Scotland’s Revenge

Scotland’s Revenge

INVERNESS, Scotland — Last September, Scotland held a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. The campaign was lively, colorful and, it seemed, decisive: Scots voted by a 10-point margin to stay a part of Britain. But just seven months later, another nationalist earthquake looks set to hit Scotland, shaking the foundations of British politics and even the union itself.

On a pedestrian street in the heart of Inverness, the largest city in the Scottish Highlands, a small shop shows the extent to which the independence movement is still alive in many hearts and minds — and, soon, ballot boxes. The “Yes shop,” as it’s known, is still selling badges, key rings, and even dog neckerchiefs bearing the blue-and-white “Yes” to independence logo. Basque and Catalan flags (fellow long-sufferers) hang in solidarity with the St. Andrew’s Cross on the wall. The foldout tables that run along one side of the store are stacked with posters and election leaflets for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP). On a recent weekday at lunchtime, the store was packed with volunteers and activists.

“People sometimes come in with their children,” said Norman Will, the force behind the shop. “In cold weather people bring in soup and stovies [a Scottish dish made with meat and potatoes]. We have collections for the local food bank and political discussions.”

The SNP may have lost last September’s referendum but it’s emerged energized as Britain gears up for a big, national election. Indeed, the party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is just about the only popular politician in the country. Despite holding power in the devolved Scottish Parliament for eight years, the nationalists have profited from a disenchantment with established parties that persists across Europe. And now the SNP is poised to translate that frustration into political power.

The U.K. general election is scheduled for May 7. The SNP is poised to become kingmakers. In the last general election, five years ago, the nationalists won just one-fifth of the Scottish vote and only six of Scotland’s 59 seats. Now, opinion polls give the SNP almost half the Scottish vote and put the party on course to win up to 50 seats.

Such an unprecedented result would have ramifications far beyond the corridors of Westminster. The SNP surge would virtually wipe out Scottish Labour, which has won every Westminster election in Scotland since 1955. The rise of Scottish nationalism greatly increases the likelihood of a hung Parliament, too, but even more significantly it has put the question of Scottish independence — and the future of the union — front and center once more.

Since the referendum, SNP membership has quadrupled to over 100,000, making the nationalists Britain’s third-largest party, despite the fact that Scotland has only around one-twelfth of the U.K.’s total population. Among the SNP’s new supporters is Ciarn MacFhionnlaigh. The 32-year-old supermarket worker has become a regular visitor to the Inverness “Yes” shop. The referendum “was amazing,” he told me. On May 7 he will vote for the SNP, in part because he wants another referendum on independence, but he also believes that the party is best placed to “stand up” for Scotland at Westminster.

Inverness, a small, picturesque city popular with tourists setting out to explore the Highlands isn’t historically a stronghold for Scottish nationalists. The Highlands voted against independence in September, and the SNP received less than one-fifth of the votes cast here in 2010. But polls put SNP candidate Drew Hendry well ahead of the incumbent, Danny Alexander of the Liberal Democrats. Alexander, who has been the second highest-ranking official at the Treasury for the past five years, is one of the most recognizable faces in Scottish politics. His profile, however, might not save his seat.

Such unlikely electoral challenges are being repeated across Scotland. The Labour Party, in opposition in London for the last five years, have long dominated Scottish politics. Labour currently holds 40 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster. But the nationalist tsunami now threatens every Labour constituency in Scotland, potentially robbing Labour leader Ed Miliband of seats he would need to form a majority government after May 7.

The town of Paisley, seven miles southwest of Glasgow, is illustrative of the scale of the challenge facing Labour. A once prosperous industrial town whose Victorian grandeur has faded since the textile mills started closing in the 1960s, Paisley has been rock solid Labour territory for decades. The party has won every general election contest here since the end of World War II, often without much of a fight.

Paisley’s MP is Douglas Alexander, a well-respected former Scottish secretary under Tony Blair and the current shadow foreign secretary. Last time out, Alexander won just short of 60 percent of the vote. Now he is trailing Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old politics student with no political experience.

“I think this constituency is quite representative of what is happening across Scotland right now,” Black told me. “What we witnessed during the referendum was a political awakening across the country. It was always going to be the case that the general election was going to be different.”

Labour’s popularity in Scotland has plummeted after joining forces with the politically toxic Conservatives to campaign against the independence referendum. Around 180,000 Labour supporters voted “yes” last September and many of them are now expected to switch their allegiances to the SNP in the general election. Labour is now on the defensive: The party has withdrawn resources from some seats in order to concentrate on Glasgow and the West of Scotland. “I’m set to Defcon fucked,” a sitting Labour MP from Scotland recently said.
While Labour comfortably won every Westminster election, the party’s standing in the Scottish Parliament has fallen steadily over the last 15 years. In 1999, Labour secured 53 of 73 seats. The party won just 11 seats in 2011. At the same time, the SNP’s share in the Scottish Parliament continued to rise. Now Scottish voters seem set to repeat their devolved preferences in a Westminster election for the first time, which could produce a nationalist landslide under the U.K.’s first-past-the-post system.

