Never mind the BBC debates, here’s local democracy

I could have stayed in and watched the Challenger debates, but instead I decided to go to one where the incumbent would actually bother to turn up.

And I’m sure he’s glad he did, since there was easily over a hundred people in Glasgow South’s beautiful Langside Church. Local democracy may be in trouble elsewhere, but it appears to be in vigorous health in the southside of Glasgow.

Providing a Shoogly summary of local hustings has become something of a blog tradition, so I shall do my best to give a round-up of the best bits, but a couple of observations first.

Firstly, my next MP will be a man. Six candidates, all male. No offence, but that’s a poor state of affairs, and it got me thinking – at the age of 38, I have never once been represented by a woman at Westminster. I’ve had a veritable Who’s Who of local MPs – Michael Forsyth, George Galloway, Mohammad Sarwar, oor ain Tom Harris – but all of them have been male. It’s shocking and it can’t go on – I don’t want my daughter to also go through the first half of her life without ever having a female MP.

Secondly, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of each of the candidates. Without wishing to be rude, hustings for previous elections have sometimes been a bit like watching a bunch of toddlers arguing with the teacher – Labour’s total dominance and the lack of local opposition has made the imbalance between the sitting candidate and the opposition seem preposterous. That isn’t the case now. Each of the candidates, even the terrifyingly young Conservative Kyle Thornton, was confident and not in the least overwhelmed by the occasion. A result, I wonder, of the referendum campaign? Many politically active people have spent the last two or three years publicly arguing their position, and it seems a welcome side-effect of that is a newly articulate and assured generation of political candidates.

Anyway, to the questions. Several people were live-tweeting the event, so I won’t try to summarise the whole thing – the Twitter hashtag #gshustings will give you chapter and verse. There were several outbreaks of consensus, particularly on the minimum wage and Living Wage, both of which everyone supported. Tom Harris rightly claimed credit for Labour introducing a minimum wage in the first place and Stewart McDonald of the SNP called for devolution of the minimum wage to Scotland and an uplift to £8.75 by 2020. The Lib Dems and Tories were woolliest on this, choosing to focus on increasing tax allowances rather than the minimum wage itself.

A question about welfare cuts provoked guffaws when Kyle Thornton attempted to position the Conservatives as a compassionate party. To his credit he stood his ground, but his argument that we need to expand the economy because otherwise we need to make cuts that hit poorest people hardest was not a strong one – several candidates had already argued that allowing the consequences of austerity to hit hardest those who have least was a political choice, not an inevitability. Stewart McDonald gave a strong answer, pointing out that the Scottish Government spends £100m mitigating against the impact of welfare cuts but that this money could be better used elsewhere if welfare powers were devolved. Ewan Hoyle of the Lib Dems spoke knowledgably of his own experiences of being unfairly sanctioned and let down by benefits assessments, while the Greens’ Alastair Whitelaw called for a Citizen’s Income combined with progressive taxation.

A question about the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) prompted the first real inter-party boshing, with Tom Harris accusing the SNP of hypocrisy over allegedly supporting TTIP when it was first introduced, while Labour fought for protections for public services to be introduced. Brian Smith of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition described TTIP as the 1% ripping off the 99% and demonstrating that the EU is a capitalist boss’s club. And Ewan Hoyle made the rather more subtle point that it’s hard to be for or against TTIP as it’s being written behind closed doors, which in itself is undemocratic.

Given the absence of women on the panel, a question about whether candidates would support all-women shortlists was pertinent, and I was surprised that all but the SNP and Labour said no. As I’ve said before, I don’t think we’ll know whether all-women shortlists are the solution until we understand what the problem is, but I’d have liked to hear more about what the candidates propose to do instead – surely the continuing total absence of women from the ballot paper cannot be acceptable.

There was an element of following party talking points, with Tom Harris regularly lampooning the SNP on Full Fiscal Autonomy, and Stewart McDonald sticking to the line that the SNP would be Scotland’s voice at Westminster. But by and large the candidates were personable, rather than party machines. There were some rousing final pitches, with Brian Smith making the excellent point that there’s no point voting tactically, we’ll only end up annoyed with the outcome so we might as well vote for who we believe in. Tom Harris made a good pitch based on Labour’s progressive record on issues like the Human Rights Act and tax credits, while Alastair Whitelaw highlighted his scientific background as a rare attribute among MPs. Ewan Hoyle rather forlornly summarised the Lib Dems as “more important than you might think” and sounded like he was making more of a pitch for people to join his beleaguered party and help to reform it than for us to actually vote for him. Kyle Thornton focused on the economy, schools and the NHS, which was unfortunate given than two of those three are devolved, and Stewart McDonald made a rousing call to let the SNP speak for Scotland.

