Connect with us


Sport and politics: Naomi Osaka and the value of stars speaking out



When Naomi Osaka walked on to court at the US Open in August, the world’s highest-paid female athlete was covered in names: Nike, Yonex, All Nippon Airways, and Nissin, the company that invented the instant noodle and which has supported her from the start of her stratospheric rise to the top of tennis.

So when Mayumi Taguchi, a fan watching an ocean away in Yokohama, saw the words “Breonna Taylor” emblazoned on Ms Osaka’s face mask, she assumed it was just another sponsor — perhaps an exotic foreign fashion label she’d never heard of. When she googled the words, the reality startled her. The name on Ms Osaka’s mask belonged to a black woman killed in her home by police in Louisville, Kentucky: one of the injustices that fuelled the Black Lives Matter movement.

In that instant, and with that deliberately unmissable statement, Ms Osaka propelled herself into a position that none before her have occupied — a superstar athlete capable, at the age of 23, of making a protest reverberate equally powerfully in both east and west. She set out to “spread awareness”, as she put it, of violence against black people on the biggest stage possible, but ended up, say sponsors, sports industry supremos and advertising agencies, doing a great deal more.

It was a pivotal moment, not only for tennis and for Ms Osaka’s international fan base, but for boardrooms and for a multibillion-dollar sports marketing industry which is facing unprecedented pressure to decide how far it should let politics entangle with commercial messaging.

LeBron James tweeted a photo of Miami Heat players wearing hoodies to protest the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin
LeBron James tweeted a photo of Miami Heat players wearing hoodies to protest the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin © LeBron James/Twitter
English Premier League player Marcus Rashford forced the UK government into a U-turn on free school meals
English Premier League player Marcus Rashford forced the UK government into a U-turn on free school meals © Glyn Kirk/Pool/AFP via Getty

“The balance of influence [for an athlete] has shifted quite dramatically, in every sport and every territory”, says Phil de Picciotto, founder and president of Octagon, a global talent agency.

“The value of an athlete brand is higher than ever. Now athletes are being very careful, as careful as companies are, in choosing [endorsement] partners.”

Athlete activism may not be a new phenomenon in the US, but in recent months there has been a fundamental change in the way that sponsors, leagues and many fans view political statements from stars.

Only four years ago, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who took the San Francisco 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl, was effectively drummed out of the National Football League for leading a series of protests against police violence, which involved kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before every match.

But amid the unrest this year over the police killings of George Floyd in May and Taylor in March and the growing prominence of the BLM movement, sports stars from LeBron James in the National Basketball Association to Marcus Rashford in football’s English Premier League have been much more outspoken in their political activism. And rather than paying a commercial price, in many cases sponsors are rewarding them.

Ms Osaka is such an important figure in this shifting culture because her fame reaches far beyond the US. In Japan, say two Tokyo-based sports agents, the media, sponsors, sports franchises and the country’s foremost advertising group, Dentsu, have tended to like their athletes bland and obedient. But Ms Osaka — the playfully blunt daughter of a Haitian father and a Japanese mother — is doubling down on her potential as an agent of change.

Even before her support for a cause that was, at the time, drawing millions on to American streets, Ms Osaka’s requirement to choose to retain Japanese citizenship when she turned 22 embodied the ambiguity with which Japan views her mixed heritage: a joy when she is winning, but a fundamental challenge to some people’s notions of “Japaneseness”.

“I love Osaka-chan and I loved her even more after she did this. It was brave and it was part of her character,” says Ms Taguchi, who started researching more on Taylor and the BLM protests. “I think that there were some stories about the Japanese sponsors being unhappy but everything is too conservative in Japan. We need more people like Osaka-chan to shake things up.”

Boxer Muhammad Ali becomes a conscientious objector in 1967, saying the real enemy of his people ‘is right here’ in the US and not in Vietnam
Boxer Muhammad Ali becomes a conscientious objector in 1967, saying the real enemy of his people ‘is right here’ in the US and not in Vietnam © AP
Medallists Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos extend gloved hands skyward during the US anthem at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City
Medallists Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos extend gloved hands skyward during the US anthem at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City © AP

Celebrity activism

Athlete activism has existed in the US for decades, ignited by the influence of Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxer, and sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1960s. All were punished for their activism and shunned by their sports. But a confluence of factors since then have amplified the power of athletes turning them from entertainment figures to some of the most prominent drivers of social conversation.

