Deborah Orr: He always did aim high, my childhood friend

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The amazing thing, really, is that after about 25 years, Colin Fox looks so very much like the boy he used to be. Or maybe that is not so amazing. Maybe what is really amazing is the vastness of the change in my own perspective in that time.

Possibly, since six weeks ago he became leader of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Colin won't thank me for saying this - although I've no personal evidence that he, like so many left-of-centre politicians, prefers to play up his suffering-proletariat credentials. But when we were children, and Colin lived next-door-but-one, the Foxes seemed like one of the most glamorous, sophisticated, and terribly upmarket families that could possibly exist.

Not only did Colin and Carol (his sister, who has stood a couple of times as a Labour candidate) have alliterative names like me and my brother David. Their dog, Candy, also had a name that began with C. For me, at 10, this was pure class.

Further, while the Foxes rented their house, like everyone else, and sent their kids to state comprehensive, like everyone else, theirs was a two-career family, with his father an insurance salesman and his mother a staff nurse - and rising - at the local hospital. Lots of the mothers worked back then, but few had their eyes so confidently focused on advancement and promotion. Perhaps it was this that lent them their exotic, aristocratic veneer.

Colin and Carol were older than us and we younger kids considered them more as deities than contemporaries. We never really played together, or had any more than desultory conversations. But childhood bonds are oddly enduring, however abstract they may be. Through all these years, my mother has kept me posted on the interesting doings of the Fox children. Finally, on Wednesday, I decided to have a look at what was going on with Colin for myself.

He's a busy man, because as well as being the new party leader (though they prefer to say "convener"), Colin is also list MSP for the Lothians. So, while he's campaigning all over the country for the general election, he remains a member of a separate parliament that, unlike Westminster, has not been dissolved during the election.

He's also his party's justice spokesman and culture, media and sports spokesman, and continues to be involved in grassroots organising. Throughout the election campaign he's been working 18-hour days, as he moves between local activism, parliamentary debate and frantic campaigning.

Why is this middle-aged father of two putting himself through such a gruelling schedule? It's not, emphatically, for political glory. The SSP is fielding a candidate in every Scottish seat, except East Kilbride (where the Armed Forces minister, Adam Ingram, is being challenged by Rose Gentle, the mother of Gordon Gentle, who died in Iraq).

Ask Colin, though, how many seats in Westminster his party expects to win, and he'll waste no time in answering: "None." All the party wants, he explains, is to maybe keep a few deposits and to ensure every Scot can choose to vote for an explicitly socialist party if they want. Judging by the way Keith Baldassara's canvassing is going, they'll be lucky even to accomplish that.

We are outside a shopping centre in the Pollok area of Glasgow on a rainy Wednesday morning. Mr Baldassara is standing as candidate for Glasgow South West (formerly Govan), and Colin is here to lend him support. However, Mr Baldassara shows little interest in taking up such a role. Somebody asked him what he'd do if he was MP for Govan at a hustings the previous night, he explains. His reply was he had no idea, because the standing MP for Govan, when asked if he could take up any issues involving social services, health, education, housing or transport, would have to explain they were devolved issues and the concern of the Scottish Parliament or local councils.

Clearly, this is a bit of a farce, since it begs the embarrassing question: What are Scottish backbenchers in Westminster actually doing? It's a good political point, well made. Mr Baldassara is not a poor canvasser because he lacks technique - not by any means. Rather, he is waylaid every couple of minutes by locals whose problems he's sorting out. A young man who suffered brain damage in an accident clearly adores him, while an elderly woman with spinal trouble thanks him for persuading the council to install a shower for her. A harried-looking mother berates him because her housing problem isn't fixed yet, and his mobile is ringing with similar stuff all the time.

Mr Baldassara's true political ambition is to help other SSP members to win seats on the city council with him, so that he can do work as a team with other SSP councillors, instead of having to shoulder such a social burden on his own. He is, and appears to want to remain, a local activist.

