Kirsty Blackman became the SNP MP for Aberdeen North in 2015. Our Head of Media and Senior Campaign Agent, Richard Wood, caught up with Kirsty to talk about life as an MP, and how social media is transforming the landscape of British Politics.
Tell us a bit about your political background.
I was twenty-one when I was elected to the council. I left school at eighteen with really good grades and I thought, right I’m going to be a doctor because I want to help people. I decided to do that, and I went to university and it was terrible and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t for me – it wasn’t a method of learning that suited me so I stepped out of university pretty quickly and thought: what am I going to do? I wasn’t really sure and was floating around for a bit and then the year after that – that was 2005 I left uni – the year after that in 2006 the leader of the council group in Aberdeen asked me if I wanted to stand for council so I thought, well I could do this for four years and then decide what I want to do with my life. So I thought: you get the opportunity of one false start at uni so I thought I could always go back and do another degree after this once I’d decided what I want to do. That was the general plan, but I’d been involved in the SNP, I’d been a member since I was fourteen or fifteen, for a long time. You start off in a political party delivering leaflets and then you become secretary of the branch and then you become the person that organises the delivery of the leaflets rather than the deliverer and then you end up running campaigns and it just gets out of hand pretty quickly because if you’re keen and you’re competent then you get handed more and more things. That’s kind of what happened and then in 2007 I was elected to council when I was twenty-one – and I would have been the youngest councillor in Scotland but my wee brother who was eighteen when we were elected. I think it was really good for Aberdeen because now we have got – in 2012 a whole load of young folk stood for council and nobody batted an eyelid and was like “oh they’re too young to stand”. We’d broken that, people were already aware that there could be really competent councillors despite being young.
What’s the most difficult part of being an MP and what’s your favourite?
The most difficult part’s the travel. Because I live in Aberdeen and I work Monday to Thursday in London so I’m going to be 500 miles away from my home, my family, my kids and my city – you know I love Aberdeen and I know some people don’t, but I really do. This is my home and this is the best place in the whole world and I’d rather be here than anywhere else. So I don’t like being so far away from home, but also the travelling is not fun. You know, by the time you get to the airport and then you fly and then you get into town in London that’s usually about five hours end to end – it’s knackering – so I don’t really like that, that’s difficult to deal with.
The best thing is the opportunities, the amount of different things I get to do. It’s a huge privilege. Obviously as an SNP MP I don’t agree with the Westminster institution – I don’t think we should be a part of it - but you know I still get to do absolutely amazing things. I get to meet all sorts of people, I get to have conversations with people that are experts in their field, and I’ve got a lot of access to people to ask them questions. I’m really keen on learning stuff so I’m constantly trying to learn new things, and I think for me, the opportunity to that – the House of Commons library is at my fingertips. It’s amazing that I’ve got that kind of access so probably the amount I’m able to learn and the amount of information I’m able to get is just phenomenal.
A lot of the media’s focus of MPs is on Westminster, and while that’s still important could you tell us a bit about what you get up to in your constituency office?
The most important thing for me when I went into politics was, you know, as I said left school to do medicine because I wanted to help people. Uni didn’t suit me because I felt like I’d have five years of standing still – five years of not helping anyone – and so going into being a councillor meant I could help people so when I’ve been employing staff, when I’ve been trying to set-up the office that we’re running, the most important thing is that people can access this office, that they can come through the door, they can Facebook, they can email so people contact me about any issue – literally any issue; you get people coming through the door for all sorts of things. There was a chap that came in one day and said: “How many stones is sixty-seven kilos?” We did a quick Google and we told him and said “thanks” and then he ran off. And that helped him, it was what he needed to get on with the rest of his day, you know, so whether it’s something like that, or whether it’s: Mrs Goggins comes through the door saying she can’t go out at night because her street light’s broken and she’s phoned the council, the council haven’t done anything and we managed to get that street light fixed. Now, that may sound like a small, insignificant thing to a huge number of people, but to Mrs Goggins, she can now go out and she couldn’t before.