Those factors — including the shift from network television to cable and streaming, the increased distribution of sports broadcasts, a global growth of the middle class, and the opening of borders since the cold war — have “layered on top of one another” to create the current era of the powerful celebrity athlete, according to Mr de Picciotto.

In 2020, the police killings of Floyd, Taylor and other African-Americans led to massive social unrest around the US and throughout the world, giving new urgency to Black Lives Matter, a movement that promotes racial equality and denounces forces of systemic racism, including police brutality.

In the days following the Floyd killing, videos by NFL players demanding change and racial justice prompted an extraordinary apology by League commissioner Roger Goodell for not accommodating earlier protests by the likes of Mr Kaepernick.

The NFL, the NBA and other leagues began incorporating social justice slogans on fields of play and on uniforms this summer, at the request of players. A tipping point came in August with a mass walkout by players in professional basketball, baseball, football, and tennis — including Ms Osaka — in protest of the police shooting of another black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The scale of the BLM movement this year has “forced these challenging conversations to happen, especially in the corporate landscape”, says Blake Griffin, an NBA star who is endorsed by Nike’s Jordan brand, among other companies. This summer Michael Jordan, who was famously apolitical when he was one of the world’s most recognisable sports star in the 1990s, pledged $100m over the next decade together with the Jordan brand “to organisations dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice and greater access to education”.

The leagues, companies, sponsors and agents have recognised the need to incorporate the athletes’ messages in their advertising.

The National Basketball Association began incorporating social justice slogans in arenas this summer, at the request of players
The National Basketball Association began incorporating social justice slogans in arenas this summer, at the request of players © Ashley Landis/AP

Christa Carone, chief executive of the North America division at sports agency CSM, works with athletes, brands and leagues including the Women’s Tennis Association. After the August walkouts, Ms Carone says, “there wasn’t a single brand that said they wanted to step away” from sponsoring sports.

“This is a commercial environment, right, everything is a business, and no one was stepping away” she says.

Though athlete activism has existed for decades, until recently sports stars had to think critically about when and where they could engage on issues beyond the playing field.

“You still have people like [Fox News host] Laura Ingraham who tell LeBron to ‘shut up and dribble’”, says Mr Griffin. A decade into his playing career, Mr Griffin is now more comfortable advocating for social issues and rebutting critics who, he says, fundamentally misunderstand facets of the movement for racial justice.

“It’s almost like, if you say ‘Black Lives Matter Also’ at the end, people would be less freaked out in general,” he adds.

A Nike Ad featuring American football quarterback  Colin Kaepernick in New York City in 2018
Colin Kaepernick’s ‘taking a knee’ against police brutality effectively cost him his job as an NFL player but catapulted him to broader influence, thanks to a prominent Nike advertisement in 2018 which endorsed his activism © Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty

Ted Chervin, chairman of agency ICM Stellar Sports, says he found a way to “marry the moment to the client” this summer when Malcolm Jenkins signed a contributor contract with CNN to comment on national affairs, the first time an active NFL player has had such an agreement with a news broadcaster.

“When we originally signed him, he wanted an opportunity to extend his brand beyond sports,” Mr Chervin says. After the death of George Floyd and the subsequent upheaval within American football, “[we] thought, what about reaching out to CNN?”

Mr Chervin says the perception that athletes, particularly in the US, could speak out on social issues without eliminating professional opportunities for themselves has evolved over the past five years.

“The obvious circumstance to point to is Kaep,” he says, referring to Mr Kaepernick, whose protests effectively cost him his job as a player but catapulted him to broader influence, thanks to a prominent Nike advertisement in 2018 which endorsed his activism.

Eric Reid of the Carolina Panthers kneels during the national anthem before a game in Massachusetts last year © Kathryn Riley/Getty

Today, brands that use athletes or celebrities for product marketing are rethinking their approach to civic issues, from systemic racism to voter enfranchisement. US sportswear maker Under Armour launched its first initiative to help members of the public register to vote this year, according to chief executive Patrik Frisk.

