For hard-up voters, it’s about local issues – if they vote at all
Published in The Guardian 21 July 2008
The computers were broken, but the glass in the monitors remained in one piece and the keyboards’ soft clicking left the children delighted as they stabbed at the letters with their fingers. Inside a bin shed on Glasgow’s Easterhouse estate, the seven children were making the best of the remorselessly grey day and the sparseness of playthings in this back court, turning it into their “office”.
Shouting for one to answer the imaginary phone and another to bring paper and cups of tea, they were oblivious to Margaret Curran, the Labour candidate for Glasgow East, walking past the detritus scattered across the patch of grass – long-dead fridges, the rusting drums of washing machines – for a photocall with an actor from television’s Glasgow police series, Taggart.
“One of the things that people are getting upset about is the way the East End is being stereotyped during this byelection. People know there are problems and there are issues, I wouldn’t deny that, but there’s been lots of new development,” the candidate told the TV copper. “A lot of the housing development has really changed and a lot of the schools, jobs are a lot better – I mean far from perfect – but people are a bit upset about that.”
Minutes before, Curran and the press had gathered outside Ladbrokes the bookmaker before setting off on a walk past some of the human manifestations of what is one of the poorest areas in the country. They skipped by the three junkies, sidestepped a cluster of afternoon drinkers smoking in the doorway of Grieves bar and climbed the slope to Arnisdale Street, where the last of the tenants hang on in buildings long ago marked for demolition, waiting for their new houses to go up on the green patch just across the way.
There are better things round the corner for this constituency, and it is this hope that may win the seat for Labour, and prevent the people here from delivering a blow from which the prime minister might struggle to recover. Parents like Jason Black have not lost faith. Black, 32, has lived in these flats for 10 years. He and his daughter – busy being the “office” manager – and his girlfriend and her children are due to relocate at the turn of the year.
“I think Labour has always done better for these parts of Glasgow,” he said. “They are rebuilding houses for us and demolishing these, which really is the only option for these types of flats. As soon as we get into our new flats, it will be a different standard of living altogether.”
Inside Ladbrokes, Frances the manager confirmed that Labour was the bookies’ favourite to win the byelection on Thursday. It was called suddenly because of the ill health of David Marshall, the Labour MP in the area for 29 years, who last won the seat with a 13,507 majority. “Labour are 4-9, SNP 13-8, Conservative 100-1, Liberal Democrats 100-1,” she said.
But the race is close enough, and the government unpopular enough, for the doubts to remain.
The enormous presence of the SNP in the constituency is testament to party members’ belief that it may just be theirs for the grabbing. The party has the biggest of the campaign headquarters, renting out three large portable building on the grounds of Sherwood garage, which sells performance cars.
Inside, SNP campaigners have gathered from all over the country, the sign-in book has home addresses in London as well as the Highlands, and a handwritten poster offers a room for those helping who don’t have a bed for the night in Glasgow. It was suggested that Labour’s decision to call the byelection in the middle of the Glasgow fair holiday, when many voters are away, was an attempt to catch the SNP on the hop. If the date was tactical, then it failed as the nationalist party has flooded the place, with hundreds knocking on doors and canvassing on the telephone.
The SNP candidate is John Mason, 51, a stolid local councillor for the Baillieston ward who speaks of his faith regularly – he is a Baptist. He backs a reduction in abortion limits and is “extremely unhappy about experiments with babies or research or anything like that”, with regard to the human fertilisation and embryology bill – something that may appeal to the 30% of the constituency that is Catholic.
He deflected this issue – which he said was an issue for people of all faiths, not just Catholics – when questioned and said: “A big plus is that the byelection focuses a lot of attention on the East End of Glasgow and that has got to be good. I admit that there have been a lot of improvements in the East End. But male life expectancy is under 70 and if you look at particular pockets it is not improving and we have had Labour MPs here for 50 years or so.”
He added: “I am somebody that listens, and somebody that speaks out for people and that’s what people want. They are realistic: they don’t want the streets to be paved with gold.”
Both candidates have had a direct role in the constituency for a number of years, Mason as councillor and Curran as a member of the Scottish parliament: she was Labour’s fifth choice for the Westminster seat, after four others shied away. Both concede that the place is still riddled with problems, particularly alcohol and drugs.
According to a profile of the East Glasgow area published by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health this year, life expectancy at birth for men is 68.1 years, five years lower than the Scottish average, while female life expectancy is 76 years. Excessive drinking is the biggest problem. Approximately 1,960 patients are admitted to hospital each year for
alcohol-related or attributable causes and there have been 420 deaths due to alcohol over the last five years. There were 800 new cancer cases and 1,400 heart disease patients admitted to hospital last year.
Just under a third of the population are classed as income-deprived. In the last year, 490 serious assaults were recorded, as well as more than 1,600 domestic abuse cases. The rate of low birth-weight babies is 62% above the Scottish average and teenage pregnancies are 42% above. Almost 16,000 people, out of a population of around 124,000, are estimated to be on prescription drugs for depression.
