Monica Lennon: 'The SNP government didn’t prepare us enough for a pandemic...when we have a public inquiry, we'll see we were let down both by the UK and the Scottish Government'
Late last year, Monica Lennon appeared alongside Angela Merkel, Kamala Harris and New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, in a list of Vogue magazine’s ‘female leaders who changed the world’.
Lennon was included for her pioneering work on period poverty and the introduction of legislation which made Scotland the first country in the world to ensure that tampons and sanitary pads are made available free of charge to any woman who needs them.
She laughs when asked if she was annoyed at having to share her spot in the Vogue list with another high-profile politician – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
“I think she was more disappointed she had to share it with me,” she says.
“I’ve come into politics to work with people and to do that, you’ve got to share. If people see me and Nicola Sturgeon together in that respect, then I think that can only be a positive thing.”
However, like Anas Sarwar, her rival in this month’s Scottish Labour leadership contest, she believes Sturgeon has benefited politically during the pandemic from comparisons with Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is, according to polling, an unpopular figure with many Scots.
“Even in normal times, before the pandemic, Boris Johnson was single-handedly the biggest threat to the Union,” she says.
“He’s not a serious prime minister, he’s a dangerous politician and the majority of people don’t believe he has Scotland’s best interests at heart.”
Lennon acknowledges that Sturgeon has been a good communicator throughout the COVID crisis but says that should not be seen as the same thing as having a coherent plan.
“We know the SNP government didn’t prepare us enough for a pandemic,” she says. “There are areas that when we have a public inquiry, we will see that we were let down both by the UK and the Scottish Government.”
Over the last six months a series of polls have shown the majority of Scots to be in favour of independence.
But Lennon, who unlike her leadership competitor says she will not stand in the way of indyref2, believes unhappiness with the status quo doesn’t necessarily mean people want another referendum.
“When you look more closely at some of the polls, even when people say they are pro-independence or curious about independence, having a referendum isn’t their top priority.
“It’s about getting through this pandemic, eliminating the virus, recovering our economy and having human connection again…”
Lennon says that had she been first minister during the crisis, she would have looked to the example set by Ardern in New Zealand, closing the border and shutting down international travel.
“[Ardern’s] pursuit of an elimination strategy was the right one. I think if you’re serious about an elimination strategy then closing the border is something you have to be prepared to do. We live on an island, we have just passed a terrible milestone, I don’t even like to call it that, but more than 100,000 people have died.”
Lennon, a town planner before entering politics, recently turned 40 and has not been afraid to reveal parts of her personal life in order to help others explore otherwise taboo subjects.
In the wake of #MeToo, she revealed she had been the victim of sexual assault by a colleague in the party and she has been the driving force behind the whole debate around period poverty.
She has also spoken movingly of her relationship with her father who died from alcohol abuse.
Unlike other politicians, Lennon is not afraid to expose her emotions and tears come to her eyes as she talks about the constituent she helped following the suicide of the woman’s partner.
“She contacted me by email a couple of hours after her partner took his own life,” she says.
“It was a horrific email to receive but we have stayed in touch and become friends. She’s given me encouragement when she’s seen me getting a hard time on social media and she’s working now to help other people.
“That’s what drives me, that’s what helps me to get out of bed in the morning when sometimes I’m feeling a bit miserable.”
Connecting with people is one of Lennon’s great skills, but while she relishes the work of a constituency MSP, she admits that re-uniting her fractured party as leader would be a “massive job” and says Scottish Labour’s “brand is damaged”.
“I’m trying to reach out beyond the party because I’m serious about bringing people back to Labour. I want to rebuild the party in a really authentic way so that people can feel at home in the Labour party. People like most of our policies, but they take their votes elsewhere, usually to the SNP.”
Lennon is a supporter of more devolution and says there are times the powers of the Scottish Parliament have not been used to full effect.
Unlike Sarwar, however, she is willing to countenance the prospect of second referendum, this time with a so-called “devo max” option on the ballot paper.
“To tell people we’re in a pandemic, so we can’t talk about the constitution is quite insulting,” she says.
“I don’t believe in independence, but if we walk away, we just leave it to the SNP to take the lead and the Tories to take the lead on the Union side, and we’re completely squeezed out.
“I don’t support independence, but I don’t support the status quo either. There’s more work to do to enhance devolution.
“The SNP have failed to use the powers of the parliament to full effect and that’s let people down. My ambition is to end child poverty in this country. Why have we not used all the powers in the parliament to do something about that?”
With the leadership ballot due to open on 9 February, Sarwar has received more nominations from fellow Labour MSPs as well as from the party’s only Scottish MP, Ian Murray.
But Lennon has union backing from the likes of Unite, UNISON and the TSSA.
While her rival in the leadership race admits his party will be unable to win the election and must set its sights on second place, Lennon appears unwilling to do so.
Asked if overtaking the Tories to become the second largest party in May would be a good result, Lennon says: “I’m not going to write us off before we’ve even started. It’s all to play for. People have been voting for the SNP in big numbers because they feel they have nowhere else to go. People like our policies, but we’re too negative – we need to be more positive.”
On Richard Leonard, the man she would replace as leader, she credits him with reintroducing a “progressive policy agenda”.
“Richard brought decency to Scottish politics. You never heard him say a bad word about anyone, personally. He always went into the Chamber to deal with issues, not to throw mud at people.”
Was Leonard just too nice to be the leader of a political party?
“Richard is a really nice man,” Lennon says. “I think at times he felt uncomfortable with the media and the spotlight…my style is a bit different.”