My Path to Politics

Scottish deputy leader candidate Matt Kerr on how family, trade unionism and experience of injustice led him to politics – and why the cause of a Labour Party fighting for working-class people remains as relevant as ever.

As a postal worker, trade unionist, councillor, and parliamentary candidate, I have spent my life talking with people and fighting to make our country and world a fairer and better place. Just over two weeks ago I entered the race to become deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party. It is custom in these contests for candidates to set out not just what they are for, but who they are.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of political nerd in that respect. My house is littered with the writings of the great and the good discussing their journeys into and through politics. In Labour circles it inevitably involves a tale of an ancestor in the pit, or in the heavy industries which gave birth to organised labour. And I’m no different: in my family I have blacksmiths, miners, spidermen, ILP organisers, works council members, and trades union activists. I’m lucky to have known a few of them, and how could that not have an impact on where I am now?

Growing up in Saltcoats all those years ago was fine, and the freedom I knew was a long way from that of my forebears. My memories are a series of sunburned episodes on the beach, interspersed with jumping on the bus to protest everything and anything the Thatcher government was up to. My first vote was in 1997, and I did my duty in voting for Brian Wilson and against the Tory government. By then though, thoughts of elected office could not have been further away.

I was obsessed with bicycles, building them and racing them. I remember racing in places like Muirkirk and Sorn in the mid-nineties and seeing towns and the people in them struggling. The roads of Ayrshire were great cycling country, but I became progressively more aware that these towns and villages had fractions of the population they once had. I watched mining villages make the slow and painful transition to commuter towns.

Formative Years

I joined the Communication Workers Union on my first day at work in Saltcoats. When I moved to G51 (Sunny Govan to you), I really saw its worth. It was an office where there was regularly political chat as we sorted the mail – which ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, and from the sober analysis to the brutal.

The dots were starting to join together. I soon got involved in Govan Community Council, an amazing organisation and still one of the most active in the city. Community Councils are strange beasts, non-political and yet highly political at the same time. 

Govan had an extra dimension to it though – its officers were all prominent in local party politics. The treasurer was a Conservative, the secretary a Communist, and the chair was in Labour. Needless to say it was frugal, well-organised, and scrupulously chaired. As the youngest by some margin, they all encouraged my involvement in their activities and campaigns.

As fate would have it, I was on Coney Island beach in New York when the Iraq war kicked off visiting the woman who would become my wife.,Not long beforehand I had taken part in the biggest rally I’d ever seen in Glasgow to protest the drive towards war. We joined similar protests in New York, but all for nought, the die was cast long beforehand. We, like many across the world, watched in horror at what unfolded over the years ahead.

But it was another American experence that really shaped my worldview. While she was in the US, a friend of my partner’s became ill and was diagnosed with leukaemia. A diagnosis like that is a blow for anyone, but when you realise your insurance only covers “catastrophic” ailments, and that leukaemia isn’t classified as “catastrophic,” it’s a bit of an eye-opener.

My partner watched as her friend attempted to get assistance from city and state, and was in disbelief as this assistance was either denied or minimal. Meanwhile, he didn’t have paid sick leave, and found himself having to come to work while his colleagues covered his fainting and he treated himself with herbal remedies.

He lived out the end of his days a few blocks from billionaires whose pocket-change could have saved his life. Thousands of miles away, having returned to Glasgow, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. You read about these things, but it couldn’t really happen like that, could it? It was around this time I became more active in the Labour Party.

Shortly afterwards, I went along with my grandpa, who had been a blacksmith, to his assessment for National Coal Board compensation for vibration white finger. A fairly brief examination was carried out by the officer. He cheerily assured my grandpa not to worry – he was clearly eligible and the compensation would be paid to his family if he wasn’t around long enough. 

My grandpa was comforted, but I was infuriated. I saw similarities with the case in the United States. These two men, a continent apart, were used up and spat out by systems that were inhuman. The final insult was that both accepted their fate as being ‘how the cookie crumbles’ – not really believing that things could be better.

Political Challenges

I was elected to council in 2007, and became a father a week later. My daughter will reach her 13th birthday having only known austerity. JK Galbraith once remarked that political decisions are a choice between the unpalatable and the disastrous – that’s all too true for councillors around the country, as they carry the can every day for decisions made by government and often ration the services they were elected to protect.

Councillors are in the position of having a lot of responsibility but none of the power – yet the people we represent rightly believe they are electing politicians, not managers. You can’t really blame them for thinking voting is a waste of time. The bins don’t get emptied, the bus services continue to disappear, and health and social care is on the brink of collapse.

A consensus was built over decades that a Scottish parliament was needed to change politics and bring power closer to the people. I remember the chat at the time telling us that a new chamber would help build a consensus across the parties in the interests of the people of Scotland, and that it would shatter that cosy club down in Westminster. For all the good that has come out of Holyrood, twenty years on Scotland is more centralised than ever – and another cosy club has been born.

The independence debate has raged over these last few years, with expectations hyped-up in line with the political cycle. The Labour Party’s core purpose of eradicating poverty and inequality barely gets a look-in amidst the constitutional trench warfare. I am a federalist, and Labour needs to be more robust in our approach to this at UK and Scottish level, but it is a meaningless policy if it is not more than simply parliaments divvying up their powers amongst themselves again.

Labour was formed to represent organised labour in parliament but organised labour has been under relentless attack throughout my lifetime. Its demise has weakened the connection between the grassroots and the Labour Party. One of the few signs of hope for working people in recent years has been with young trades unionists in Scotland. 

Whatever their views on the constitution, these activists have given new life to trades unions and boosted membership by a mix of innovation and good, old-fashioned community organising. Most importantly of all, they have consistently delivered results not only for their members, but with their members. The trade union movement is taking notice – and it’s time Labour did too.

The Way Back

The result of the last general election was disastrous. If there is hope to be found it was in the hundreds of new activists I met and campaigned with. Energy and commitment weren’t the only things in abundance: the ideas and talent working for that better society we envisioned was remarkable.

I was angry at the injustices I discovered as a young man. I am still angry at the injustices facing far too many of our fellow citizens today. For Labour to challenge a world that continues to be unjust we have to win again. This means recovering trust amongst those people whose support we have lost over the past twenty years.

Recovering that support requires us to become part of the communities we seek to represent once more, and to build the confidence of our members so that they are seen to be on the working people’s side. Restoring trust also means we have to unify and confront some of the difficult issues facing us as a party, and Scotland as a country.

We need to be a party that challenges the establishment not one that, through a sense of complacency and entitlement, is seen to be a part of the establishment. We need to take a different turn with new answers to the pressing questions of our time. We need a new culture within the party that rids Scottish Labour of the harmful attacks on our own people perpetuated through leaks, briefings and social media.

We need a renewed focus on campaigning, with a new way of tapping into the skills and talents of our membership and we need new faces, including a fresh deputy leader, as part of a new generation that is ready to take on our opponents and support, not undermine, our leader Richard Leonard and ensure we are ready for the 2021 election.

It’s time for a fresh approach, one that builds on the abilities of every part of our Labour movement – recognising there can be strength in diversity as well as unity. The stakes are high not just for the Scottish Labour Party, but we must break out of parliament’s bubble if we are to deliver the Labour government our communities need, and once and for all end the terrible injustices that so many still endure.