Tommy Sheppard: Labour can only reclaim power in Scotland if the SNP fucks it up
Tommy Sheppard has a bee in his bonnet. The SNP MP for Edinburgh East is sat in his cramped parliamentary office, busy reeling off a series of gripes he harbours with Westminster.
The former Labour man’s political career spans more than three decades, but life inside parliament only began nine months ago. And Sheppard has been caught off-guard by blockages in the Commons ever since.
“This place is barely fit for purpose. This country gets governed in spite of the House of Commons rather than because of it,” he says, unprovoked.
“The stuff about not being able to call people by name, and not being able to applaud; it’s just all designed to give an air of mystique and otherness to this place. Even though it’s called the House of Commons, it’s designed to keep the commoners out.”
In fact, the SNP’s cabinet office spokesman takes such displeasure at not being able to address colleagues by name that he is currently courting Tory MPs and others to help push for the rules to be amended. He’s also considering campaigning for the House of Commons prayers to become multi-faith in a bid to reflect the UK’s secular society.
“I think the way in which the high Anglican Church has colonised this place, well refuses to stop colonising parliament, that can’t be right,” he argues.
Sheppard first voiced these concerns in his address to the SNP’s annual conference in October, an amusing speech that precipitated his choice as the Spectator’s Parliamentary newcomer of the year.
That’s not to say he is disliking life as Edinburgh East’s elected representative. Being an MP is a “great privilege”, he insists, a role where you can cut your teeth in issues both foreign and domestic.
He joined the SNP in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, where he played a role as a local organiser for the Yes campaign in the capital. Signing up was a natural progression, Sheppard says.
“I’ve always believed political change requires political parties… and to be frank, the SNP was the only game in town for me.”
In the 2015 election, the Edinburgh East constituency ranked high on the SNP’s target list and Sheppard was confident of ousting incumbent Labour MP Sheila Gilmore. But not all of his colleagues were quite so confident.
Sheppard claims that some of the newly-elected SNP MPs “were just fighting the good fight for the party” and never expected to enter parliament.
“It ended up with a goodly number of people being sent to the chamber that they hadn’t intended to be and having to, in some cases, give up very well paid jobs and explain their situation to their wife and family. So, it’s not been without problems,” he explains.
Sheppard was not always drawn to the SNP. Rather, his political journey began as a Labour councillor in Hackney during the 80s and he stood as Labour candidate for Bury St Edmond in the 1992 election.
But then Sheppard was made redundant from his post of assistant general secretary of Scottish Labour in 1997 after “rapidly becoming out of sync with the New Labour establishment”, as he puts it.
In 1999, a year after the formation of Holyrood which he helped coordinate, Sheppard’s bid to be on the panel of candidates for Labour in the Scottish elections was rejected. In his typically forthright matter, Sheppard recalls: “It brought it home to me I wasn’t going to get nominated for chair of the dog shit committee.”
Sheppard’s revoked his Labour membership in 2001, leading to a 13-year hiatus from frontline politics.
“The Labour party began to leave me in a way, and I guess I was also increasingly disillusioned with the Blair project, particularly the way in which the reorientation of the party to the sudden mythical English middle-ground was leaving behind the traditional working class base of the party. And that was very apparent in Scotland,” he says.
“And it’s from the late 90s that the seeds were sewn that resulted in the SNP’s huge victory last May. This is a phenomenon that has accelerated in the last couple of years, but its genesis was back with the New Labour project. So there wasn’t any point trying to pursue what I believed in using the vehicle of the Labour party anymore.”
Of the SNP, he says that the change in direction into a “left of centre democratic party” under former leader Alex Salmond made it an increasingly attractive option for him.
But could Labour under Jeremy Corbyn lure back Scottish voters, or indeed himself, to the party? The former Labour supporter is far from convinced.
“No, because I think that ship has sailed in Scotland. I absolutely believe that the people of England and arguably Wales deserve an alternative to the neoliberal prospectus that successive governments have been working on. And I think that alternative should be presented in a way where it at least has the possibility of being elected to government,” he says.
