per cent,” she says.
Holyrood points out she sounds like a football manager.
“I’m quite into sport. I see a lot of parallels in the way you go about things in terms of sporting mentality. If you’re going to do it, you give it your best shot.”
We meet Laird at her office in a business park in Kirkcaldy, where she has stowed her dog Pip, to keep an eye on her while she recovers from an injury.
“We thought she’d ruptured her cruciate, but she seems to be healing well,” Laird says.
The Labrador has been smuggled in the back door as no one is sure whether dogs are allowed in the building.
As if hiding a dog at work isn’t a big enough challenge, the week has also seen crucial votes at Westminster as the UK Brexit bill passed its second stage in the Commons and the Conservatives seized control of the select committees.
Laird says she is used to juggling positions of responsibility from her experiences in the world of work.
Having been first elected as a councillor in 2012, Laird has spent most of her working life in HR and change management, first in the technology sector then in financial services.
Indeed, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hailed her “wealth of knowledge and practical real-life experience” when he appointed her to his shadow cabinet.
That experience shows in her language, the way she sets out the answers to questions, and can perhaps explain her attraction to sports psychology.
“Each new challenge you take on, you just have to get your head around what’s required for that.”
Having started as a sponsored student at IBM’s huge Spango Valley complex in Greenock in the early 1980s, Laird experienced the highs and lows of Scotland’s industrial journey through the decade under Thatcherism.
Her trade unionist father, John Langan, campaigned outside for trade union rights at IBM while she stood and was elected as the youngest staff representative on the firm’s voluntary council.
But while Silicon Glen was booming, other industries were suffering from globalisation. Laird’s husband lost his job as a lithographic printer after the cost of steel proved too prohibitive for his employer to keep making shortbread tins.
The pair moved to Livingston and she continued to work in tech companies until the lure of Scotland’s new booming industry, financial services, came calling.
As each industry faced challenges and opportunities from globalisation, Laird herself had to adapt, she says.
“Change is as much to do with being a change person in yourself, recognising you can’t stay stuck, you have to keep evolving, you have to keep learning.”
In politics, it is also about recognising changes in the electorate.
This year Laird says she had detected “a mood change” on the doorsteps as long ago as January.
“If you read the polls, we were in line to be wiped out, but that wasn’t what we were picking up on the doorstep, even through those early months of the year.
“And as we got further towards the summer then you could start to feel that strengthening of view that Labour had something to offer, and that people were wanting to listen.”
This meant Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto during the general election campaign, which coincided with the first upturn in polling for Labour in Scotland since before 2014, was “a turning point on a number of levels”.
Laird says she also detected a decline among SNP supporters over the year as the party faced its tenth year in government.
“When you start to talk to people about their personal experiences and what mattered to them, then it was about the nuts and bolts of everyday life. ‘I can’t get a GP appointment’, concerns about their kids’ education, concerns about teacher shortages and a lack of continuous teachers in a classroom, concerns about transport.
“Just the things that get in the way of people’s lives every single day. That’s what people wanted to talk about on their doorstep.”
But the tribal nature of Scottish politics was alive and well at council level, Laird remembers.
“Just before I got elected as a councillor I went to the budget meeting in the February and I thought, ‘what on earth have I let myself in for?’,” she says.
“The budget was being issued to the opposition parties in the morning to make some review and comment on. That’s about as tribal as you can get. It was just bedlam.”
After 2012, however, the Labour administration started to publish the budget a month in advance and send it to communities and stakeholders for review. This led to far more constructive discussions about financial constraints and priorities, according to Laird.
“We tried to move it away from the rhetoric of ‘look at us, we’ve had all these cuts’, to actually show and tell, in the true sense, the story of what’s really going on. Here are the options we’ve got and here’s the choices we’ve got to make.”
Fife prioritised education, she says. She pays tribute to Fife Council’s former head of education, Craig Munro, for pre-empting the Scottish Government in recognising investment in early years has the most impact in closing the attainment gap.
Indeed, 2015 figures showed literacy levels for those children from areas of multiple deprivation in Fife had risen by 10 per cent. Laird said this helped dilute the party political tribalism and build consistency, helped by the fact the Scottish Government was now on the same page.
“Things like the early years need a long-term sustainable investment strategy approach to make the difference, and you need to ensure there’s a continuity and that teaching staff know there will be a consistent approach in the classroom.
“One of the criticisms we’re seeing right now around the Curriculum for Excellence is the fact teaching staff find it overwhelming, there’s too much change, layer upon layer of things and extra work.”
Laird says her experience in the private sector shows that layering on change wears out the very people needed to lead the change – the staff. She advocates a stable approach of letting change bed in then consulting with the people delivering the change before making any adjustment.
“I’m not seeing that in education, and for me, that’s a very big concern.”
After this year’s local electionsm, Fife saw a quick agreement between the SNP and Labour to form an administration, unlike many other parts of the country. Laird says Labour’s detailed local manifesto helped to do that because it was already looking at continuing the work in education and building confidence in employability and economic development.
“If Fife is to be successful, we need to start punching our weight. We are the third largest local authority, we need to act like the third largest local authority.
“With the push towards city status and city region deals, you need to recognise the landscape. If Fife didn’t start flexing its muscles, we were going to be overwhelmed, being surrounded by Dundee and Perth, and then Edinburgh. We’re getting squeezed on all sides.”