“If you asked me earlier this year if we would do such a thing, I would have said, ‘are you crazy? Why would I do that?’ But things have changed,” says Mr Chervin. The rise in athlete activism has, in fact, made it easier for the company — which relies on affiliations with stars and teams to sell products — to identify good partnerships for endorsements.

“Today, it’s easier to understand what a person or institution stands for and that they would be aligned with our stand against discrimination in any form,” he adds.

When sport and politics collide


Muhammad Ali becomes a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war draft and is stripped of his boxing heavyweight title


1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos give a clenched fist salute after winning gold and bronze in the 200m at the Mexico City Olympics


Tennis player Billie Jean King campaigns for Title IX, a landmark US law which affords women equal access to sport and educational opportunities


Arthur Ashe, the US tennis player, is arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington during an anti-apartheid protest


Michael Jordan declines to make an endorsement in a Senate race in North Carolina, saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”


LeBron James tweeted a photo of the Miami Heat NBA team wearing hoodies to protest the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin.


Colin Kaepernick takes a knee to protest racial injustice during the national anthem ritual before NFL games

Jun 2020

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell apologises for not accommodating earlier player protests, amid unrest following the police killing of George Floyd

july 2020

The NBA season resumes, incorporating Black Lives Matter and social justice slogans on court and player jerseys. Other competitions follow suit

aug 2020

WNBA players begin a ‘Vote Warnock’ campaign for the Georgia Senate race, opposing Atlanta Dream part-owner and Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler who is critical of the Black Lives Matter movement

Milwaukee Bucks sit out their NBA Playoff game in protest at the police shooting of Jacob Blake, kicking off a labour strike that spreads through other sports including baseball, tennis, and hockey

Unease in Asia

When Ms Osaka first appeared in a BLM mask, the response in Japan was not so straightforward.

Senior executives from two of her Japanese sponsor companies, according to people familiar with the situation, held emergency internal meetings to discuss what the impact for their brands.

Even now, with the benefit of almost two months to craft the perfect response, the ultra-cautious public reactions of her Japanese sponsors — companies that have all revelled in the ‘Naomi effect’ on product sales — suggest an unease with the change in stance.

While the cosmetics giant Shiseido says “we support the active and beautiful way of life of all sports enthusiasts in many different ways”, Citizen Watch says the company “respects her courageous actions”. Yonex, which makes Ms Osaka’s rackets, believes her actions “reflect our fundamental values”, while Nissin says she embodies its “hungry to win” slogan. All say they received a broad range of responses on her mask-based campaign.

Naomi Osaka arrives for a match at the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament in New York in August  wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt
Naomi Osaka arrives for a match at the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament in New York in August wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt © Frank Franklin II/AP

However, sponsors in Japan are also aware of the series of events over the summer in the US that tipped the scales of power in favour of athletes.

It was this reality that caused Ms Osaka’s actions to resonate so powerfully in Tokyo. “They [Japanese companies and advertising agencies] look at the US and they see this shift in control and they wonder how long they can hold on to theirs,” says the chief executive of one Tokyo-based advertising agency.

The question, say marketing experts in Japan, is whether the new “Naomi effect” will be her ability to show that there are alternatives to the way things have always been done in Japan and to promote the awareness that not all deviation from the script is necessarily bad.

Weekly newsletter

Scoreboard is the Financial Times’ new must-read weekly briefing on the business of sport, where you’ll find the best analysis of financial issues affecting clubs, franchises, owners, investors and media groups across the global industry. Sign up here.

The Japanese advertising industry, says Hideki Ogino, chief executive of online advertising group FICC, has generally allowed companies to outsource most of the thinking about brand building and messaging. Because it suits the big agencies financially to use celebrities, they have pushed that on companies and then allowed the companies and the general public to build an expectation that those celebrities will speak only when required and be squeaky clean, he says.

“In the US, you hire for skills; in Japan you hire for image,” he says, adding that Ms Osaka’s great challenge to Japan’s status quo lies in the idea that image is ultimately something that the stars control, rather than the companies hiring their services.