It makes a telling contrast, when the local SNP candidate swings by, remarking to Mr Baldassara that he hasn't done much "street work" himself this election, because in his opinion it's not worth the bother.

It was pretty much in direct response to that move away in mainstream politics from "street work" that the Scottish Socialist Party was founded six years ago. Its leader, Tommy Sheridan, had been expelled from the Labour Party because he was part of Militant. He, like many members of the party, including my old neighbour, had been heavily involved in the civil disobedience that greeted the introduction of the poll tax. But when, on live television, Mr Sheridan ripped up and threw away a legal document enforcing a warrant sale of the belongings of a non-payer, he was considered to have pushed protest too far.

A high-profile trial, and a six-month sentence at HMP Saughton, won much respect for Mr Sheridan. It also helped win his party its first council seat - in Pollok - and the first of the six seats that the SSP now holds in the Scottish Parliament. Mr Sheridan remains an MSP, but the party now has to move away from its close identification with him, or fade off the scene.

Mr Sheridan, although respected, was also considered a typical man of the left - dour, humourless and wedded as much to the jargon as the cause itself. He did not like humorous political stunts too much, fearing they trivialised the message. Mr Sheridan's style was much more to pledge that he and his fellow MSPs - Rosie Kane, Carolyn Leckie, Frances Curran, Rosemary Byrne, and Colin Fox - would donate half of their parliamentary salaries to the party, if elected. Likewise, councillors hand over half of their allowance.

Colin, while enthusiastic about working for maybe a quarter of the hourly pay he's campaigning for others not to have to accept, is very fond of humorous stunts. That can be seen clearly as he poses for the press in Glasgow city centre, dressed as Robin Hood, firing a child's plastic bow and arrow and handing out photocopied £20 notes.

He is endeavouring to give away a million photocopied pounds, while a man with a megaphone intones solemnly and repeatedly: "The Scottish Socialists are Robin Hoods, the others are robbin' swine". The press are all over him, begging for pictures, accosting young women and persuading them to pose as putative Maid Marians.

Colin understands that is a high-risk strategy, which invites personal ridicule. From the start, anyway, his natural optimism and good humour has led him into this territory.

After he was elected, he declared on Radio Scotland that he hadn't sold out by entering mainstream politics. "A three-day week? Ten weeks' holiday a year? A £48 grand salary? Man, That's socialism," he quipped. Fellow MSPs and the press went to town.

He maintains that a sneery press is better than no press. No one will turn out for a press conference announcing plans to redistribute wealth. But plenty will turn out to take a picture of a professional politician goofing about dressed as Robin Hood.

Colin cites Michael Moore and Mark Thomas as men who have altered the political discourse by using humour, and defends his love of pranks by maintaining that as long as it is closely allied to the wider point it is making, the occasional gag injects a populist element. Divested of his Robin Hood suit, Colin is on the train to Edinburgh, too wound up to eat a snack, talking nineteen to the dozen, and hopeful of catching part of that afternoon's financial services debate, before dashing home and having an hour with his wife, Zillah, a midwife and their two children, before attending a SSP rally.

We get there in time, but as the man with impeccable manners he was brought up to be, Colin does not go to his official berth. He escorts me to the public gallery, and sits with me to listen. "I hope no one notices I'm up here," he says. "They take every opportunity to slag us off."

For the first time, I detect in Colin the stench of that most unattractive aspect of left-wing politics, the tendency towards tedious and unfounded paranoia. So it's quite an eye-opener when the Labour man singing the praises of the Scottish financial services industry in the chamber, Scott Barry, representing Dumfermline, suddenly singles out the SSP for being typically absent. These six few, he spits, are not around to talk up the financial services industry (which has recently gifted us with lame endowment policies and useless pensions) since they only want to "criticise success and celebrate failure".

Later, as we move through the building, I notice that while people are affectionate towards Colin, they never miss an opportunity to slag off his socialist beliefs. At one point he's even accused of having stolen some parliamentary shortbread. "We are," he sighs, "considered to be the party that represents the Neds".

