Photo Credit: Jon Davey Photography
There’s an undeniable symmetry to interviewing Neil Findlay MSP – one of the Scottish Parliament’s most left-wing voices in the absence of Tommy Sheridan and Colin Fox – in a former West Lothian pit village, the day after Margaret Thatcher’s death, and the day before he travels to Venezuela to act as an observer in an election following the death of Hugo Chavez. The Labour shadow learning and skills minister’s parliamentary exchanges with Education Secretary Michael Russell provide some of Holyrood’s more watchable moments; in years gone by, his views would have put him at odds with his own party, as he readily admits.
“Like many people across the political divide, I came in to politics because of Thatcher,” Findlay says. He grew up in the West Lothian town of Fauldhouse, and was fourteen when the Miners’ Strike began. Findlay’s father worked as a bricklayer and his mother was a teacher, so he wasn’t directly affected, but the chaos of that time was all around him, and he understood it as a child would. “My pal’s dad worked at the pit – my neighbours, my cousins, everybody was involved to some extent. My thoughts were, as a fourteen-year-old boy: ‘Why is the Government putting all my pals’ dads and uncles out of work?’ I couldn’t understand that, as a fourteen year old with fairly simplistic notions of life, the economy and society. There was 26 per cent unemployment in my area when the pit shut and when British Leyland was closed down,” Findlay says, once those who were “put on incapacity benefit” were factored in. “I don’t need to tell you how devastating that was for people. That was what got me involved in politics – so I’m afraid it’s her fault.”
Despite not being handed down a party allegiance by his parents, politics for Findlay has been a family affair. It was a friend’s mum, a local Labour Party chairperson, who first encouraged him to take an interest in discussing what was going on in his community, and his sister’s boyfriend – now Findlay’s brother-inlaw – pops up several times as a companion in his political anecdotes. In the local politics of rural West Lothian, where the “villages round here individually have a very different culture”, Findlay talks with pride about his election to the council in 2003 owing something to people in his ward knowing his family, “[they] knew who they were – good people. I hope that was part of the reason.” While he accepts it’s a cliché, that’s why it’s always been the Labour Party for Findlay, despite the obvious attractions of more radical groupings.
“Don’t get me wrong, there’s been many times over the years, particularly during the height of the New Labour period where I was not happy with the policy direction. However, I never thought about leaving or supporting anyone else. It is very much like joining a family; you come across people who are hugely influential and hugely supportive, critical at times but critical friends, very much like a family, and you don’t just walk away from that easily.” The fact that his peers and colleagues shared his frustrations with the ‘Blairite drift’ helped keep Findlay tethered to the Labour mast – his mentor and local MP, Tam Dayell had a particular influence on him. “He was someone who was very influential in my life and my political life, and who could not have encouraged me more, and to me, stands up as somebody who is a role model for how a politician should be: dogged, determined, independent minded and willing to take on difficult issues that might not be roundly popular.”
With the focus in Scottish education on reducing inequality and opening opportunities up to those who might not normally take them, Findlay’s own learner journey is particularly apt. “I couldn’t wait to get out of school,” he says. At Easter, his mother dug out an old school report, “which makes very interesting reading,” he laughs. Findlay left school to become an apprentice bricklayer, working for his father, and was a tradesman for ten years. It was only when he had overcome a lack of confidence, and with encouragement from family, that he returned to learning. “Through getting involved in politics, I realised I wasn’t as daft as I thought I was.” He started taking afternoon and night courses, which meant his father had to give him part of the day off. “He used to say to me, ‘remember, you’re not getting paid for that afternoon off!’ He did pay me, but that was just to encourage me, [give me a] bit of a kick up the arse.” More prodding from his sister led him to apply for university, and he enrolled at Strathclyde to study geography and politics, where he benefitted from lecturers like Tom Devine, John Curtice and James Mitchell. After getting his degree, Findlay worked for seven years as a housing officer with local housing associations. “I would thoroughly recommend that to anyone, because if you want to see exactly the struggles that people have in their everyday life, then go in and out of their houses and deal with their families. That was very much an eye-opener.”
Entering parliament after nine years as a local councillor was as much down to chance and persuasion as going to college. Having speculatively put his name forward for selection, Findlay was elected from third position on the Labour list in the Lothians thanks to Labour’s wipeout in 2011. He had more reason than most to be surprised, however. “I wasn’t even expecting to get past the interview stage… we all know the historical machinations within my own party about people who were excluded from being on lists, and the rest of it. I’ve never been anywhere else than on the left of the party.” During the Blair years, giants of the left wing of the Labour Party were pushed to the margins, and in some cases beyond them; Findlay’s politics would previously have put him alongside the awkward squad of Dennis Canavan, Ian Davidson, Michael Connarty, Rhodri Morgan and Ken Livingston. “Even though they were popular local politicians, you’re not required because you don’t fit the New Labour mould.” The fact that he is now not only in the parliamentary Labour Party, but on its front bench, is thanks to a more pluralistic approach under Johann Lamont, he says. Indeed, on the constitution, arguably, Findlay has led the way; while he insists that the Red Paper Collective, of which he is a founding member, is an organ of the labour movement rather than the Labour Party, its call for the left to articulate a positive alternative vision for Scotland in the Union, including more devolved powers, will only in the next few weeks be fully and officially endorsed by a party review.
“I actually think things have changed quite significantly in the last two to three years. The party is more relaxed about itself. If you look at issues like Trident, where across the parliamentary group, here and at Westminster, there are differing views – and people are quite relaxed about people having their differing views on that. I think the days of trying to drum people into some sort of line actually backfired.” Doesn’t it suggest a collective lack of principle, let alone ideology, that the party can’t speak with one voice on major issues? If so, the other side should be judged just as harshly, Findlay says. “You’ve got people like Mike Russell, who if the SNP didn’t exist would be in the Conservative Party, and you’ve got people like Bill Kidd, who have come from a Scottish socialist party tradition. They’re poles apart – Fergus Ewing and Jamie Hepburn – is there more coherence in the SNP between these people, or is there more coherence in my party?” Some would argue that was debateable; the SNP have tried to shame their opponents over their opposition to the Post-16 Bill in the same way they have sought to do over the party’s opposition to universal state services, including free university tuition. How could a party of the left oppose statutory measures to widening access to university? “The access issue is clearly something that I’m passionately in favour of, having been through it myself – but how is it going to be achieved?” Findlay asks. “I actually think the Bill is such a mess that it would actually be better off being withdrawn or delayed.” He claims Labour will wait and see what the final bill looks like before deciding on its vote, but adds: “It’s not the opposition’s job to rescue [Russell’s] Bill.”