WNBA player Sue Bird wears a ‘Vote Warnock’ T-shirt to support Raphael Warnock, who is running for Senate in Georgia against incumbent Kelly Loffler, who is critical of the Black Lives Matter movement
WNBA player Sue Bird wears a ‘Vote Warnock’ T-shirt to support Raphael Warnock, who is running for Senate in Georgia against incumbent Kelly Loffler, who is critical of the Black Lives Matter movement © Julio Aguilar/Getty

Star system

Saeko Ishita, an expert on Japanese advertising at Osaka City University, says the habit-bound, celebrity-dependent advertising industry is simultaneously rigid in its conventions but also potentially vulnerable to change.

About 80 per cent of television advertising in Japan, she says, deploys a celebrity of some type — the highest ratio in the world followed by South Korea and China. As Japanese advertising budgets have shrunk and strategies changed, the focus on big foreign stars has diminished. That has placed even more emphasis on domestic celebrities — the singers and actors beholden to Japan’s powerful talent agencies provide the main feedstock, but sports stars are an increasing staple.

Naomi Osaka’s statement on Instagram

The practice has been kept alive by a compact in which the advertisers and sponsors demand rigorously innocuous behaviour from their pet celebrity, and have generally received that. Ms Osaka, whose sponsors have not abandoned her whatever their private views on her protests, has shown that it is possible to take a stand and survive.

“Speaking honestly, I would have to say that there has been more support and goodwill for her activism in the US market,” says Stuart Duguid, senior vice-president at IMG Tennis and agent for Ms Osaka. While the individuals who work at her Japanese brand partners are often supportive of her activism, “the Japanese companies, speaking corporately, are reluctant to support any message. They are steadfastly neutral.”

The corporate traditions ranged against any change may prove formidably hard to shift, Mr Duguid adds. “[But], if anyone can change that tradition, it would be Naomi Osaka.”

Source link

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Covid paralyses Asia as western economies prepare for blast-off




Throughout 2020, Asia’s success in controlling Covid-19 made it the champion of the world economy. While Europe and the US were mired in deep recessions, much of Asia escaped with a shallower downturn or even kept growing.

But as western economies gear up for a vaccine-induced rebound which is set to take their output back to its pre-pandemic scale by the end of this year, parts of Asia are still paralysed by coronavirus. As a result, although the region’s output is already above its pre-pandemic level, slower growth is expected in the coming months.

As it launched its new regional outlook last week, the Asian Development Bank said that the region’s economies were diverging and that more Covid-19 waves were a big risk.

“New outbreaks continue, in part due to new variants, and many Asian economies face challenges in procuring and administering vaccines,” said Yasuyuki Sawada, the ADB’s chief economist.

The ADB projected growth of 5.6 per cent across developing Asian economies in 2021, led by growth of 8.1 per cent in China and 11 per cent in India. But the continued threat of coronavirus means risks to that outlook are skewed to the downside.

“Six months ago, or eight months ago, I would have said Asia is going to be ahead of the game because Asia can control Covid,” said Steve Cochrane, chief Apac economist at Moody’s Analytics in Singapore.

But the picture has changed, with India suffering a severe wave of the virus, and cases still high in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Thailand is unable to reopen its crucial tourist industry.

More subtly, countries such as Japan are only controlling the virus with restrictions that keep parts of the economy in hibernation. “Some countries need vaccines to control Covid,” said Cochrane. “Others need it so they can open up to international travel and tourism.”

The promise of more than 6 per cent growth in the US this year, as a result of President Joe Biden’s fiscal stimulus, would normally have Asian exporters licking their lips.

Line chart of GDP rebased (2019 = 100) showing Asian economies were less affected by the early stages of the pandemic

The outlook, however, is more subdued than record US growth would usually imply: Americans already bought plenty of goods during the pandemic, while higher US interest rates would mean tighter financial conditions in Asia.

“Adding stimulus at this stage, from the goods perspective, is a real test of whether wants are insatiable,” said Freya Beamish, chief Asia economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. As the economy opens up, US consumers will probably pay for the services they were denied during lockdown — such as meals out and haircuts — rather than replacing their television again.

There will still be some spillover from the US stimulus, said Beamish, noting that service providers needed equipment, too. “We suspect that people will find new goods to buy and that Asia will benefit from that.” But she added: “We suspect that China will benefit proportionately less from the services recovery than from the manufacturing recovery.”