Gerald Spence, a campaigning doctor based at Shettleston health centre for more than 25 years, recently wrote: “Today, the quality of housing is much improved. Progress has also been made on the health front in terms of identifying heart disease and preventive treatment to reduce the risk of heart attack. The message about the ills of smoking is getting across … But alcohol is a terrible problem and drug abuse is absolutely ghastly.”
Glasgow East is no longer the centre of heavy industry that it had been for more than 100 years. Sir William Arrol’s Dalmarnock ironworks built many railway bridges, including the Forth bridge, while William Beardmore and J&T Boyd made steel forgings then armaments, employing tens of thousands. Now, there is 25% unemployment and the the Forge is no longer a byword for the largest steelworks in Europe, but is instead a shopping centre.
Pat Archer, 59, and long-term unemployed, knows that he can count himself in many of the constituency’s worrying statistics. The strains of John Denver’s Country Roads filtered out from the jukebox inside the Cottage Bar as he stood on Shettleston Road with his cigarette.
“Over the past few years my health has deteriorated. I have had a quadruple bypass. I came out of hospital three years ago, I was only out 20 days and I took a stroke, paralysed all down one side. I haven’t managed to work since then. It’s just the way of life here, I think. Most people my age group like their smoke, their drink and what have you.”
Archer said he would not reveal who he is voting for. But he said: “I won’t be voting for the Labour party because of the high price of fuel, the cost of energy going up. That’s all getting passed on to the consumer and the shops. She [his wife] came back from the shops and says ‘that’s £10 worth’ in one wee carrier bag … I still manage my couple of pints, mind you.
“I definitely won’t vote Labour and I won’t vote Tory. There’s just one major party left.”
The Cottage Bar is symbolic, though, of other concerns in the area. CCTV cameras were installed next to the pub because of antisocial behaviour including graffiti, vandalism, disorder and street drinking. They captured loan shark Joseph Gault, 59, passing over cash. He arrived outside the bar at 9am each day, taking his victims’ benefit books in exchange for money, for which he charged £3 a week for every £10 lent – equating to an interest rate of 1,560% a year. He was jailed this month for a year.
The media view is that this byelection is a battle between Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, and that should Labour lose Glasgow East, it could spell the end for Brown as prime minister. But on the ground, hardly anyone, apart from the politicians, mentions the prime minister’s name. The talk is of fuel and food prices, free travel passes and heating allowances for pensioners, health concerns and law and order. For most, the issues are minutely local, in spite of their vote having national significance.
Matthew McConnell said he would vote Labour, but the bottom line was that he would cast his cross for whoever has not threatened to take away his pigeon loft. He keeps his birds in a homemade corrugated iron loft on a patch of grass in Lilybank. Years ago, dozens of these cobbled-together towers stood across the area but now they are diminishing. As the area’s slum schemes are turned under the bulldozers and new developments take their place, there is no room for the 6 metre (20ft) coops that many criticise as eyesores.
“I am disabled. I am just through a heart bypass operation and this is something for me to pass the time with,” he said. “It gives me something to do a couple of days a week and keep an interest in things. They are totemic in the East End because it was a working man’s sport. As things deteriorated with work, with the foundries shutting down, the Clyde ironworks and the Forge and things like that, unemployed people took this up as a sport and a pastime.
“I am not a politically motivated person, as long as they don’t pull my pigeon loft down. They are building housing here and the pigeon lofts will have to be moved, so they will have to delegate an area for the pigeon fanciers to go, rather than demolish them. It is a dying sport. There might be 30 pigeons fanciers about here and very shortly I don’t think there will be many. I have always voted Labour if the truth be known, always, all my life.”
But, said McConnell, “the SNP might be a great thing for this country, I am not saying that I wouldn’t change over. I would consider the SNP next time if they could prove to people that their intentions were good and they were going to do good for the East End of Glasgow and other deprived areas.”
Fellow pigeon fliers were gathered around him, outside a storage container they use as a den. This is where they come to drink and smoke and talk about their birds. Unlike McConnell, most said they would not bother voting. One or two are not even on the voters’ roll, for fear the debt collectors will catch up with them.
It was a poor turnout that concerned the government’s chief whip, Geoff Hoon, when he turned up canvassing in Mount Vernon, the most affluent residential part of the area. “It’s nice around here, isn’t it?” he said.
Round the corner, at a coffee morning in the bowling club, he could have gauged just how poor the turnout might be. The women eating homemade cake did not know who they would vote for, or had decided not to bother.
One said: “They promise you the sun, the moon and everything until they get in and then nothing comes out of it and you are left high and dry. They tell you pensioners should put in for things, so you put in for things and they come and give you a means test and then turn round and say you don’t qualify for it. I really don’t know what I am going to do. I might not even bother voting.”
It is the minds of these women that Margaret Curran and John Mason will be desperately trying to change, promising the sun and the moon in the East End of Glasgow.
Audrey Gillan’s audio from the East End of Glasgow on the Guardian site