It’s a hugely important thing so the casework that we do is really important, and some of it is, you know, that stuff seems relatively minor, but some of the immigration casework that we do, there was one guy that had to submit his details to the UKVI in order to try to get a visa, and he was eligible for a visa, he’d submitted all his things, but HMRC had screwed up his tax a few years ago and it totally wasn’t his fault – he was completely in the clear, he’d done everything right, but because HMRC had screwed up it looked like he’d missed a couple years of tax payments so UKVI were saying “no, you can’t have a visa because you’ve missed a couple of years of tax payments”. None of this was his fault so we managed to intercede and try and get things moving again. It’s not perfect, it’s not sorted, but we’re getting towards getting that sorted. Things like that we deal with on a really regular basis.
And the other thing, in addition to casework, is going out and speaking to people in the community so with the whole European Union referendum, although my constituency voted over 60% to remain, there are a lot of people who voted to leave. And actually a lot of people who voted to remain for different reasons so you know I don’t know what people were thinking when they went in and put their cross in that ballot box. Speaking to them, and asking them “what are the things you want to protect if we’re leaving the EU?”, “what things would you want to ditch?” And actually, the more I can understand about things like that, the better job I can do in Westminster as well, so that’s about kind of community engagement and understanding the community that I live in. I suppose it’s helpful because I live in Aberdeen, I’m from Aberdeen and that’s helpful so I’ve got a bit of background, but on things like that – and trying to do as much engagement as possible.
Scotland is very politically engaged right now, but what can we do to get people all across the UK, particularly young people, involved in the political process? How can we counter the bad image politics often seems to have?
One of the things that I try and do is that I’m a relatively young MP, I’m thirty. I think I’m one of the youngest – there’s only about fifteen or so that are as young as I am – is I feel like it’s really important for me to go talk to people and to say to them you don’t have to be old and boring and have gone to Eton to be an MP – it’s not necessary so I think it’s easier for people, for youngsters particularly, to see someone that they can at least vaguely identify with.
I think that’s helped so I do a lot of that, and not just with people who are from my constituency so I’ve spoken to groups of youngsters in Westminster as well because maybe their MP is not someone they can identify with so it’s useful for me to get involved there. But I also speak to school kids a lot about it and try and speak to them about…basically what you were saying about the misconceptions about what parliamentarians do…it’s not just standing in Westminster at Prime Ministers’ Questions shouting at each other. You know that’s really not what it’s about; it’s about helping people and that’s why I’ve got here and a lot of young folk are really enthusiastic about improving their communities, but they don’t understand that you can do that as an MP so it’s kind of about making those links.
And one of the other things that I try and do is talk to people about the different tiers of politics that there are in Scotland because we’ve got the local councils, the Scottish parliament and the Westminster parliament and the European parliament. Because of all those levels, it’s difficult for people to have a kind of understanding of the roles that each of them fulfils. And I mean we’ll take any case that comes through the door of this office, we won’t pass it on to the MSP or the councillor usually even though it’s maybe not our remit, but I think some people just think it’s too complicated, so they don’t want to get involved because they don’t understand the different relations in the decision making progress. I try and make sure to say to people, any question you have you can come through my door and I will do my best to answer it. As long as it’s not an ongoing legal case we can pretty much have a bash so I try and explain that as well, but it’s just about explaining things to people and being that kind of human face and being personable as well and chatting to them and answering their questions.
I notice you use social media quite a lot to inform constituents of issues and communicate with them. How important is social media as a tool for engaging people in the work you do and politics in general?
For me personally, social media is hugely important. I was first elected to council in 2007 and I had my first child in 2011 and my second one in 2013 so during that time when I had very small children and my husband was working, it was quite difficult to things like getting out on the doors or to do the active, outside campaigning that I’d previously done so I took quite a heavy role in the SNP in Aberdeen in our social media presence and not so much for punting out our messages and trying to get our messages sent out, but for engaging with people and saying to people there’s a canvassing session running here so during the independence referendum I was pretty much the key contact in Aberdeen for almost everybody that got involved so anybody that wanted to get involved in the campaign they were emailing me, they were messaging me, I was dealing with literally dealing with hundreds of text messages a day and so that really showed what we could do in terms of using social media... So suddenly you had a message from Yes HQ saying somebody important was coming to Aberdeen tomorrow at 12, could you get a crowd there, could you get some people there to come and see them. And yes, because I had the access to people on social media and I could message them all and say could you all please here at 12 tomorrow any of you that are free. So using that as a campaign tool was really interesting and novel, but nowadays as an MP what I’m trying to do is let my constituents know what I’m doing. I’m trying to do what I was saying earlier which is explaining what the MP does so I write often post on social media “these are the meetings I have over the next few days in Westminster, particularly because I think people understand PMQs, but I don’t think they understand the rest of the stuff that goes on at Westminster so I, you know, talk to them about that.