Whether the extra US demand for goods turns out to be large or small, it is clearly positive. By contrast, higher US interest rates and a stronger dollar would threaten many emerging Asian economies with a repeat of the 2013 “taper tantrum”.

Increased financial integration and foreign currency borrowing mean that the pain of rising US interest rates is quickly felt on the other side of the Pacific.

“A stronger dollar is no longer an unalloyed blessing for Asia,” said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asia economics at HSBC in Hong Kong. “It helps exports but tightens financial conditions.”

However, inflation is subdued across most of emerging Asia, and the ADB said the risk of a US-induced shock to financial conditions “remains manageable at present”. It said economies such as Sri Lanka and Laos would be vulnerable if such a shock occurred.

Coronavirus business update

How is coronavirus taking its toll on markets, business, and our everyday lives and workplaces? Stay briefed with our coronavirus newsletter.

Sign up here

Some Asian economies are well-placed for the next few years, especially Taiwan and South Korea, which are exposed to the semiconductor cycle. “Judging from semiconductor shortages, it doesn’t look like the electronics cycle will break down in the next two or three quarters. That tides them over this rough patch,” said Neumann.

But other Asian economies will find themselves in the less familiar position of relying on domestic demand to grow. One of the biggest question marks is China itself, where first quarter numbers suggest the economy has lost a little momentum.

“Chinese domestic demand still has a way to go,” said Cochrane. “Our forecast right now is for 8 per cent growth in China in 2021, but it depends a lot on policymakers and how quickly they pull back on stimulus and introduce frictions in areas like construction.”

Source link

Continue Reading


Has Venezuela’s economy bottomed out?




After one of the biggest economic meltdowns in Latin American history, there are signs that Venezuela may finally be turning a corner.

According to some economists, the socialist government’s decisions to loosen currency controls, relax import restrictions and encourage informal dollarisation have breathed a modicum of life into an economy that has shrunk by about 75 per cent since 2013.

The change of government in the White House has also raised hopes that a solution might be found to the country’s long-running political stalemate, which might lead to an easing of US sanctions and in turn fuel a further rebound.

Credit Suisse recently predicted the Venezuelan economy would expand by 4 per cent this year, which would be its first year of growth since 2013. The bank acknowledged this was in part due to the resumption of economic activity after last year’s hit from the coronavirus pandemic, but this was “not the whole story”.

“The revival in domestic demand, which we have long been noting, is becoming more apparent in the data,” Alberto Rojas, the bank’s chief economist for Venezuela, wrote in a note to clients.

“The easing of controls and widespread use of foreign currencies in everyday transactions has rekindled economic activity — even if just slightly.”

Rojas forecasts further growth of 3 per cent in 2022. “In our view, the growth this year is not just a dead cat bounce,” he wrote.

In Caracas, people were sceptical that this amounted to any sort of meaningful recovery. According to the IMF, per capita gross domestic product in Venezuela has dropped a staggering 87 per cent over the past decade, from $12,200 a year in 2011 to $1,540 now. For the first time, the average Venezuelan is poorer than the average Haitian.

“When you’ve fallen so low, eventually you’re bound to see some sort of correction,” said Adán Celis, president of Venezuela’s manufacturers’ association Conindustria. “The government has introduced some anarchic measures of economic flexibility and that’s provided us with a little bit of oxygen but the structural problems remain.”

But a handful of other banks and consultancies also expect output to increase. Two Venezuelan consultancies, AGPV and Dinámica Venezuela, predict growth this year of 1.9 per cent and 2.3 per cent respectively.

UK-based Oxford Economics forecasts growth of 0.2 per cent this year followed by a jump of 13.1 per cent next year, although it stresses this recovery needs to be seen in context.

“This follows two years in a row [2019 and 2020] when GDP fell by a third or more,” said Marcos Casarin, OE’s chief Latin American economist. “Given the magnitude of the collapse seen since 2014, Venezuela could grow at double-digit rates for several years in a row and still not recover its pre-crisis GDP level.”

Column chart of GDP change (%) showing Venezuela's economy has been shrinking for years

For every economist predicting growth, there are plenty who say Venezuela will suffer more pain before things finally improve.

