Struggle for survival in Labour heartland
Saturday 12 July 2008
A deprived and neglected part of Glasgow, where a man who lives to be 55 can consider himself lucky, has suddenly found the outside world is very interested in what its people think, because it is the scene of a by-election which, some think, could deliver the final, fatal blow to Gordon Brown's premiership.
Glasgow East is a tough area, where 30 per cent of the working-age population is on unemployment or incapacity benefit, nearly 40 per cent of children grow up in homes where there is no adult in paid employment, and three fifths of the people have no access to a car. The social services have 12,000 local children and adults on their books.
Nearly 40 per cent of adults smoke, and on average there are 25 drug-related deaths a year. In part of the constituency, male life expectancy is just 54, lower than Gaza, or North Korea. The life expectancy of women is 10 years higher, probably because women keep themselves busy and optimistic by juggling household budgets and battling to keep their children off drugs.
Philip Kennedy, who is in his early 30s, has spent his life in Easterhouse, a huge 1950s estate in east Glasgow, but will not be voting on 24 July, because "all politicians are lying bastards". He said: "You are getting bairns taking drugs just to get away from this place, just to get their minds away from Easterhouse for a few hours. There's nothing here.
"There's a big pitch back over there where they used to have gang fights. Then they put a big fence around it to keep out the gangs and the drug takers; they did away with that. The school uses it once a day as a football pitch. But it doesn't stop the gang fights. They're putting the gang fighting on to the streets."
For decades, this part of Glasgow has held an almost tribal loyalty to the Labour Party. In 2005, the elderly, barely active sitting MP, David Marshall, was returned with a majority of 13,507. The by-election, on 24 July, was called after his doctors advised him to retire because of a depressive illness. This time, Labour will be lucky to hang on by its fingertips. Walking around this, the third-safest Labour seat in Scotland, it was almost impossible to find anyone who expected Labour to win. Some had no opinion; those who had were unanimous in forecasting victory for the Scottish National Party.
"There's just too much bad press about Labour," Douglas Elder, a young marketing consultant, said. "They don't have that exciting new touch any more. They've lost that 1997 thrill, and I suppose the SNP will get in because they're the new face."
Alan Bennie, who is young, unemployed but obviously interested in politics, said: "That Gordon Brown is a bit of a bum. I still think of Tony Blair as prime minister. That's how bland that man is." His friend Thomas White said: "I'm going to vote for the SNP, because they're for Scotland. I put Scottish down on forms when they ask for my nationality."
This is tough on Labour's candidate, Margaret Curran, a fast-talking, energetic, confident character who is refusing to be downcast by the blunders and mishaps that have blighted her chances. These included a selection conference deferred after the man expected to be the Labour candidate, a local councillor, decided he did not want his life exposed to the scrutiny of a by-election.
There is also the the long-running story surrounding the resignation of Wendy Alexander, the former leader of the Labour Party in Scotland. Another twist was added to that tale last week when it appeared she had not told the whole truth about an undeclared donation.
Mrs Curran launched her own campaign by dropping a loud clanger: she claimed to have lived all her life in the constituency; it had slipped her mind that she moved house six years ago. "It was a slip of the tongue," she said. "I am a human being. I should have said I have lived or worked in and been associated with the East End all my life."
She has also been under fire from the SNP over the accusation that she plans to hold two jobs, in an area where so many people have none. She is a prominent member of the Scottish Parliament and is unlikely to resign, because if she did, she would plunge Labour into yet another unwanted by-election. Her aides say that she will draw only one salary and will run one office from which she will fight for Glasgow's East End at Holyrood and at Westminster, if she wins.
But since the SNP gained control of the Scottish Parliament a year ago, its leader Alex Salmond has basked in a long political honeymoon. It seems Mr Salmond can do nothing wrong, and Labour can do nothing right. The SNP candidate is John Mason, a chartered accountant who has been a Glasgow city councillor for 10 years. A diffident man, he would be in his element in a council committee, but lost in the House of Commons.
Another resident, Janice Young, was not impressed that David Cameron chose east Glasgow to tell people it might be their fault they are on welfare. She is the voluntary treasurer of the Easterhouse credit union which provides cheap loans to people whose income is too low to interest banks. "The reporters and cameras seem to look for the worst of society," she said. "They go where the worst houses are. They don't look for the people who are volunteers, the good people, they look for the drug addicts. It's the minority who are bad here." She will vote SNP.
Glasgow East: 2005 result
David Marshall (Labour)
18,775 (60.7 per cent)
Lachie McNeill (SNP)
5,268 (17 per cent)
David Jackson (Lib Dem)
3,665 (11.8 per cent)
Carl Thomson (Conservative)
2,135 (6.9 per cent)
George Savage (Scottish Socialist)
1,096 (3.5 per cent)
Turnout 30,939 (48.2 per cent)
Labour majority 13,507 43.7 per cent
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