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The Performance of Politics: Leadership Race

It's not a new complaint, in fact for as long as I have been alive, and probably longer, the questions around politicians' honesty, integrity and motivations for becoming political officials have been in question.


There's a well-held assumption that politicians are disengaged, dishonest and well… corrupt. I hear it in pubs, shops, bus stops and in various contexts where politics may arise. There are a few historical reasons for this, some are fair and others not so much. One, fairly uncontested, theory is rooted in class division within Scotland.


Historically, those who were enabled to succeed within the political sphere did so by entering politics through a very specific route. This usually started in private school, took them to Oxbridge and then straight to Westminster. Once there, they were usually white, usually male, and usually had a similar lived experience to those around them. This inevitably led to the feeling that politicians don't really represent the people but rather are there to protect and preserve a system which serves the few and not the many.


I'm summarising Scotland's political history significantly here, but both Labour and then subsequently the SNP- alongside other less prominent parties- sought to change that in Scotland. Working under the assumption that the people were best served by individuals who looked, sounded, and even acted like them they ran campaigns which were based on notions of fairness, of mixed representation and as such, they attracted candidates who were not from the traditional political entry point I laid out in the previous paragraph.


Whether you agree or disagree with the political agendas they were putting forward, or whether you think they were successful in this plight, there is no denying that at the height of their success, both The Labour party and The SNP were campaigning on the ideology that they, unlike their predecessors, spoke for the people of Scotland as a true representation of the population of the country.


No one has been more successful at convincing the people of this than the soon-to-be ex-First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.


Again, whether you love her or hate her there is no denying she has been a political force in this country which captured the essence of that very ideology. Her electoral success is proof enough that she was successful at convincing the public she not only spoke on behalf of them, but she was one of them. I have lost count of the number of people who I have heard over the years say something along the lines of… "she just sounded like one of us", or "she takes no nonsense and that's just like women in my family". She had the distinct skill of being both highly able to communicate facts, figures and detail on specific policies while maintaining a sense that she was aligned with the core values that the public want to see in politicians.


It seems then that the public personas in Scottish politics may have changed for good. It seems unfathomable that we could see that level of political performance in one leader and then expect anything less from the next.


However, that assumption was challenged for me at the first SNP first hustings debate in Cumbernauld- which was decided last minute to allow press access. My critique of the event wasn't all about the candidate's performance, and some of it may be due to the last-minute change of press involvement. However, from the offset, how the candidates were presented was lacking in coherent choices. The screen captured the bottom of a pop-up banner which had the SNP logo on it, clearly there to create a backdrop but because of the camera angles was just showing the base of a pop-up. All three candidates were sat behind a table which wouldn't be out of place at a town hall meeting and there was a regular cutting in and out of the mic as candidates were speaking.


All of this, if being generous, could be forgiven either as a last-minute addition of a camera to an event that was meant to be semi-private and for a live audience or perhaps as a distinct choice. I mentioned above the desire for the appearance that politicians were not some sub-set of our population but rather an extension of "us". If that is the case, then what's the problem with having a familiar, DIY set-up which focuses not on the presentation of ideas but rather on what is being said? However, the reality is, presentation matters. How political officials translate to the public, and how we formulate the presentation of their ideas is the most effective way of ensuring that WHAT is being said, is coherently and effectively portrayed to the public. It is about giving the candidates the best opportunity possible to offer a true reflection of their ideas, their motives, and their personas. It isn't about presenting something untrue about the candidates, but rather ensuring they are given the best opportunity possible to portray themselves accurately, but in this elevated context.


Then, there are the candidates themselves. They obviously cannot be held to account for the lack of origination around them. I would highly doubt that Kate Forbes is choosing the camera angles, or that Humza Yousaf is erecting the banners- although I would like to think someone from the party was there overseeing these parts. Nevertheless, they too fell short of my expectations of what we have come to expect from the leadership of Scotland's political sphere. These are three people who are looking to become the most influential politician in Scotland, the leader of the devolved Government and the SNP. Not one of them were able to eloquently portray a version of themselves which was both personally impassioned while maintaining the skills and attributes to lead a government. They were strong in different areas no doubt. Kates Forbes's firm grasp of the nuances of different political topics, even when they were not her direct area of expertise was impressive. Humza has clearly perfected his presentation style, relying on the old tricks of naming the person who speaks long after the question has been asked or getting up from behind the table to demonstrate his connection to the audience is a tried and tested way of coming across as in control, reliable and a man of the people- for want of a better phrase. Ash Regan was genuinely trying to offer new solutions to old problems- albeit sometimes with a little lack of conviction in the ideas. However, there wasn't a candidate who brought together all these skills. We know, that even with the best ideas in the world, and with the most detailed knowledge of different political subjects, without the ability to bring the public along with you, without the ability to inspire or change the mind of someone who may hold a different opinion, the first set of skills are almost meaningless when it comes to creating change.


As someone who wants to see Scotland succeed, I am willing the candidates on. We can all recognise that these three people are at the beginning of a leadership journey, and by comparison, Nicola Sturgeon is at the end of an eight-year stint which makes the comparison a little unfair from the offset. I hope that this was just a case of it being the first opportunity to put forward their ideas and they are all surrounded by teams of people who can get them to a place where the level of competency rises for us all.

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