Glasgow North East: State of play

It’s been a bitter, grim by-election campaign in Glasgow North East. That’s hardly surprising, as Glasgow North East is a bitter, grim place.

By Alex Stevenson

Disillusionment with politics and politicians is high across Britain, but the people of this deprived constituency have special reasons for feeling left out.

The area has suffered from persistently high unemployment – which has only got worse since the recession began to bite.

The seat has the smallest proportion of owner-occupiers in Scotland and suffers from poor-quality housing in estates like inner-city Possil and the Robroyston conurbation.

The Red Road tower block is a by-word for deprivation, but the local drug and gang cultures prosper far beyond this infamous estate.

The pleasant private houses on the outskirts of the constituency are the exception that proves the rule.

By and large this remains a seat dominated by urban deprivation, where the percentage of workers in professional or managerial occupations is among the lowest in Scotland.

Perhaps that helps explain why the seat has been loyally Labour for 74 years.

Michael Martin was first elected to parliament here in 1979. From 1997 his position was even more secure because, as Speaker, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats did not oppose him by convention.

Even though the Scottish National party (SNP) put up a candidate against Martin in 2005 they were only able to attract 17.7 per cent of the vote. The Socialist Labour party polled 14.2 per cent.

By contrast the Speaker was elected with 53.3 per cent, giving him a clear majority of 10,000 in a constituency where turnout is always low.

If the SNP take Glasgow North East on Thursday, therefore, it would be a breakthrough of enormous proportions, signifying the biggest blow to the Labour party north of the border for decades.

SNP activists say their campaign is going well.

They admit that they face a monumental challenge and insist that by-elections are never easy.

They won narrowly in neighbouring Glasgow East. But they point out this is a much better-off constituency, with much larger prosperous suburban areas.

Labour, too, are feeling more upbeat.

There is a sense on the doorstep they are getting a better reaction than was the case in the Glasgow East campaign. Morale at campaign headquarters was boosted by a visit from Gordon Brown, who again broke the convention that prime ministers do not campaign in by-elections on Friday.

Can the SNP win on the arguments, even if they don’t win on the day? The two sides seem locked in a bitter battle over which government – Edinburgh’s or London’s – has done the most damage.

The nationalists point out unemployment has gone up in Glasgow North East in the last 12 years.

A big point of their campaign has been the alleged underfunding for Glasgow North East. The Barnett formula, which works out how much money Scotland should receive from the taxpayer’s national pocket, says Glasgow should receive £300 million. Labour is refusing to pay it.

And yet it is Labour which is running a strong campaign on the theme of the SNP government ‘ripping off’ Glasgow.

Despite having record amounts of money, the SNP government cancelled plans for a rail route linking Glasgow Airport with the city centre. This would have brought in 1,000 jobs.

SNP campaigners get very frustrated when this is pointed out to them. They say the money is better spent being directed to frontline services and point to frozen council tax and freezing out prescription charges.

They argue, too, that under the SNP Scottish government, the Labour-controlled Glasgow city council has received the highest grant per capita of any on mainland Scotland – and 30 per cent more than Edinburgh.

Another source of frustration for the nationalists is the delay in getting to this stage. There is real frustration that the by-election is happening now, so close to a general election, rather than earlier.

Michael Martin resigned as Speaker a full six months ago, but Labour dragged their bells before eventually laying the writ for the by-election. There are huge number of asylum seeker cases which can only be dealt with by a sitting MP. It doesn’t help boost the impression among many in the constituency that politicians don’t care about them.

Most potential voters, therefore, won’t have been paying attention as this rather dirty campaign draws to a close. SNP campaigners are enraged by Labour attempts to turn a factual inaccuracy in their candidate’s election literature into a full-blown scandal.

‘Birthgate’, as the Labour party refers to it, relates to the revelation that SNP candidate David Kerr claimed he was born inside the constituency – when he had previously stated he was “born and bred in Cumbernauld” in a leaflet boosting his prospects in a Falkirk campaign. In fact Mr Kerr was literally born south of the Clyde, but spent the first two years of his life living in Dennistoun in the constituency.

Labour has no such problems. Their candidate, Willie Bain, is touted as the only local candidate in the contest. It’s expected he will have shaken hands with 10,000 voters by the time polling stations shut on Thursday, helping his already-high name recognition.

“He is not a politician and has never stood for election before but he is fed up of the SNP government in Edinburgh ripping off Glasgow,” a Scottish Labour spokesperson told politics.co.uk. Unless there’s an enormous electoral earthquake – always a possibility at by-elections – it’ll be the local boy who’s sent to Westminster early on Friday morning.