But if Laird sounds like she is still in local politics, she says she can still flex those Fife muscles from the shadow cabinet.
“I think the danger for any MP is to take a parochial view. You have to recognise that, yes, your first priority is your own constituency, but you also need to keep scanning that wider horizon.”
One figure who seemed to maintain strong local ties while taking on a big national role was Gordon Brown. Laird tells of door knocking with the political heavyweight.
“Gordon can just walk up a street and folk are inviting him into the house to have a picture, meet the mother or father.
“Gordon has an amazing memory for people he’s met over the years, and what strikes you when you’re out is how authentic he is, that he still knows who these people are and there’s a warmth to that relationship.”
With big local shoes to fill, Laird says she needs to focus on her own strengths.
“We’re in a different time, a different generation, so what I might bring now is what I hope is pertinent and relevant to the times we’re in.”
Is part of that moving away from a very male culture in Fife Labour, borne out of industry and the mining communities?
“I have a different take on that. Actually, if you look at what happened during the miners’ strike in particular, it was the women that kept the communities together,” she says. “If you look at a lot of the community activity going on in Fife, it’s a lot of very strong women.”
But in a party that has yet to elect a woman as UK leader, doesn’t Laird recognise a macho culture in the labour movement?
“I’ve always worked in very male environments, so I guess I just get in and get on with it,” she smiles, pointing to several appearances on Daily Politics ‘on the green’ where she has been the lone woman in a panel of men.
“We’ve got a long way to go. That’s why campaigns like 50:50 are so pertinent. We had Emily Thornberry here and when Emily was selected in 2005 it was off the back of an all-women shortlist, and there’s something a bit sad for me that in 2017 we’re still having to talk about having all-women shortlists.”
The situation is not restricted to parliament either, she points out.
“We’ve had equal pay legislation for over 45 years and it was a Labour woman that introduced that, Barbara Castle, and here we are still chasing it,” she says.
“We put the legislation in, and if it ain’t happening after 45 years, that tells you it needs something else to make it work. You need to say, well, what will facilitate that change? You can’t keep doing what you always do because you’ll get the same result.”
Laird’s own focus was on her career in the late 80s and 90s, but she was kept politically active through her father, who went on to become chair of the STUC and lead three deputations to Downing Street during the miners’ strike.
“My dad would come over as a pretty low-key individual, but he was a very effective trade unionist.
“He knew how to get things done, and was a formidable negotiator. But he was also a pragmatist. He was very highly regarded by his peers at that time. I don’t think Margaret Thatcher would have had an easy conversation with my dad, put it that way.”
He died just before Christmas.
“He was 91. We buried him on what would have been his 92nd birthday. So, he didn’t get to see me elected in this election, no.”
Laird became one of six new Scottish Labour MPs, which has brought a distinctive energy compared to the large cohort which Scotland sent to Westminster before 2015, she says.
“I think we are of our time. We’ve come through the wastelands, to coin a phrase, and I think all of us recognise we’re privileged to be here, and we’re privileged because we recognise how hard it was to get here.”
Is that about having a better relationship between the party’s MPs and MSPs?
“It goes further than that. For me, having worked in local government, if we’re going to be an effective labour movement, we need to do it from the front line, and the front line is local government. We need to take local government with us. For me, it’s the whole, all the links in the chain.”
It is clear Laird sees her responsibility as about building relationships within the party. Having three former councillors among the new MPs helps.
“For me, it’s not about a hierarchy. It’s about the fact we’re all here contributing to make life better for people on behalf of the party we represent. We’re the Labour Party. We need to show up and be effective for the Labour Party.”
Constituency casework, she points out, often deals with issues relevant to local government or the Scottish Parliament, but she insists on not just “chucking it over the fence” to the relevant level but keeping an eye on the issue and linking with colleagues.
“If we are going to be an effective Labour government, we need to recognise we need to have all our players playing effectively. That includes local government. That’s our front line and we need to get it right.”
Holyrood points out she’s back to the language of football.
“I love football,” she says.
The obvious question, then, is what her football team is.
“I’ve got a few teams.” The politician’s answer.
But on a more serious note, her political team in Scotland is in the process of picking a captain. With most of the Scottish MPs declared for either Richard Leonard or Anas Sarwar, Laird is remaining neutral.
“The reason for that is, whoever is there, I will need to be building strong relationships and how can I do that if I’ve gone off and said, ‘it’s you’?
“Both are very good candidates, and my job is to work with whoever is elected, have a good working relationship that delivers not only a Labour government but also a first minister.”
The contest has been defined by how close the candidates are to Corbyn, but Laird refuses to be drawn into a discussion on where in the party she sits.
“I label myself as one thing, and that’s Labour. I’m not a Blairite, I was never a Brownite, or a Corbynite. I don’t see myself in those terms. I have only one objective, and that is to get a Labour government elected, because more than ever, this country needs a Labour government.”
She reaches for another football analogy. “When teams are winning, you never hear of any dressing room bust-ups.”
And with such a focus on relationships, whether in the party or in the constituency, does she hope to get to a place where she is met with well-kent faces and open doors, like Gordon Brown is?
“Your aim is always to leave a place in a better place than you came. If I do that, I’ll be happy.”
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