As an undecided voter I appreciated the opportunity to interview Gordon Matheson during his campaign for Deputy Scottish Labour leader. We spoke in Edinburgh University’s Library Bar before the Scottish Young Labour hustings event. Gordon told me about his plan to change the party through radical localism and how growing up as a gay man in the 1980s shaped his politics. I was struck by his passion for equality for all in both politics and society.
R: I wanted to start off by asking you – why did you join the Labour Party rather than the SNP?
G: My politics is value-based rather than based on national identity. Essentially I believe in co-operation, in people and communities working together, and I believe fundamentally in equality and redistributing opportunity. That’s why I joined the Labour Party. I have to say the thought didn’t seriously cross my mind to join the SNP. In my current role I work with organisations across the UK and it just reinforces the fact that my values are shared by people living in Manchester and London and Cardiff and Belfast just as much as they are by people in Inverness and Dundee and Edinburgh and Ayrshire.
R: How do you think the party needs to change to get more people involved?
G: Throughout this campaign I’ve been talking about Radical Localism. In terms of our whole approach, but in particular our policy platform, we will only regain trust if we genuinely operate at a local level and if we can convince people that we have their interests at heart. The City Deal I secured against the odds that will create 29,000 jobs is an example of radical localism, taking power away from Holyrood and Westminster and giving it to our cities, islands and regions.
As a party we also need to localise. We need to campaign on local issues like bus services, quality of education, A&E services. Issues that matter in our communities. The party organisation needs to support that. I want a trained organiser in every constituency in Scotland and we can do that, we need to do that. We can’t simply develop capacity either side of a parliamentary election that won’t develop the trust that we need to progress as a party.
I’ll set up a dedicated campaign fund that local parties can access to help deliver community campaigns so Labour is part of our local communities all year round. And we can only campaign on the issues that matter to local communities if we listen to our members in those communities. Under my Deputy Leadership, gone will be the days when party members are simply looked on as those who deliver leaflets or knock on doors. Radical localism can only work if it’s led by grassroots members. It affects every aspect of our party and from big policy ideas to organisation on the ground and in our CLPs.
R: Going on to the structure of the party, do you think an Independent Scottish Labour Party would solve our problems?
G: No. I don’t believe in breaking up the British Labour movement any more than I believe in breaking Britain away from Europe. I’ve always been a very strong devolutionist. I think that we need to be increasingly autonomous and confident about setting policy in all of the areas that are currently devolved but I also think that, as Donald Dewar said, it’s a process not an event. The Scottish Parliament needs to become increasingly autonomous, but not at the expense of becoming entirely independent. It goes back to fundamental values. We believe in solidarity, equality and opportunity. Our politics is value-based not identity-based. We can get that balance right by being increasingly autonomous but remaining part of a strong Labour Party.
R: Glasgow City Council won a majority in the 2012 council elections, what do you think was key to winning?
G: You will probably remember that all the commentators were saying that the SNP were going to sweep Labour from power in 2012 and everyone believed it. They were saying it publicly, they were saying it privately. In the event they weren’t remotely close and under the PR system we secured a majority. There are 5 things I think as a political party you need to secure a majority:
- A very clear sense of identity
- A record of delivery
- A vision that is optimistic
- Specific policies which are relevant to a cross section of the population
- Organisational prowess. We need to work hard and smart and not be downhearted.
We got all of those things right in that election. And I think that one of the challenges we face is actually getting to that first base – getting a very clear sense of our identity. Who we are, what we stand for, who we stand up for. Based on that record of success I believe I can make a notable contribution to the challenges that our party faces now.
R: I assume you were quite young when you joined so I wanted to ask – what would you do for young members in the party?
G: The first campaign that I was involved in was in 1979, which wasn’t a particular successful one to put it mildly. My whole secondary schooling and my university years were then under Tory rule so it was very formative to me. I didn’t actually join the Labour Party until John Smith died. He was a great man who looked set to be the next Labour Prime Minister, and what I really realised then was I felt closer to Labour and perhaps it was time to get involved.
What I’d do for young people as Deputy Leader is fundamentally predicated on a respect for young people. It really lifts the spirits to see young people turning up to knock doors and staff stalls. They are the future leadership cadre in the party as special advisors and organisers, councillors and parliamentarians. But they are more than campaigners and they are more than the future. They need to be empowered now. As Deputy Leader I’d never take them for granted. I want to work alongside them as a key part of our movement.
R: How will you support people who belong to the women, BME, LGBTQ+ and disabled caucuses, what more do you think can be done for them?
G: I have personal and political passion for equality. My first degree was in Sociology then I did a postgrad in Equality and Discrimination. I grew up as a young gay man under Thatcher and there was a big stigma attached to it. I worked for 10 years for RNIB. In my political life I have also sought to support the minority ethnic communities across the Glasgow. It is the most diverse city in Scotland and increasingly so every year that passes. I strongly support the Women5050 campaign, which aims to get equal representation within the party. When the Scottish Parliament was established it was actually very good on that but it’s been eroded.
R: How do we do that?
G: We do it first by simply universally recognising that it’s the right thing to do. In the first Scottish Parliament election constituencies were organised so that two adjacent constituencies were paired up and the top man and woman from the ballot became the candidates. We need to get back to a structure that delivers equal representation. We did it before and we can do it again – and we must. We get better decisions in every event with equal representation. You won’t get a politics that reflects Scotland unless those in power reflect Scotland. And in fact women are in the majority for goodness sake we’re not talking about a minority here. We are talking about a majority of people who face discrimination and inequality on a whole number of levels, in career advancement, in equal pay and in fact in every aspect of life.
R: Mental health is a huge problem in society and there’s a stigma attached to that as well, how do we tackle that?
G: When I left school and then started studies for the Catholic priesthood I struggled emotionally to find my way in the world, to get a career that worked for me. I know at a personal level what it’s like to have mental ill health. And I’m hardly alone in that. Statistics indicate that 1 in 4 Scots every year will face a period of mental ill health so that means that it will effect the vast majority of us in our lifetime.
One of the crueller aspects of mental illness is that it saps confidence and, at the same time, there’s a stigma attached to it. So instead of being able to be encouraged and offered support at the time when it is most needed, people feel that wider society is judging them. It’s a vicious downwards spiral. How do you break that? Well to start with we all need to recognise that it is relevant to all of us. All of us will know someone in their friends and family and loved ones that suffers from mental illness. We need to be open about it.
R: A councillor, like yourself, has never been able to stand for deputy leader before. Do you think this gives you an advantage over the other candidates?
G: My very candidacy represents change and a recognition that we need to open up and embrace new perspectives and new talent. I warmly welcome the rule change which, to be frankly honest, is overdue. It should always have been the case. I mean I’m actually in power – I am a leader of an organisation which delivers vital public services to 600,000 people and has a £2.5 billion turnover. We employ approaching 30,000 people. I’m not a parliamentarian, I’ve never been employed by the party or a member of the SEC. All of these are strengths when what we need as a party is to refresh is to localise our organisation and encourage new talent from wherever we find it.
I would like to thank Gordon Matheson for meeting me and answering my questions. Before meeting Gordon I was undecided as to who I would vote for as Deputy Leader. After hearing about his dedication to promoting social justice and addressing mental health, I am proud to cast my vote for him. Gordon makes no apologies in saying that the party is not in a fit state and needs serious reform. I believe that he will help bring the party closer to our communities and that that is how we win again.