SNP minister Angela Constance in pledge to get cash to poorest Scots
When it comes to political mission statements, talk about wanting to “get money into the pockets of folk who are struggling to make ends meet” is not one that some Holyrood observers would have immediately associated with Angela Constance during the last parliament.
There was widespread speculation after May’s election that Constance was in line to be dropped from Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet after a difficult tenure in charge of education.
After a seemingly bright start to her ministerial career and swift elevation to cabinet status under Alex Salmond, Constance appeared at times to struggle in the education brief handed to her soon after Sturgeon took over as First Minister.
Criticism about teacher numbers, literacy and numeracy standards, as well as concerns about further education colleges being starved of cash, were all levelled at her by opposition parties, who reportedly saw her as a weak link in Sturgeon’s ministerial team.
Media gaffes such as the episode that saw the cabinet minister ask to start a broadcast interview again without apparently realising it was airing on live TV did not exactly propel the one-time SNP deputy leadership contender forward as a star turn.
But after avoiding being culled in last month’s cabinet reshuffle, Constance sat in her new ministerial office at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh, looking and sounding like a politician determined to make the most of her reprieve, and now describing herself as a “woman in a hurry”.
The post handed to Constance of Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, almost certainly puts the Almond Valley MSP on a collision course with the Tory government at Westminster over its austerity and welfare clampdowns.
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Less than a fortnight into the job when we meet, it’s pretty clear Constance knows what agenda she will be pursing this time around.
The daughter of a coal miner from the pit communities of West Lothian, an area that she now represents at Holyrood after retaining Almond Valley for the SNP in what was once a Labour heartland, Constance seems to have a pretty good idea of who her enemy is.
It’s when asked about what it’s like to serve under a woman First Minister, that Constance gets her first jab in against the Tories.
At first she pauses, saying she wants to think about her answer for a moment, before launching the attack.
She said: “We now have a woman as First Minister and a gender balance cabinet that is taking Scotland forward.
“I’m absolutely confident that the first woman First Minister will do more for women than the first woman Prime Minister did,” she said in a reference to Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years as PM.
“I’ve served under both Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond.
“Alex Salmond appointed me as the first-ever youth employment minister and he was immensely committed to apprenticeships for both boys and girls.
“She (Nicola Sturgeon) was always a role model, as First Minister and before that as Deputy First Minister and as a Cabinet Secretary for Health.”
The SNP Government has always thrived when it was at loggerheads with Westminster, but the devolution of limited powers over welfare make it inevitable that more clashes are on the cards sooner rather than later.
As one of the most high-profile women politicians in the SNP who polled a fifth of the vote in the party’s three-way deputy leadership contest in 2014, it will have come as a disappointment to Constance that she is perceived by many as having failed to shine in the education brief.
However, Sturgeon looks to have taken the view that Constance could still do a job for the government, but perhaps simply thought that in education she was being played out of position.
It’s when Constance makes clear that it was Thatcher who partly sparked her involvement in politics, that it becomes clear that Sturgeon may have picked the right woman for the job when it comes to taking on the Tories over welfare.
In fairness, the former social worker has a back story that reads like one more associated with Labour politicians of a certain ilk.
“Like a lot of nationalists of my generation, I’m from a left-wing social democrat persuasion and one of those who lived through Thatcherism,” Constance says.
“There are a lot of negative connotations from Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister.
“I think of the community I grew up in, a mining village. My father worked in opencast mining.
“My perception about Thatcher is more about the damage she did to communities like the one that I grew up in.
“I don’t come from a political family. My dad was a Labour voter until I started standing as a candidate for the SNP, whereas my mum always voted SNP.
“That’s in my DNA and like everybody, I’m shaped by my upbringing. I’ve got all that hinterland.”
The approach from Constance may make for more fireworks in the Holyrood parliament, where the Tories are now the main opposition to the SNP Government.
In truth, Constance, like many in the SNP, travels light when it comes to ideology and is arguably more inclined to ‘talk left wing’ rather than actually take such an approach in office.
However, as one of the party’s most high-profile women politicians she does talk passionately about the importance of social ‘class’ when it comes to gender equality and the clear importance of not forgetting working-class women, who often get nowhere near the boardroom.
"Tricia Marwick always had an interesting perspective in saying that equality is for everybody,” Constance says of Holyrood’s first-ever female Presiding Officer, who stood down at May’s election.
“We need to be careful that we don’t have a two-dimensional approach and class, race and sexual orientation are all important if we want to really dig between the headlines,” Constance says, suggesting that gender equality should not just be the preserve of the affluent and middle class.
“We don’t want lazy assumptions about why people are held back,” she adds.
Constance, like any SNP cabinet minister, makes much of the party’s flagship pledge on gender equality to deliver at least 50 per cent representation for women on public bodies.
As the cabinet secretary with ministerial responsibility for equalities, Constance says she is a “woman in a hurry”, in delivering the pledge, she says it is “about equality in the workplace”.
She says: “There is a systemic failing. Having more women on public boards, a 50-50 split. That’s something that we are going to legislate for.”