That strikes me as pretty shocking, since the Scotland of my childhood was considered a pretty radical place. Now in Scotland it has become acceptable to lump all of the socially excluded together as people who only have themselves to blame for their vulnerability and problems.

Perhaps it was the quality of empathy, not the aura of dynamism they exuded, that gave his family its special quality even all those years ago. In many ways the Foxes were an ordinary, typically aspirational family, bringing their children up to aim high, and sending them both off to get the first degrees in their family. But the members of this family, instead of preening themselves in the modern way because of their gifts and their talents, have stuck to believing others are less successful not because they are inferior but because they are less lucky. It's a shame such beliefs are belittled and derided by the mainstream, rather than treasured and respected.

Back in the chamber, another Labour member has got to his feet. Speaking in support of the Make Poverty History campaign, Des McNulty, representing Clydebank and Milngavie, makes a rousing speech about how the previous generation achieved greatness by ridding Britain of the "five great wants" (defined by Sir William Beveridge as the relief from ignorance, idleness, poverty, illness and squalor), while the next can achieve greatness by doing the same globally.

He is applauded. I can't help feeling his man, too, must be neglecting his "street work" if he really believes the five great wants have been eradicated from Clydebank and Milngavie, and that he is the man to make that transformation around the world.

That is why I take my hat off to my old neighbour. The people that his party is despised and ridiculed for representing are the people that the skilled, polished, service-based, clean, slick, free market is desperate to forget. They may not be the most heroic or admirable - although sometimes the circumstances under which they manage to live decently do indeed call for heroism. But in a democracy they deserve and need representation.

These are the people that capitalism has no use for. It makes its progress round the world and the results can be seen.

The economic system that all the major parties are committed to, does not benefit everyone. The SSP exists to bear witness to that and it is important that it should. Yet, there's a futility about the SSP's efforts in the election that is excusable only for the awful reason that it comes across as futile merely in a different way to the efforts of all the others straining to make their political points.

The difficult truth is somewhere down the line, issues of national security, defence and foreign affairs appear to have been reserved from accountability to the Westminster Parliament, the Government and even the Cabinet, and none of us even seem that much to mind.

The Scottish electoral battle

* The number of Scottish constituencies has been reduced from 72 to 59, because of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

* At the last election, Labour won 55, the Liberal Democrats 10, the Scottish Nationalist Party five and the Conservatives one. The other seat was held by the Commons Speaker, Michael Martin.

* Boundary changes make comparisons difficult, but Labour is regarded as "holding" 46 of the redrawn constituencies (29 are "safe"), the Liberal Democrats nine and the SNP four. The Conservatives start from a notional base of zero. Their only successful candidate in 2001, Peter Duncan, saw his Galloway and Upper Nithsdale seat disappear under the boundary changes. He will go head-to-head with Labour's Russell Brown in the newly created Dumfries and Galloway.

* A different picture of the Scottish political map emerges in its Parliament, partly elected by proportional representation. It comprises 50 Labour MSPs, 25 from the SNP, 18 Tories, 17 Lib Dems, seven Greens, six from the Scottish Socialist Party and five independents. The Parliament has power over public services such as education, health and prisons. It also governs home affairs such as police and legal policy, as well as economic development. It has the power to vary taxes.

* A poll by Scottish Opinion published yesterday put Labour on 40 per cent (down 4 points since 2001), the SNP on 21 per cent (up one point), the Liberal Democrats on 17 per cent (up one point) and the Conservatives on 16 per cent (unchanged).

* Scotland on Sunday reported yesterday that Labour could lose as many as nine seats north of the border following a "poorly-managed campaign". Labour's most vulnerable seats include Dundee East (496 over the SNP), Ochil & South Perthshire (821 over SNP), Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey (1,134 over the Libl Dems) and Dunbartonshire East (2,601 over the Lib Dems).

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