General Election 2015: North Lanarkshire in Scotland - where the ghosts of Labour may finally be put to rest

The general election in this constituency, as it is across Scotland, isn’t just about the winning numbers at Westminster

There are ghosts of past troubles that haunt North Lanarkshire. Although the iconic blue-painted steel towers that once marked the capital of Scotland’s steel industry are long gone, what they stood for and what happened when “the ‘Craig” closed, is cemented in local anger.

Ravenscraig was built in 1954 and became a symbol of industrial optimism. It grew to become the largest hot steel strip mill in Europe. When it closed in 1992 there was only one person who got the blame.

In between occasional glances at TV screens showing horse racing from Tampa Bay in Florida, the two regulars propping up the bar in the Railway Inn in Motherwell town centre are prepared to offer insight into their town’s economic history. “She tore Scotland to bits, that Tory bastard did.”

The “she” is Margaret Thatcher, and though it was John Major in Downing Street when the ‘Craig finally closed, such detail is irrelevant. Thatcher’s ghost is as much a part of this place as the Eiffel Tower is in Paris.

Industrial exorcism is no easy exercise. Tens of thousand of jobs were lost when Ravenscraig’s mills and furnaces shut down. Coal mines, iron ore terminals on Scotland’s west coast, and hundreds of support industries suffered the same fate.

 

Almost 25 years on, in a place where steel for luxury BMWs was once crafted, there is a derelict brownfield site that is twice the size of Monaco. This year, finally, there is a resurrection plan: a new town with homes, schools, a new railway station, business and industrial space, a new leisure and retail centre. The word “new” is not a marketing gimmick, but a long-anticipated phoenix that has been waiting to rise.

Who gets to take the political applause when the new town structures rise from the ashes, will be determined on May 7. As this is the heart of Labour’s working-class heartlands, it not that long ago seemed  inconceivable that the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency, which has an unbroken record of returning Labour MPs from 1945, would not do so again. Even when the rest of Scotland turned to the SNP at the 2011 Holyrood election, Motherwell and Wishaw stayed loyal to Labour.

But if the polls are correct, Frank Roy’s 16,806 majority will not be enough to halt the surge of nationalism that has grown since last year’s independence referendum.

Marion Fellows, a pensioner and former teacher who has lived with her family in Wishaw and nearby Bellshill for 40 years,  was elected a councillor for the SNP just two years ago. After a controversial selection process, where two SNP councillors resigned from the party claiming there was a “dark veil of secrecy” around who won the Westminster nomination, Fellows emerged as the party’s choice to fight Roy. 

Though Fellows is inexperienced in national politics and was jokingly described by one of her council colleagues as “under the protective custody of SNP HQ in Edinburgh”, she is not fighting Roy on her own. The former Solidarity MSP and socialist firebrand, Tommy Sheridan, recently told his party’s supporters in Motherwell that they should “lend” the votes to Nicola Sturgeon in May. He said “for the first time the SNP could win a Westminster election and send a clear independence, anti-Trident, and anti-austerity message to the heart of the British establishment.” Sheridan said this general election required “a unique tactical response.”

The general election in this constituency, as it is across Scotland, isn’t just about the winning numbers at Westminster.

Roy, a former steelworker at Ravenscraig, has been at Westminster since 1997 and finds his future as an MP  largely dependent on a simple appeal. He told The Independent  “If we want a Labour government, then we need Labour MPs.”  He  doesn’t disguise the trouble Labour is in, and unlike Ed Miliband, accepts that “the referendum is still fresh here and Labour voters have yet to give us the permission to call them our supporters.”

The new town, according to Roy, is crucial. It could help bring money into the town. Tata Steel run the area’s remaining steel plants at Dalzell and the Cambuslang where there is local concern that the plants’ 400 jobs are at risk. Unemployment, once catastrophic in the wake of the declining big industries, now hovers around the national average at 5.1 percent.  And although Motherwell and Wishaw has survived and outgrown the demise of the ‘Craig, what’s left is not pretty.

The route to the town centre, past the tranquility of Strathclyde Country Park, is serially marked with the loud marketing of  large car dealerships and everything looks prosperous enough. But the town centre tells a different story. Pound-priced discount shops and pawnbrokers, cheque cashing and legal high-interest money lenders, are dotted along the streets. The out-of-town superstores may have killed off the life-support of the centre, but what’s left shows a community on the edge.

However near the campus of New College Lanarkshire, built on former steelworks land, there is ample evidence that Motherwell has done more than survive. New housing estates have sprung up over the last three or four years. New cars are parked in tidy driveways. John,  from Motherwell, whose wife is a teacher, said he moved back from London two years ago, bought his house for £200,000 and is now “home”. He said “I voted Yes at the referendum. I’ll be voting SNP at the election. I mean if Norway can do it, why can’t Scotland.”

Polls suggest it is the young, relatively affluent working-classes of places like Motherwell and Wishaw who will end Labour’s long stranglehold on who represents Scotland at Westminster. And here that may hurt more than it does elsewhere.

Keir Hardie was born in a small cottage in Newhouse, close to Motherwell in 1856. He went on to form the Scottish Labour Party some thirty years later. But even a campaign visit from his ghost may not be enough next month.

The Independent has got together with May2015.com to produce a poll of polls that produces the most up-to-date data in as close to real time as possible.

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