However, it’s when Constance talks about how the SNP Government will use its stewardship of social security and welfare powers that we get a clearer indication of her declaration of intent.
Constance states that the effect of women on controversial Tory government policies such as benefit cuts will be a key line of attack from her during her time in the post.
She said: “If we look at the issue of poverty then income is a huge factor.
“Welfare cuts and tax credit cuts disproportionately impact on women.
“As someone who was a social worker for 10 years, I’ve always had the view that the priority has to be what happens in the frontline.
“That’s where you have to look to make the practical difference and it’s what we tried to do with free school meals, for example.”
But in an interesting departure from most mainstream political rhetoric, Constance, whose brief includes social security, calls for an end to “stigmatising” people in receipt of welfare benefits.
Again, citing her own experiences growing up in an at times poverty-stricken household, the minister suggests the Scottish Government will now do more to speak up for those in receipt of welfare and social security benefits.
“We need to recognise that social security is potentially for everyone,” she says.
“There is too much stigmatising when it comes to benefits.
“I try to reflect on my own experiences of growing up and there were times when my family was reliant on benefits.
“We need to be a strong voice for people living in poverty and we need to support the social security system.
“In fact, we need to be the strongest voice,” Constance adds for effect.
“We need to get money into the pockets of folk who are struggling to make ends meet,” Constance states in something that sounds almost like a spending commitment.
However, when it comes to whether the SNP Government will use powers to top-up any benefits cut by the UK Government, it will be seen as a key test of the party’s mettle in confronting Westminster on the issue.
For someone who has at times been portrayed as the archetypal SNP politician, unwaveringly loyal to the nationalist leadership and its ultra-tight discipline, Constance does not seem afraid to challenge certain assumptions in the party.
She suggests the party may need to go even further than its current position of promoting female quotas for the selection of candidates.
She says the party could consider taking a more radical approach to promoting quotas to boost female representation in parliament.
When asked whether she would consider a cross-party deal to reserve 50 per cent of all Holyrood seats for women, Constance states: “I’m open to ideas,” pointedly refusing to rule out such a move.
“It’s not for the Scottish Government to tell other parties what to do.”
Constance, a veteran SNP campaigner for the party to select more women as candidates, goes on to state that the debate about improving female representation at all levels of the party has now been “reignited”.
She added: “I’m very proud of the progress we made and our party has come a long way.
“I was one of the first people in the SNP to back these moves and in the late 1990s, I was very much for that approach.
“But the debate around gender equality in the SNP has been reignited.
“In the current SNP group we have 42 per cent, which is tremendous progress.
“But our party is alert to improving the representation of women at all levels, including councillors.”
There’s even praise from Constance for what she says is Labour’s “strong record” in boosting the number of women parliamentarians through all-women shortlists, a practice that the SNP now follows.
Constance is also direct in her praise of the high profile Women for Independence (WfI) group, whose members included Natalie McGarry, who would go on to be elected as an SNP MP for Glasgow East, before resigning the party whip following a series of allegations about missing campaign donations.
The cabinet secretary is also dismissive of suggestions that WfI members are less susceptible to the SNP’s famous iron discipline.
She says: “My local party has been rejuvenated by fantastic women activists and we have more women active than ever before.
“We’re determined to pick up the pace,” Constance insists when asked what else the SNP will do to promote gender equality during its third term in government.
There’s even a suggestion from Constance that the issue of gender equality is one of the great areas of unfinished business in the 17 years of devolution.
She said: “I have a cool, clear analysis and there are things that are going really well.
“There have been sizeable gains for women from devolution.
“But there’s still far more to do.
“The great thing about the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government is the accessibility of it, something that wasn’t so much the case with the Scotland Office.”
Constance also suggested that the SNP is prepared to look at best practice from other nations, aside from the Scandinavian countries, the party’s favoured model for northern Europe social democracy during the last few years.
She said: “You can’t just import other people’s solutions. You have to look at what works well and adapt.
“The Scandinavian countries led the way in many aspects, with the early years and childcare a good example.
“We do need to cast our eyes further, though, and attempt to learn from the best. We need to broaden our horizons.”
However, despite the focus on taking on the Tory Government over welfare cuts in her new brief, Constance still appears bruised from her 18-month stint as Education Secretary.
When asked whether female ministers attract more criticism because of their gender irrespective of their performance in the role, Constance, replies: “What are you trying to say – spit it out.”
But after again pausing to think before answering, Constance makes a point that will perhaps strongly resonate with many women about being judged on their appearance rather than how they do the job.
“There’s a running commentary on what you look like. That’s not something you would put up with in any other workplace,” she says.
Sturgeon has already received plaudits for the way she reshuffled her pack after last month’s election, particularly with charging John Swinney with sorting out problems in education.
Constance, unlike Swinney who had nine years as Finance Secretary, is still relatively new to the cabinet having first been appointed to the training, youth and women’s employment brief by Salmond in April 2014.
However, both Constance and Sturgeon will be hoping that the welfare brief will give her a fresh start in a policy area that is sure to be one of the key issues of the parliament.