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by Kirsteen Paterson
21 May 2024
Neil Bibby MSP: If you want to end the chaos, you need a new approach

Neil Bibby photographed for Holyood by Andrew Perry

Neil Bibby MSP: If you want to end the chaos, you need a new approach

Neil Bibby MSP has a piece of advice for his Scottish Labour colleagues. “I always tell people, ‘don’t say we can’t be complacent’,” he says. “Every time somebody says that, it sounds like we are being complacent.”

Maybe listeners should heed his words. After all, Bibby’s political instincts have proven correct before. 

It was Bibby who convinced Anas Sarwar, the man he became friends with at university, to stand for election. That decision would eventually take Sarwar from young dentist to Scottish Labour leader – and could, if the momentum behind the party continues, end with him installed in Bute House in 2026 as first minister.

Not that the self-effacing Bibby wants to take the credit. “I did encourage him,” he says, pouring out tea during a downpour in Paisley, “but he’s done a huge amount of work over the last few years to get where he is today, and that’s to his credit.”

It was in the Renfrewshire town, where Sarwar practised as a dentist, that Bibby and former Labour MSP Drew Smith sat Sarwar down to convince him to run in the 2007 Scottish Parliament contest. Sarwar would become the party’s lead regional list candidate for Glasgow but would fail to get elected, with four SNP, one Tory, one Lib Dem and one Green returned. But it wasn’t really about getting Sarwar into parliament then and there, Bibby says. “I thought it was an opportunity for him to show his abilities and support the party as a whole across the region.”

The men had become friends in the early 2000s through Young Labour, of which Bibby was chair, and he remembers when Sarwar, the son of the former MP and Scottish Labour powerhouse Mohammad Sarwar, came along to his first conference. “He was quite a quiet, unassuming character who’d barely said a word in a public forum,” Bibby recalls. “You look at him now and he’s speaking to hundreds and hundreds of people and we’re all hanging on his every word.

Neil Bibby and Anas Sarwar | Alamy

“I knew from an early age this was a guy who cared about people, who had a real passion for politics and equality. I thought he had a huge amount of potential and ability. I thought it was a no-brainer.”

Fast forward 20 years and the pair are working on a masterplan to take them into government. Bibby, who became a councillor at the age of 23, has spent 13 years as an MSP. He has been, variously, a party spokesperson on children, town centres, transport, justice, parliamentary business, and constitution, and external affairs, culture and sport. He’s been chief whip and has sat on umpteen committees – public audit and post legislative scrutiny; finance and constitution; welfare reform; education and culture; and public petitions. Small wonder, then, that Sarwar would keep his old friend close at what may prove to be a pivotal period for their party.

“Anas is my closest political friend,” Bibby says. “I’m proud to call him my friend and I’ll be even prouder to call him First Minister of Scotland. We have a huge amount of work to do to make that happen. If it does, we’d have a leader who would be an excellent leader; a man of compassion, a man who wants to change things, a man who’s committed to public service, to improving the lives of all Scots, of all Scotland.”

For all that Bibby is prepared to hype up his pal, he is incredibly modest about himself. The son of two social workers, he lives in Paisley’s Ralston district with wife Hazel and their school-aged children, Sam and Beth. He names Oasis as his favourite band and once worked as a cinema usher. “I often say I worked in the film industry and that’s how I got the culture job,” he quips.

Not for Bibby any grandstanding about his knowledge or achievements. That includes the passage of his Tied Pubs (Scotland) Act, which brought in changes aimed at protecting landlords and keeping bar doors open amid difficult cost pressures. It ensures that tied tenants can request a market-rent-only lease, allowing them to pay the going rate to rent their premises without being obliged to buy products or services from any pubco that owns it. And where tenant landlords remain tied, the act allows them to sell guest beers that are not brewed by the pub-owning business, essentially bringing Scotland into line with changes already made in England and Wales.

Introduced in February 2020, it became law in May 2021 but faced push-back that was so significant that it is only now being implemented. The pubcos Punch Taverns, Greene King and Hawthorn Leisure took a challenge to the Court of Session, arguing that tied pub contracts were a reserved matter and the act had infringed their rights.

Behind the counter: Bibby has an eye on town centre trade | Alamy

The three lost a judicial review and sought an interim order instead, which would have prevented ministers from pressing ahead with statutory orders including the appointment of the Scottish Pubs Code Adjudicator and the establishment of the Scottish Pubs Code itself. An interim interdict was granted early last year, stalling progress until the UK Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal and ended the legal challenge. The Scottish Beer and Pub Association, which represents brewers and pub companies, called the news “disappointing” and said there is “no evidence” of the need for change. However, it said it would get behind the shift to ensure that the new statutory code “works for all parties and doesn’t negatively impact investment any further”.