FocusEconomics, a provider of economic consensus forecasts, recently polled 21 banks and consultancies for their views on Venezuela. The consensus was for a fall in GDP of 3.1 per cent this year followed by a rebound of 2.7 per cent next year. The IMF predicts a contraction of 10 per cent this year and 5 per cent next.

The huge differences between forecasts reflect uncertainty over the consequences of the pandemic, the impact and timing of the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines and the future of the sanctions regime.

“The evolution of US sanctions under the Biden administration remains the key determinant of the outlook,” wrote Stephen Vogado, economist at FocusEconomics.

The sanctions prohibit Venezuela from selling oil to the US and make it difficult for it to export elsewhere, although the government has found ways to get round the measures. Venezuela’s oil exports have risen slightly in each of the past five months, hitting a 10-month high in March — although they are still feeble compared with historical highs.

While oil has been the mainstay of the Venezuelan economy for the past century, the country also used to produce cacao, coffee and rice in significant quantities. It boasted a textile industry and produced chemicals, cement, steel and aluminium. Most of those industries have been decimated in the past two decades of revolutionary socialist rule.

At an outlet selling car accessories in a petrol station in the Las Mercedes neighbourhood of Caracas, store manager Alfredo Barrera said informal dollarisation had brought some degree of price stability after years of hyperinflation.

“The economy has adapted to the country’s problems,” he said. “Right now, it’s fair to talk about relative stability in terms of the currency but we’re a long way from seeing real improvement.”

At La Alicantina, a bakery that has been in business for more than 30 years, manager Douglas Palencia said sales had been hit hard by the pandemic. The shop’s windows, usually full of cakes and pastries, were empty. “I don’t have great expectations for this year,” he said.

Source link

Continue Reading


Sturgeon taps Scottish resentment over Johnson and Brexit




Kenny Paton, the postman in Dumbarton, has been criss-crossing the west coast town near Glasgow, delivering flyers for all the parties contesting Scotland’s parliamentary elections this Thursday. But he is only listening to one.

For all the shortcomings of the Scottish National party’s 14 years in power, the recent turmoil surrounding its handling of sexual harassment claims against former leader Alex Salmond and the destructive nature of its cherished goal of breaking the 314 year union, the party is on course for victory once again.

That is in large part because the SNP, with first minister Nicola Sturgeon at its helm, has been speaking to the heart, tapping into the deep resentment many Scottish people feel at being ruled from Westminster by Conservatives whose leader Boris Johnson and policies, notably Brexit, they did not vote for.

Dumbarton, Scotland map

For some Scots, the economic arguments against independence — and these have only grown with the sharp deterioration in Scotland’s fiscal position since Brexit and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — are no longer cutting through. 

“You can get into all the intricacies about the border and the currency but at the end of the day who do you want to run the country Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon?” said Paton, who once supported Labour, but is now rooting for the SNP.

Nicola Sturgeon campaigns in Dumbarton © Jeff J Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images

If opinion polls in the run-up to Thursday’s vote are correct, the party is sure to remain the largest in the devolved Holyrood parliament and will possibly gain the slender majority it wants to continue pressing Westminster, for its second chance in seven years of winning independence in a referendum.

There is also the probability that with the Scottish Green party, and Salmond’s newly launched Alba party, the SNP will form part of a bigger block in favour of Scotland going its own way.

Chart tracking voting intention polls for the constituency vote in the Scottish Parliament election

But to get across the line to an SNP majority, Sturgeon may need to win marginals such as Dumbarton, where Jackie Baillie, the deputy leader of Scottish Labour and a popular constituency MSP is defending a majority of just 109, the most vulnerable in Scotland.

As well as her appeal to Scottish identity, Sturgeon has a number of other things in her favour. One is Labour’s weakness, and the perception that it could be long before the party Scotland once voted for en masse returns to power.

“I have been an advocate for Scottish independence since the Conservatives won a majority in Westminster. They do not reflect our views — Scotland is a progressive place,” said Ross Crawford, a 28-year-old IT consultant. “It will be a while before Labour can collect themselves — that’s what makes it so discouraging. It means yet more Conservative rule,” he said.

