Class v nationalism in Glasgow East (24 July 2008)
If turnout is up today after years of decline, it may not necessarily be good news for Labour
Unlike most of my tribe, namely the London-based commentariat, I had been to Glasgow East before the by-election. I spent an afternoon in April 2007 leafleting in Shettleston, promoting the new voting system. People took the cards politely, but when we left the supermarket the pavement outside was littered with them despite Glasgow council’s generous provision of bins. It was a small illustration of how people feel politics of any sort can do little for them.
Some visiting journalists, with more than a measure of patronising contempt for the people of his constituency, have painted a picture of unrelieved degradation, to which I do not intend to add. There is a lot of variety within Glasgow East. The inner east end area and parts of Shettleston are indeed old fashioned slums, but most of the constituency consists of different vintages of council housing. Easterhouse, on the further outskirts of the city by the M8, was a notoriously unpleasant 1950s/60s council scheme. Much of it has now been levelled and rebuilt, mostly since 1997, with people re-housed in single family homes run by housing co-operatives, and a rebirth of some measure of community spirit. There are still, however, plenty of squalid, cheaply built tower blocks and concrete jungles in Glasgow East. Rather better are some 1940s council housing areas around Shettleston, and there is a small, relatively up-market, patch around Mount Vernon.
Turnout in 2005 in Glasgow East was 48 per cent, compared to 61 per cent nationally. Not only voting, but all other types of participation and organisation, seem to be weak in Glasgow East. Community councils and local civil society institutions are hard to organise in many areas, and the Catholic Church (traditionally linked to Labour, but now being wooed by the SNP) stands nearly alone as a strong local institution.
Once upon a time, however, turnout in Glasgow East was not too far from the national average. In 1951 it topped 80 per cent in both predecessor constituencies (Shettleston and Camlachie), and until 1966 it remained not far below the national average. In 1987 turnout in the area was a relatively healthy 70 per cent. Since then, and particularly since 1992, it has fallen even faster than turnout in the UK as a whole. It may come as a surprise to note that huge differences in turnout between different social classes are a relatively recent phenomenon in Britain.
Much of the explanation for Glasgow East’s low turnout is simply the enormous social dislocation caused by the collapse of manufacturing industry in the 1980s. Large factories and the trade unions were the glue that bound together these communities, particularly the men, even when residential areas were demolished wholesale and rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s. Now it is all gone. Thatcherism (or inevitable industrial change, you’re your pick) destroyed what failed social engineering did not.
The change has been (literally) heart-breaking for many. In what is supposed to be a post-industrial society, what are industrial people to do? It is not surprising that there is an undercurrent of despair about the place. Back when Labour could promise “a fundamental and irreversible shift of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families” there was more to appeal to voters in Glasgow East. Voting in places like Glasgow East now seems more like a choice of care worker than a real statement of political power. There is something basically wrong about a political system that compounds inequalities of power rather than levelling them.
The by-election is unusual, in that for once the political establishment in Scotland and Westminster think that Glasgow East matters. Although constituency polls show a sizeable Labour lead, there is a highly competitive battle between Labour and SNP fought out by two strong candidates, Margaret Curran and John Mason, both of whom are proven vote-getters in the area. It is for this reason that I do not expect turnout to fall too much (although one should allow for this being a holiday week in the city). At the moment, the betting seems to be favouring a Labour hold – nationally and more importantly in Ladbroke’s in Baillieston. Certainly, the traditional wisdom is that a high turnout benefits Labour because that is the core loyalty of most Glaswegians, and while there may not be much enthusiasm there is recognition that Labour has tried and in part succeeded in improving housing, education and opportunities.
The traditional wisdom is probably right. But there is another possibility. When east Glasgow voted en masse, it was because its working class people felt a collective sense of power, and had a distant vision of a better society. If voting comes back into fashion on Thursday, it might just be that people dare to dream again of a better society, and put their faith in nationalist rather than class politics.