I ask Bibby why we’re meeting in the Taste Buds café, at which he is a customer of some years standing, rather than in one of the many local pubs. “I thought about that but it’s a Monday at two o’clock,” he says, “although if it was Friday at five that would have been another thing.

“I had a lot of support for the bill from various campaign groups, but ultimately from fellow MSPs,” he goes on. “There was the need to win support across the chamber, which was not always easy. There was resistance from the pubcos, which were lobbying hard. The majority of the economy committee initially said that they didn’t see the need for the bill, but we managed to press on and persuade them to back it in the end. It’s been held up in the courts, but now it’s being implemented it’ll hopefully make an important difference to Scottish pubs.

“We need to do as much as we can to support the night-time economy, our cafes and pubs,” he says. “There’s lots of people who want to get out and about and the cost-of-living crisis is not helping.”

With that said, which MSPs from opposition benches would Bibby go for a pint with? “I would go for a pint with anyone,” he says. “I’ve been for a pint with Donald Cameron a couple of times, and I went for a pint with Ben Macpherson the other week.”

In fact, Bibby used to work in a pub, taking a job as a kitchen porter in his home village of Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire. A former weaving centre, it played a part in the Radical Rising of 1820 and is where Mary Barbour called home before moving to Govan and leading the rent strikes that would lead to greater legal protections for tenants. Bibby’s father Derek, who became a councillor after his son, was involved in the push for a memorial cairn for Barbour in the village.

Bibby with former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale | Alamy

“I was interested in politics, I was interested in changing the world,” Bibby says of his younger self. He entered the University of Glasgow after leaving school and studied politics, balancing his political activism with nights out at the city’s Bamboo club and listening to hip-hop. “My values were really instilled in me by my parents who were working with kids in care, with kids in trouble. My mum welcomed Kosovan refugees to Renfrewshire. It’s about people, it’s about helping others.”

Despite entering the same course as the SNP’s Humza Yousaf, Bibby says the pair didn’t meet at university as he was “a couple of years older” than the former first minister.

But the pair, and indeed Sarwar, are of a political generation that has grown from student activism to frontline leadership during the course of the Scottish Parliament’s 25 years – a period that has seen the constitutional question become dominant. Has Bibby ever been tempted by the nationalism Yousaf espouses? “I believe in Scotland staying part of the union because we share the same land border and I care as much about children in poverty in other parts of the UK as I do here in Scotland,” he answers.

“There is an economic case and a case for solidarity for working people that we stay part of the UK, so no. But I do get that people have been, in this country and others, scunnered at the Tory government and wanting to have nothing to do with the Tory government. We’ve got a lot of work to do to convince people that we are the vehicle that can bring about real, positive change.

“We’re working day and night to be in a position to be ready to serve the people of Scotland. We can be encouraged by recent opinion polls, but we do acknowledge we have got a lot of work to do to earn the trust of the people,” he says. “We stand ready to make a change.”

The kind of change Bibby wants to see is about tackling poverty, boosting the economy and re-energising communities. And he’d quite like to see a few more buses on the roads. “It’s one of the issues I think as a parliament we have not done nearly enough on. I’m a bus user myself – I don’t drive – so I have the experience of waiting in the pouring rain for a bus, I get the frustration that people have. Young people have got a few more bus passes, but we’ve seen services slashed. If we’re going to actually tackle the climate crisis, we need to look at how to make things easier for people to get on public transport and leave their cars at home, particularly in town centres like Paisley where we need to try and increase footfall.

“Politicians need to remember the real world is outside the political bubble,” Bibby emphasises. “I’m not going to say I’m somehow different from other politicians, but we do all need to remember that. 

“Communities like Paisley are crying out for change. We’ve got communities that are amongst the most deprived in Scotland, not in terms of our culture, our heritage, or our creativity, our community spirit, our sense of solidarity, but in terms of investment. 

“The SNP have changed leader twice, not just once, this parliamentary term and not taken the candidate to the polls,” he goes on. “Humza stood down and that will have had an impact on him personally. It’s important to recognise that. But the real people that are suffering at the moment are the one in six Scots who are on a hospital waiting list and aren’t getting the services they need, the businesses that aren’t getting the economic support they need, the workers who are facing insecure work. These are the people that need the most help and the most championing. 

“We think there needs to be an election, there should be an election. There’s an impasse now where the SNP don’t have a functional majority. So many of their own members are unhappy with the decisions that they have made. I was speaking to people at the weekend and what I picked up was a sense of, actually, this is just the latest chapter of the story of politics being in crisis and a sense of chaos. If you want to end that, you need a new approach. We need a change of government, we don’t just need a new first minister. Have an election and let the people decide if they want a change and what sort of change they want.”

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