Labour has failed to appreciate that most Scots actually like the SNP, said Gerry Hassan, a research fellow at the University of the West of Scotland and author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland. “Ever since the modern SNP was created, around 1974, opinion polls have shown that Scottish people have a positive view of the SNP. They think the SNP stand up for Scotland’s interests. The Labour Party doesn’t understand that.”

Under Sturgeon, who took over as the party’s leader last November, the SNP has tacked leftwards, directly appealing to disgruntled Labour voters who increasingly see little difference between the party of their grandfathers and the Conservatives. At a recent event in Edinburgh launching the SNP manifesto, Sturgeon promised to “end austerity,” by increasing government spending by 0.5 percent a year. The SNP’s manifesto backs a 50 percent top tax rate, an extra tax on homes worth over £2 million, new levies on bankers’ bonuses, an increase in the minimum wage, and formal recognition of Palestinian statehood.

The SNP has ruled out joining a formal coalition with Labour as long as Miliband’s party continues to support the Trident nuclear submarine program, which is housed near Glasgow. But Sturgeon has called for a looser “progressive alliance” with Labour to keep the Conservatives out of office. Meanwhile, Labour, wary of losing English voters, has insisted that there will be “no deal” with the SNP. Such obdurateness might play well in London but it is doing Labour no favors in the Scottish heartlands. Critics have accused both Labour and, particularly, Conservatives of alienating Scottish voters by demonizing the SNP.

The post-election arithmetic in Britain looks increasingly complicated. Every poll suggests there will be no clear winner, which makes a Labour deal with the SNP more likely. The Conservatives — sensing an opportunity to make gains from Labour in up-for-grabs English constituencies where Scottish nationalism is looked upon with disdain — have decried any deal with the SNP. Home Secretary Theresa May even said an arrangement with the nationalists would spark the worst constitutional crisis since the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936.

Even if the SNP was invited into a coalition with Labour, the Scottish party might have good reason not to join. The SNP’s primary focus remains on Scotland, in particular the 2016 elections for the Scottish Parliament. The party is unlikely to want ministerial seats in London, which would make the task of differentiating themselves from Labour more difficult next year. At the same time, the SNP are wary of facilitating the formation of another Conservative-led government by failing to support Labour. “The SNP can’t sign a blank check to Labour, but they can’t be seen to bring a Labour government down so they have to play a very careful hand,” said Hassan.

The SNP’s record-high poll ratings have fueled speculation that Sturgeon would like to hold a second vote on independence. In order for that to happen, the party would need another majority in Edinburgh next year. But that’s still a long way off. The SNP will not go to the polls again until they know they can win, said Paul Cairney, professor of politics at the University of Stirling.

“The SNP won’t win enough votes [in the general election] if they look like the independence party and nothing more,” said Cairney. “And they have dealt with that problem well. Long-term referendum chances hinge on them remaining a credible party of government in Scotland and, for now, a positive force in the U.K.”

Nonetheless, pro-independence sentiment remains energized ahead of the election. In the “Yes” shop in Inverness, Emma Roddick, a 17-year-old student, said she has “lost count” of the number of hours she has spent making pro-independence badges and pins. She is too young to vote but has no doubts about Scotland’s political destiny.

“The union is always going to lose its purpose,” she told me. “The only argument is not are we going to be independent but when are we going to be independent..” For its supporters, a resounding SNP showing on May 7 will be another important milestone on the road to the break-up of Britain.

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

How Labour Lost Ground to the Scottish National Party

“Which way will you be voting in May?” I ask a table laden with lunchtime half pints and nips in the members’ bar at Loanhead Miners Welfare and Social Club in Midlothian, half a dozen miles or so from Edinburgh. “We’re all Labour,” says one man with a broad smile.

“Are we fuck!” roars his drinking companion across the table. The sound of televised horse racing fills the room, breaking the momentary silence.

“This has been a Labour seat for years. That’s the way it will stay,” says Henry. His shoulders are noticeably hunched from almost three decades down the pits.

Across the table, Bill, a Scottish National Party supporter, shakes his head. “No way, no way.”

Midlothian has been rock solid Labour territory for decades. Thirty years ago, Loanhead Miners club was at the coalface of the ultimately futile battle against Margaret Thatcher to keep Scotland’s mining industry alive. Today, it is quieter, more sedate. There is a flawlessly manicured bowling lawn. Posters advertise Thai Chi and country music. In the main function hall the weekly bingo session has just finished.

