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Scotland Labour’s fightback starts in Midlothian

Danielle Rowley, who became an MP for Midlothian by overturning an SNP majority of almost 10,000, spoke to Conrad Landin in Westminster about Parliament itself and Labour’s future north of the border

SOME had written off William Ewart Gladstone by 1878. Four years previously, he faced an upset in an election of his own choosing, as Theresa May would 143 years later.

But by 1880 Gladstone had sailed back into Downing Street after a series of fiery speeches attacking the Benjamin Disraeli government’s support for the Ottoman Empire.

Widely considered as the first modern political campaign, Gladstone’s operation was named after the constituency he was contesting for the first time, and went down in history as the Midlothian Campaign.

So it’s fitting that Midlothian — now smaller in geography, but with many more voters — has unexpectedly become a key site in Labour’s fightback in Scotland and, despite having politics a world apart from the patrician Gladstone’s, Danielle Rowley is one of those leading the charge.

Elected as MP for Midlothian at the age of just 27 last year, she overturned an SNP majority of almost 10,000 into a wafer-thin 885 majority of her own.

I meet Rowley in Westminster — somewhere she admits that, during her campaign last spring at least, she never expected she’d end up.

“People keep saying ‘are you enjoying it?’,” she tells me. “I wouldn’t say enjoying is the right word. It can be deeply frustrating.

“I want to help people. I can help them within the system, but I think the system’s broken. What I want is to be in government so that we can really change the system. That’s been frustrating, that’s the hardest part of the job — not being able to really transform things.”

One of the biggest issues for Rowley has been the government’s botched implementation of Universal Credit, the single benefit payment replacing countless others that were previously paid out separately.

“It’s been a huge volume of casework,” she says. With constituents who were previously able to get by now finding themselves completely destitute, a new foodbank has opened in Midlothian “because the demand is so high.”

So how was Rowley’s own Midlothian campaign? Though she never expected to win, she said she was struck by the fact that “people were being really friendly and they were actually listening and asking questions” — something she’d never experienced before as a political activist.

“But I didn’t think I’d have overturned such a big majority. I didn’t think until we were there at the count that we were going to win. It was a quite a shock.”

And, while she’s proud of the fact she’s the first woman to represent Midlothian at Westminster, she sees this as an injustice too.

“It’s been quite odd adapting to a workplace that’s dominated by older white men. I want to work towards a place where people aren’t saying they’re the first woman MP or the first of any background because that won’t be a thing any more.”

Her previous job as a charity worker at Shelter Scotland was a far cry from her current busy life in Parliament, but politics was in her blood.

Her father Alex Rowley is a former deputy leader of Scottish Labour. And after graduating in journalism from Edinburgh Napier University, she worked in Gordon Brown’s constituency office in Fife during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

She did shifts at the Daily Record and STV but moved in the direction of charity campaigns rather than sticking with journalism.

Still, she says: “having a journalism degree’s certainly quite helpful in Parliament” and she’s vocal about the role a strong press can have in holding power to account.

“I would urge people to buy your local paper every week or however often it’s out. Listen to your local radio station.” Then after a pause, she adds: “Buy the Morning Star.”

But crucially for Rowley, local papers need more support, including from their communities. “If people aren’t reading it, aren’t engaging with it, then it’s going to die out. I always buy the Midlothian Advertiser.”

Her home life is currently livened up by a cavochon dog called Chesney, which belongs to a friend who is staying with Rowley, but its presence doesn’t stop her missing her childhood goldfish Bubbles, who lived to the remarkable age of 14.

“Everyone says: ‘Come on Danielle, it clearly died about 20 times and your mum replaced it’.

“But it didn’t die and it was massive and it had a little spot on its head, so I knew it was the same goldfish.

“And it had a really dirty tank. And a few times it almost did die and one of our local councillors said: ‘Oh, put a miniature of whisky in the tank’ and we did and it came back to life.

“I’m not sure anything could ever replace Bubbles.”

Back in the Commons, she’s found it “quite odd adapting to a workplace that’s dominated by older white men.”

Rowley chaired leftwinger Richard Leonard’s successful campaign for the Scottish Labour leadership — something that, I suppose, many of her colleagues in the party are still reluctant to accept.

“I think, you know, you’re never never going to please everybody,” she conceded, but she insists most of the party is “actually ... really united behind Richard.”

And she says the presence of seven Scottish Labour MPs, up from just one prior to last year’s election, has lifted the spirits of party colleagues at Westminster.

“Everyone’s been really excited to have more Scottish colleagues. It’s going to be a key battleground in the next election.

“I think people are starting to agree and tell me when I knock on their doors that we need a Labour government in Westminster and Holyrood and that’s the way we’ll properly fund our services.”

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