I do a lot of kind of ‘explainers’. I haven’t done one for a while, but last year we had the fiscal framework negotiations which were the negotiations between the UK and Scottish government about how much finance Scotland was going to get in the future basically with the new devolution of powers and I did a long kind of ‘explainer’ on why that was kind of important to Scotland, and a lot of people were like “oh right, this actually is really important”. Because I think they’d seen the words fiscal framework and that’s terrifying I’m not going to get engaged with that so I do a lot of that. And as you say I occasionally post on Facebook or Twitter and say I’ve got some time – ask me anything. And I find that when I engage with people on Twitter you sometimes get somebody on Twitter that says something nasty and sometimes when I speak to them, you’re actually quite decent so I had a long chat with somebody the other day who was starting off quite angry and eventually he was like “do you want to go for coffee?”… I don’t get people who get their jollies just making negative comments on Twitter. If you can sort of make them realise that social media is not as kind of anonymous and can actually affect people, what you’re saying on social media, it’s ridiculous to get your kicks from something like that. So I do engage with people quite a lot, especially if they’re saying stupid things like “oh the SNP did this” and you reply to them and say “when?” and they say sorry, and you’re like well actually getting involved in the debate. And fair enough accusing us of something that we’ve actually done, but not something that we haven’t.
So I use it a lot and I think that’s only gonna grow as we get you know more and more kind of parliamentarians coming through. I’m obviously generalising, but some of the older parliamentarians may never have used social media and they’re not going to start not – a lot of them – some of them do and have taken to it, but some of them are saying “no, I’m not getting involved in that”. Whereas we got the internet at home when I was six you know so the internet has been part of my entire life and it will continue to be. So I think it’s a really great way to engage with people, and it’s a really great way to engage with people who…no matter how much knocking on doors we do – I’ve got what 67,000 thousand constituents something like that – now no matter how much time, if I spend every waking hour going out and knocking on doors people would still be at work I would miss them, they wouldn’t get the chance to actually speak to me, whereas people can now access me more easily on social media and actually get a reply from their actual MP. Very occasionally, one of my staff posts on social media for me, but almost exclusively it’s me who does it so people know they are getting an MP replying to them which is quite cool.
What does Scottish independence mean to you and what do you think it could mean for your constituents?
For me, it’s about us making our own decisions so I think it’s about making decisions that are right for the people of Scotland and I think this really relates to as well what it means to my constituents. So if you think about what’s happening in terms of the oil and gas price, right there’s been a massive crash in the oil price. For Aberdeen, it’s been really pretty devastating. Aberdeen is so heavily reliant on oil and gas and Westminster just dragged their heels and they took ages to do anything about it and they didn’t kind of inspire any kind of level of confidence in the industry and if we had been independent then absolutely the collapse in the oil price would have damaged our country, it would have, however, our government would have moved much more quickly because it would have been much more important to us to do something about it. So we would have made that decision more quickly; there would have been less pain, therefore, felt in Aberdeen, so I think that’s a really kind of good, local example of what would happen. There’s all sorts of possibilities that I see in relation to Scottish independence, things like the fact that you know I’m pretty on the left and fairly progressive in terms of the policies that I support and I can see a huge number of positive economic policies that can ensure that people would be better off, but that wouldn’t necessarily definitely happen because people would still have the choice to choose whichever government they wanted, but what would definitely happen is that the decisions that we would make would be more appropriate for the people of Scotland than the decisions that Westminster makes. So for me, that’s the key thing, it would be decisions that would help the people of Scotland, rather than decisions that would help the population centres in the south-east of England, which is just going to happen when you’ve got such a big imbalance in terms of population.
How important is the EU to you?