Kudos to Langside Church and the Common Weal for organising the event, to my neighbours for pitching up on a lovely spring night, and to the candidates for robustly but mostly respectfully taking part. It’s just a pity that we do not have a voting system that is capable of representing the diverse range of views that are evident in this community – but maybe that’s something our next MP can help fix.

Did the TV debates spell the end for First Past the Post?

If anyone doubted that Nicola Sturgeon performed well in Thursday night’s debates, the Telegraph’s sudden (and seemingly inaccurate) attack on her confirms it – you know you’re a threat when the Tories’ traditional attack dog starts nipping at your ankles.

But she wasn’t the only one who came out well. Leanne Wood directed a credible if slightly repetitive pitch at the Welsh voters. Natalie Bennett – well, she only had to stay upright and speak in full sentences to be seen as a success, but in fact she gave a composed, confident performance, for which she deserves credit: she must have known that many were waiting for her to trip up.

Indeed, it was Cameron, Miliband and Farage who seemed out of place to me: three be-suited men, looking like they’d turned up for a banquet and found the waiters sitting in their seats. (Somehow, despite being every bit as Establishment, Clegg managed to seem more of an active participant. I think he just waves his arms around a lot).

I have to admit, I was surprised that the format worked. “Seven speakers?” I thought. “That’ll be an unwatchable rammy”. And it’s true that we could have benefitted from a firmer chair – Julie Etchingham, while looking fabulously severe in what appeared to be a haute couture dentist’s uniform, never really seemed in control. Nevertheless, there were questions, there were answers, there were genuine differences in policy, and there was food for thought for us, the viewers.

It will be hard to go back to the three-way debate after this. And that has two interesting implications.

The first is the impact on devolved branches of the main parties. The leaders of Scottish and Welsh Labour, in particular, must be spitting at the exposure that their rivals enjoyed, arguing the toss on equal terms with the Prime Minister – and benefitting from his relative lack of knowledge of their political patch. Of course, there will be televised debates in each of the devolved nations, but they will attract a fraction of the audience. Did the major parties predict the potential impact on their vote share outwith England, and will they accept this as the price to be paid for continued TV coverage? Or will the next election see the bigger parties demanding their own show again? And will an audience with a new enthusiasm for multi-party politics accept that?

Which leads me on to the second possible effect. It does seem clear that people found it refreshing to hear from a multiplicity of voices. But for many people, there is simply no point voting Green or UKIP, no matter how much they might want to. So is now, finally, the time to reform our ridiculous first-past-the-post system?

The big parties have been having a grand old time recently, insisting that no matter who we vote for, we’re actually going to get somebody else unless we do as we’re told (as expertly spoofed by the Daily Mash). From the Conservatives in particular, this is somewhat rubbing the electorate’s collective nose in their AV referendum victory: “Hah hah, we persuaded you not to vote for a fairer system, so now your vote doesn’t count! Morons!”

There is an opportunity here to highlight this hypocrisy and build a case for PR. But, given that we had a referendum just four years ago, how could we push for another one so soon?

There are two options. The first is to offer a decent system and hire someone decent to run the campaign. Last time round, Nick Clegg made a bad compromise by accepting a referendum on the Alternative Vote system – a complicated method that nobody likes and hardly anyone understands. It was easy for the slick, cynical No2AV campaign (masterminded, incidentally, by the man behind the Taxpayer’s Alliance), to argue that this meant upheaval and expense for a system that wasn’t even the first choice of the man advocating it. The Yes campaign, meanwhile, burbled along with generic, unchallenging material that spoke only to the already converted. With a better offer and clearer messaging, our newly engaged electorate might this time be open to persuasion.

