Interview with Sofi Taylor

by Kiri Kankhwende

“Whether we agreed with the SNP or not, what they gave us was something beyond five years, they gave us a vision that Scotland could be like Sweden: good education, healthcare, socialist policies.”

‘Leaders’ Debate

Depending on which poll you prefer, and every poll had a different result, the Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon won the seven-way leader’s debate on ITV earlier this month. The Scottish leader’s debates have proved more challenging and there was consternation in some quarters when she hinted at a second referendum on Scottish independence in the next UK parliament. It’s not surprising; the “No” camp won the last one – but it was close. We’ve quickly forgotten the dramatic intervention by Westminster politicians just before the vote to make a case for the Union as the Yes camp was in the ascendancy. it’s like the whole thing never happened. Tears were shed, politicians heaved a huge sigh of relief and the last-minute promises to give Scotland greater powers were quickly overshadowed by and tethered to the issue of English votes for English laws.

Compared to the General Election, the Scottish referendum was a straightforward yes or no question on a fundamental principle, but nevertheless, the voter engagement and turnout was startling. At a time of general political apathy, the turnout for the referendum was 84.6% — the highest recorded for an election or referendum in the United Kingdom since the introduction of universal suffrage. You don’t have to be a political anorak to think that’s remarkable.

Full disclosure: I am a political anorak. To discuss this further I called Sofi Taylor, veteran Scottish campaigner on migrant and worker rights, and lecturer in Race, Culture and Ethnicity in Clinical Practice and Human Rights at Caledonian University.

Sofi recently completed her MSc in Citizenship and Human Rights with a research focus on third country national voting patterns because, “the problem we have is (…) that the government perception of us [migrants] not voting means that they can deny us political rights.” Like young people? “Exactly. They say, ‘This bunch will never do anything so we don’t have to care for them.’ But the reason they don’t vote is the same reason a lot of people don’t vote: there is no vision.”

In the course of her research Sofi found that “people do engage and they understand politics, but no politicians are inspiring them.” When it came to the referendum, she said:

“Whether we agreed with the SNP or not, what they gave us was something beyond five years, they gave us a vision that Scotland could be like Sweden: good education, healthcare, socialist policies. They gave that vision and a lot of people bought it.”

“ If you examine the voting patterns…the poorest groups, for example on some of the largest estates around Glasgow, they voted yes. They needed that vision. A lot of people felt that the grass would be greener, the sky would be blue, and their children would be alright. That’s what motivated them to vote.”

“Everybody was talking about it. It was almost like the good guys versus the bad guys. The good guys are saying something wonderful. The bad guys are saying, ‘Stay where you are’. But people are seeing welfare reform, rising tuition fees and you’re telling us to stay put?”

So, what tipped the balance in terms of status quo? Sofi laughs: “I think Gordon Brown did a damn good job! It was also fear of the unknown. There was a fear about what would happen if we went independent and the present government wasn’t able to reassure that group.”

“A cross on the ballot box is only once every five years. To hold people responsible you continually vote.”

Record levels of political engagement are all good and well, but what’s next? Political engagement is about more than elections, Sofi stresses. “It’s about getting people interested in their environment, protesting and complaining and moaning about things – getting them to see that it’s actually worthwhile. It’s also about getting people to understand that a cross on the ballot box is only once every five years. To hold people responsible you continually vote. That’s politics. To get people to say, ‘I’ve got my rights’.”

“Always ask questions of the politicians when they come knocking. Stick questions by the door so that you’re always ready. Anyone asking for your vote, question them! Then post their answers online on Facebook, Twitter etc. Whatever you’re worried about, welfare reforms, anything. Ask them what their party is going to do for you. Even if you think you don’t want to vote, after the discussion, you may feel differently. My husband came to the door and someone went off about migrants. He turned round and said he would vote for a party that’s positive about migrants because his wife is one! That shut them up!”

I asked Sofi for her perspective on the General Election from her vantage point north of the border. She highlighted migrants, the young, the poor and the marginalised as groups who are being left behind: “I’m quite concerned about the present government carrying on. I think their dismissal of the very poor in the population is not very good for the country. Their alienation of the young people is not good for the country. We export people from this country. Britain is a migration nation, an outward migration nation. We keep going on about the people coming in [but] we send a lot of talent out.”

“ If you’re young and you think you have something to offer in Australia where the weather is better, would you not go? And who will pay pensions, keep up the NHS? Migrants. I’m a socialist person. I would have difficulty with present government policy. To be fair, I can’t tell people how to vote. But I would urge them to think of the consequences for themselves, their family, their children, and their community.”

Migrants: “We want to exploit them — we just don’t want to see them.”

Unsurprisingly, the immigration debate is just as salient in Scotland as elsewhere in the country. “We have a UKIP MEP. People are more biased than they think. The joke is, it’s bias until you get found out — then it’s unconscious bias. At the end of the day, they appeal to people’s fear. Most people who vote for them haven’t seen a migrant in their lives but they forget that the person who cleans them in the nursing home is a migrant, that the peas they have with their Sunday roast are picked by a migrant, and the person that sweeps the street is a migrant.”

“They want the benefits; they just don’t want to see them. It is a very colonial legacy. We want to exploit them — we just don’t want to see them.”

And then there’s the vexed question of integration, one that migrants know so well: “BBC Scotland asked me about integration,” Sofi said. “I told them that I’m integrated. The community around me doesn’t think I am. I would like to know where integration starts and finishes and assimilation starts and finishes, because it’s constantly moving. They expect us to integrate but they don’t question what they mean by integration.”

“The problem is that it’s happening to the second and third generation. That’s a big issue. I object to [suggestions of] denying citizenship and rights to the children of foreign born parents. When will you stop alienating us?”

Some portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.

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‘The Other Political Series’ curated by journalist Kiri Kankhwende is your go to alternative to the colourless mainstream commentary ahead of the General Election in May 2015. #OtherPolitics highlights issues and perspectives that are being overlooked in the election debate and presents different angles on some well-trodden issues.

Articles published in The Other Political series:

Lester Holloway: Political Parties Favour Asian Over Black Candidates
Dr Youssef El-Gingihy: THE NHS ELECTION
Kiri Kankhwende: Introduction: Small Politics
Omayma El Ella: The Suffocation of British Muslim Civil Society Space
Shane Thomas: You can’t move for all the ‘tolerance’ in Britain
Faisa Abdi and Hamdi Issa: Politicians Must Acknowledge the Link Between Negative Media Stereotyping of the Somali Community
Pragna Patel: The Elections 2015: Desperately Seeking Equality and Justice
Maya Goodfellow: Climate change is easier to ignore because right now it’s people of colour who suffer the most
Anouchka Burton: The pink bus is a start but parties need to show women they’re in for the long haul
Colin Joseph: BME communities should get on the bus & vote at this year’s Election
“It’s an exciting time to be a politician”: Interview with Reema Patel (Labour Councillor)
The Conservative Party is a broad church” Interview with Walaa Idris (Conservative campaigner)
“We can’t allow the scapegoating of migrants in the political arena to go on.”: Interview with Benali Hamdache (Green Party member)

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