Speaking really personally on this, I’m thirty. We have been in the EU for all of my life. We have had access to the freedoms that we get as part of the EU, we’ve been able to go to France on holiday without a visa. You know you can just drive there when I was a kid we use to drive and get a boat and then the channel tunnel came and we were able to use the channel tunnel and you could just do that. I knew that as a young person that I was able to go live and work in France or Germany or any of these countries. I knew that I was able to, if somebody had come over to live in Aberdeen from a European country and we’d fell in love and got married, there would have been no issue with them staying here because you know there was that freedom, so I think freedom of movement is really hugely important for me and I’m really devastated that with the loss of the EU that my children will not have those rights that I’ve had. But the other stuff’s about not so much the economic benefits, though the single market has been hugely important and I think the loss of that would be devastating, but in terms of the protections that we’ve got as a result of being part of the EU so a lot of people are negative about the working time directive, but actually working more than forty-eight hours a week is not very good for you and so I think those protections that we’ve been afforded as a result of that have been hugely positive for us. And so the EU is really important to me because I see the freedom’s that it gives us, rather than the red-tape that it brings us if you like so I can’t think about Brexit without being really quite pessimistic and sad and worried about the future, but we’ll do what we can to try to mitigate it.
Favourite thing to do in Aberdeen?
I like the Maritime Museum, it’s really cool in Aberdeen…but I also like just walking around and looking at the architecture. Most people on Union Street just find they’re too busy, but if you walk down Union Street and actually just look and the buildings they’re amazing – these phenomenal granite buildings – so I like looking at the buildings.
Favourite thing to do in London?
I quite like walking about in London and spending time outside. The parks are really nice as well so St. James’ park… I’m not sure you’re supposed to feed the pigeons but I occasionally do, so again walking about thinking about architecture and history. If we’re thinking of a museum or somewhere like that in London can I have two? The National Gallery’s amazing – if you go wear an audio headset and think about all the pictures and the Museum of London is fab.
I crochet. So I don’t find I’ve got a huge amount of time to crochet at the moment, but I do, I like making blankets, but I also like playing Civilization Revolutions. It’s quite addictive. It’s quite a good way to switch off at the end of the day before I go to bed.
Favourite TV show at the moment?
I don’t watch a huge amount of TV, but I really like the Detectorists…it’s quite a gentle comedy a lot of kind of wordplay and banter, which is quite nice. I’ve started watching the Good Wife, but I haven’t seen very much of it yet, it’s a bit kind of heavy for night-time viewing, but the Detectorists is really good.
Favourite place to go on holiday?
I love France. We used to go there as kids every kind of couple years and the fact you can go get baguettes and croissants and pate and cheese and stuff like that is really good, but last year we went to Cascais which is in Portugal, beside Lisbon, and it was absolutely gorgeous. It was the most beautiful place I think I’d ever been so I pick two again – sorry!
I used to play hockey so I spent about a decade playing club hockey I was a goalkeeper then after I had kids I didn’t really have time, but I love swimming and I really like running as well, I don’t do it very often but I should do it more.
The monarchy – keep or abolish?
I would abolish the monarchy. I don’t think that we should have hereditary rulers, I don’t think that it’s very democratic so yeah I’m not a fan.
Which current Conservative MP or MSP do you most admire and why?
Oh, that’s a really good question. I’ve had a few conversations with Richard Harrington who’s the pensions minister and although I don’t agree with everything that he’s done he’s been quite helpfully open with us when we’re talking about bills that are coming through and things like that. That’s been really useful so I quite like the approach that he’s taken. Obviously, I don’t necessarily agree with his policies, but his approach has been quite positive.
Where do you want to be in ten years?
I don’t know. Well in 2015 I had only just been chosen as the candidate, the year before that we hadn’t even had the independence referendum yet and there was no way I was ever standing for parliament because parliament was far too far away from where I lived. I spent the first year of this job getting more and more involved and having a good idea of what I was doing and then we had the Brexit referendum and we voted to leave the EU, so every time I think I have a vague plan it just goes out the window. I have no idea. In ten years’ time I’ll be forty, so my kids will be fifteen and thirteen so I’ll probably still be looking after children who require a lot of input so I don’t know where I’ll be.
What would you say to people thinking about getting involved in politics but aren’t quite sure?
I think the most important thing is – go and speak to someone who’s involved, somebody that you’re interested in, that you look up to, that is somebody who could tell you about what the job’s about because the best way to find out what being in politics is actually like is to speak to somebody and ask them all the questions you have.