But do we actually need a referendum at all? It might not seem that way lately, but this country does not have a strong tradition of holding votes on policy issues. Those opposed to a fair voting system will argue that a precedent has been set – but a referendum was only necessary last time because we had a coalition without an agreed policy. The Lib Dems wanted reform, the Tories didn’t, so the matter was put before the electorate.

If Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the DUP and whoever else might conceivably form or prop up a government all include a commitment to PR in their manifestos, and then constitute a majority of those elected, then a mandate for reform exists with no need for another expensive vote. And that would truly change our politics for the better.

This seven-way debate has woken up the electorate. But sticking with First Past the Post makes it very likely that they will simply yawn, scratch their bellies and go back to sleep. Let’s seize the moment to make every vote count, and perhaps we will actually get out of bed.

Letting go of judgment

The woman didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. She just stood at the edge of the pavement, blocking my daughter’s path into the road, as I careered around the corner wielding an out-of-control buggy and shouting,

“Eilidh! Christ, slow down!”

I grabbed Eilidh’s hand, took a deep breath and smiled at the woman.

“Sorry. She’s been trying to escape ever since we left nursery”.

The woman looked at me with pursed lips and a frown before walking away, leaving me to chase after Eilidh as she attempted to break into a nearby wheelie bin enclosure . I felt her judgment bearing down on my shoulders all the way home, and I kept replaying the scene as she must have seen it: a flustered, angry pregnant mother allowing a toddler to run into danger. I felt furious with her for the scathing way she’d looked at me, and my thoughts on the journey back from nursery were unkind.

However, parenthood attracts judgment, and I do it myself, all the time.

The other week at the park, I observed a small boy traipse from the slide to the roundabout to the swings, playing silently by himself, while a woman I took to be his grandmother sat on a bench, watching him wordlessly, never calling out to him, never joining in. I felt terrible for this poor wee unloved boy, and I smiled encouragingly at him as he made his way around the playground. And in my mind I judged his gran and found her guilty.

But my momentary loss of control outside nursery has reminded me, yet again, that appearances are often deceptive. In the moments before Eilidh got away from me, I had been firmly explaining that she must, must hold my hand as we crossed the road, and resisting the daily urge to just shove her in her buggy and push her home, because I know she needs to learn road sense and she won’t do it from inside a pushchair.

And for the rest of the journey home, I talked brightly to her, pointing out duckies and kitty cats and doggies, listening to her chatter and reminding her that we always waited for the green man before we crossed the road. I am sure that when we got home, I fed her something reasonably nutritious and put her to bed at a sensible hour.

I wanted to go after the Silent Watching Woman to explain all of this, lay out my credentials and convince her that I wasn’t one of those parents, who deserved to be judged. I wanted to put the record straight. But I have since realised that the record was perfectly straight to begin with. For the few seconds that woman encountered me, I was a bad mum.

For the last couple of years, I have been learning about mindfulness: a way of living that is all about focusing on the present. It emphasises the need to let go of expectation and judgment and simply accept what is, whether it is good or bad. It can be tough, and it challenged me in the aftermath of Eilidh’s escapade. Eventually I had to admit to myself that there was no reason to be angry with the judgmental woman. She just reacted to what she’d observed, and I should have been grateful that she had done so: who knows, if she hadn’t been there, maybe Eilidh really would have run into the road. The person I was really angry with was me, for allowing the situation to occur.

When I was at school, I went on a trip to Italy, as part of which we visited Pompeii. It was fascinating and macabre, the perfect combination for a group of teens. And the exhibits that have always stuck in my mind are the casts, captured eternally in lava, of people at the moment of their deaths. Killed in seconds by the sudden rush of extreme heat, they are defined in perpetuity by whatever action they happened to be taking at the time, whether or not it was representative of their lives. It reminds me that we are what we are, from one moment to the next: but we shouldn’t define other people based on momentary glimpses of their lives.

So I have resolved to stop judging others. Who knows what that silent grandmother in the park had been through? Maybe she had been left to bring up her grandson, following the death of his parents. Maybe she was ill and had exhausted her strength just getting him to the park. Maybe she was numb with grief at some other recent loss, but trying to keep things normal for the boy. If I’d seen her on a different day, I might have been dazzled by her skills and affection. We cannot know what has gone before for the people we see around us, nor what may be around the corner. We only see a moment, and as any researcher will tell you, conclusions reached on the basis of a single brief observation are likely to be wrong.