Labour’s Jackie Baillie in Dumbarton © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

Most of all Sturgeon has Brexit and the indifference shown by first Theresa May, the former prime minister, and then Johnson to the majority in Scotland who voted to remain in the EU and who wanted to retain close relations.

“In 2019, the polls began consistently showing higher levels of support for the SNP. The rise occurs entirely among Remain voters,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. “Whatever the preferences of Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove [Cabinet Office minister], the brutal reality is that their pursuit of Brexit has undermined support for the union,” he said. 

Julie Reece: ‘We felt safe with her [Nicola Sturgeon] during Covid’ © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

For most of last year backing for independence in Scotland polled at 50 per cent or higher when undecided voters are excluded. But while it has slipped back since then, support for Sturgeon in Dumbarton remains high. This has much to do with her more assured performance during the pandemic, which has helped the SNP avoid an awkward reckoning for its less than stellar longer term record in areas such as education and health. 

“We felt safe with her during Covid,” said Julie Reece, a bus company manager and former Labour supporter now backing the SNP.

Like many people strawpolled in the constituency, Reece was unfazed by Sturgeon’s alleged mishandling of sexual harassment claims against her former ally. “They have tried to make her a scapegoat for Alex Salmond’s affairs,” she said, adding, with a nod to how the first minister has brought women like her behind the SNP cause: “She has engaged women better — it switches you on that bit more,” she said.

But the stakes are high and the tightness of the contest is also galvanising Scots who support the union and are passionately against the rupture it would cause. This has led to unlikely alliances in Dumbarton, with some staunch supporters of the Conservative party even promising to vote tactically for Labour — a rare occurrence in UK politics.

Chart tracking voting intention polls for the regional vote in the Scottish Parliament election

“Anything that keeps the SNP out,” said Carl Vickers, who works at the Faslane naval base further up the Clyde estuary, where thousands of jobs could be lost if Scotland breaks away. The SNP opposes the use of Faslane to store the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

Vickers described himself as a Conservative by nature but said he would be voting for Baillie on the day.

“It’s all about stopping them [the SNP] getting another referendum,” said Trish Collins, a headhunter and Tory who was also planning to vote for the Labour candidate in the constituency vote, which the Conservatives have little chance of winning.

In Scotland, members of the parliament in Edinburgh are elected using a hybrid voting system: constituency representatives elected using the first past the post voting system while additional representatives are elected according to the proportion of votes a party secures in a region comprising several constituencies.

On the banks of the river Leven, Baillie herself remained defiant. “My seat on paper should go to the SNP but I am a seasoned campaigner so I am not stopping until polls are closed,” she said.

A pro-Scottish independence rally in Glasgow last Saturday © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

“Our number one priority should be recovery and then we can argue about the constitution,” she added, warning that when Westminster pulls the plug on the job protection scheme, there could be a surge in unemployment.

“Brexit has been a mess,” said Baillie. “Leaving the UK could be 10 times worse.” 

That need to focus on recovering from the pandemic — the core of Labour’s campaign — does appear to have resonance, even among some SNP supporters. But for those already convinced about the risks involved in breaking up the UK union, the feelings were even more emphatic.

“We’d just got over one independence vote then Brexit was thrown at us. Now the SNP have got a good chance of coming out with a majority — the whole of Scottish politics is a joke,” said Bryan Burn, a wholesaler for fishing tackle.

He was speaking an hour south by car from Dumbarton in the relatively prosperous town of Ayr, where Conservative MSP and former farmer John Scott is defending another slender majority. A life-long Labour supporter, Burn was visibly distressed at the way things are headed. “If I were younger I would be looking to move elsewhere,” he said.

But Sturgeon is picking up votes in Ayr too.

“I like what she stands for. She’s great at what she does,” said Chris Hughes, a self-employed software engineer, who hoped an independent Scotland could rejoin Europe, and who along with his wife was voting SNP.

Scott, the Conservative incumbent who is defending a majority of just 700 votes, acknowledged that the odds were even. “It will be very, very close,” he said. “The independence issue has become an issue of the heart. Many people don’t take into account the grim realities it might hold for Scotland.”

Source link

Continue Reading