“So, if the Labour party can rejuvenate itself in England they have my full support and good will… and while we’re a part of this place I would want to try and work with Labour colleagues very, very closely to achieve social and democratic objectives that we share.”
With one solitary representative in Scotland left in parliament, Sheppard believes the SNP has rendered Labour obsolete north of the border, and has some ominous warnings of their chances of regaining power.
“The thing about Scotland is it’s not just that the Labour party declined, but also that they were replaced,” he says.
“Voters see somebody putting forward pro-welfare, pro-public sector, pro-equality arguments and yes of course it’s got a stand up for Scotland tinge to it – it’s got that wallpaper if you like, which resonates very well.
“What you’ve got left is quite small in terms of the number of people that are active in Scottish Labour, and down to 20% in terms of its public support. Now I’m not saying that couldn’t change, maybe it could, but it will only change if the SNP fuck it up.
“I don’t think there’s anything Labour can do to change it because there’s no role for them. There is, but there’s a role in England.”
While still in the Labour fold, Sheppard helped found comedy club night Stand to fill the void left after the Edinburgh festival came to a close each year.
“I can now reveal I did use the Labour party copier to run off some flyers for the comedy club,” he jokes.
The club was established in 1995, having been originally based in the basement of a pub in the city’s old town, a room that has since been converted into the venue’s toilet facilities.
Following his redundancy from the Labour party, Sheppard turned Stand into a full time commercial venture. He remains a shareholder to this day.
The night’s alumni includes Frankie Boyle, who performed during the club’s second ever show. “You could tell he was a cut above even then,” Sheppard muses.
With such heritage, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Sheppard laments the fact that some MPs require the assistance of notes when delivering speeches in the Commons. But if he is of the old school in that regard, Sheppard is a moderniser in looking to tighten up rules surrounding MPs’ second jobs.
He insists being a member of parliament should be viewed as a “full time professional job”, a “sabbatical position” where you take time out of your life to do some public service.
But he says exemptions should be in place for MPs such as the SNP’s Dr Philippa Whitford, an experienced consultant breast surgeon, to continue outside work so that they are not “disadvantaged” after their term as an MP.
What about MPs who host weekly radio phone-in shows, such as former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond?
“I think that’s fine, I’m pretty sure Alex’s fee will be donated to charity. I mean if you look back, he does a lot of stuff like that and invariably you will find it’s donated to a charity, either in his constituency or something else," he argues.
“Taking an hour a week to be a broadcaster where you have got the opportunity to promote the views that you were elected on I think is part of the job. I think there would be a difference if you were doing that full time or if you had were getting big bucks for it. Then I think that would be a problem,” he says.
“In terms of being on boards of charities, or even boards of companies, I have no problem with that. MPs should have outside interests that will inform their debates in here. But they shouldn’t be on anybody else’s pay roll.”
Looking ahead, Sheppard is sure the SNP’s Holyrood manifesto will restate the party’s commitment to Scottish independence. He toes the party line in agreeing that Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will would provoke a “constitutional question to which independence is one answer”.
Does he think another vote is likely before the end of the parliament?
“I would never say never in that sense, but I think there would need to be specific and exceptional circumstances that would lead to a referendum in the next couple of years. By in large I think we should respect the result of September 2014, but have a post mortem on it, analyse it, think what went right what went wrong, begin to work up a new offer and a new prospectus, which I think we would put to people in the early 2020s,” he says.
“In the meantime I think we will press for further powers to be devolved to the Scottish government, particularly in the economics sphere, so we have the tools of government that most governments have.”
Sheppard is a Commons newbie but a hardened political veteran. His dogged determination to reform parliament could well bear fruition if he gathers a consensus across the political divide.
A political career that lay dormant for more than a decade was revitalised by the pursuit of an independent Scotland and the SNP’s surge. Rejuvenated, the former Labour man is just getting started.
“My first love has always been politics," he insists. "I don’t want to be arrogant, but I don’t feel in any way intimidated or daunted by this place, which I think a few people maybe do. I have a healthy contempt for it."