This unremarkable room has an important place in the modern political history of Scotland. It was here, on September 8 of last year, that Gordon Brown made a promise for greater devolution if Scots rejected independence. What became “the Vow” was credited by many with swinging the referendum in the union’s favor.

But just seven months later, Midlothian is an SNP target seat. Local Labour MP David Hamilton, who spent months on remand 1980s miners’ strike, is standing down. Polls suggest it is a straight two-way tussle between Labour and the Scottish Nationalists next month.

Such unlikely electoral clashes are being repeated across Scotland as tens of thousands of one-time Labour supporters flock to the SNP. Labour has long been the dominant force in Scottish politics. The nationalists currently have just six MPs. Labour has 40.

Labour’s popularity has plummeted after joining forces with the Conservatives—a toxic brand in Scotland—to campaign against independence. This earned them the moniker “Red Tories.” Recent polls suggest the SNP could win 50 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. Today, a poll suggested they could win 57 seats, leaving Labour with just one MP.

Scottish Labour, increasingly cash-strapped, have withdrawn resources from some seats they hold to concentrate on Glasgow and the West of Scotland. A sitting Scottish Labour MP recently described the state of the party as “now set to defcon fucked.”

Among the former Labour voters now swinging behind the SNP is Keith Aitchison. As a young man growing up in Glasgow, Aitchison was a staunch Labour supporter. At general election time he even campaigned for the party. Now retired and living in the Highland city of Inverness, Aitchison will be voting Scottish Nationalist on May 7.

“I came to the conclusion that within the Westminster political system you can’t change things because everything is pointed towards the need for votes in the south of England,” says Aitchison in Inverness’s “Yes” shop—a city center store created before last September’s independence referendum.

Despite that defeat, the shop is still open, selling badges and key rings, and even SNP dog neckerchiefs and high-vis jackets. “The only party around that has a proper attitude towards creating social justice seems to be the SNP,” he says.

Alex Mosson spent 23 years as a Labour councillor in Glasgow but no longer backs the party he joined as a Clyde shipyard worker in 1978.

“A lot of people have lost faith in the Labour party,” says Mosson, a former Lord Provost of Glasgow who supported independence. “In the months leading up to the referendum there was a mood among people. There was a feeling that something could be done. That will not change now.”

Even Labour supporters who voted no in September seem uncertain about the party. “I always voted Labour but not now,” says Anne, who returned to Glasgow six years ago after several decades in Canada. She likes SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon but “cringes” when she watches Ed Miliband on television.

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, appointed late last year, has been unable to stem the bleeding. Polls suggest that Sturgeon is far more popular with voters than the former Blairite Scotland secretary.

The SNP has aimed its election pitch squarely at Labour supporters. Nicola Sturgeon has promised an end to austerity and a greater rise in the minimum wage than Labour. At the SNP manifesto launch in Edinburgh last Monday, the Scottish First Minister Sturgeon pledged that nationalist MPs would “lock out” the Conservatives from government and “help Labour be bolder.” That message chimes with many Scottish voters.

“The SNP is a soft-left, social-democratic party on the mainstream European model and they have a constitutionally radical position. The combination of these two things is an attractive proposition,” says the New Statesman’s Jamie Maxwell.

“Labour in Scotland has one election slogan and one election platform: ‘Vote SNP, Get Tories.’ I think they’ve miscalculated this.”

Labour’s sudden decline in Scotland looks stark. The party won 42 percent of the vote here in the last general election, in 2010. The SNP finished third on barely a fifth.

But Labour’s supremacy in the devolved Scottish parliament has been on the wane for over the last decade and a half. In 1999, Labour secured 53 of the 73 Scottish Parliament constituency seats. In 2011, the party won just 11, with only “top up” list seats saving it from annihilation.

Meanwhile, many of Labour’s Scottish “big beasts,” including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, are leaving the Westminster political scene. Their departures have further weakened the party’s appeal to its one-time supporters as it looks like a sad tribute act.

The weakening of Labour in Scotland might not be all bad news for the party, says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. Labour has long been over reliant on its Scottish contingent, he says. “Some Labour people think that if the party was more English it would help it.”

Jim Sillars, a former Labour MP who left the party in the mid 1970s and eventually joined the SNP, says that defeat for Labour in Scotland next month could hasten independence. “If we can remove Labour from central Scotland this will be transformational and could lead to independence in a much shorter time frame than people realize.”

That’s something Labour will be keen to avoid, but the more immediate problem for Scottish Labour isn’t the death of the union, so much as staying alive as a political force.

This piece originally appeared on Vice.

Scotland’s Labour party dominance and UK vote tumult

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Scotland’s Labour party leader Jim Murphy [Reuters]

Glasgow, Scotland – There is an old adage that in Glasgow, Labour votes are weighed not counted, such is the party’s historical dominance of Scotland’s largest city.

Labour has controlled Glasgow city council for all but five of the last 63 years. All seven Glasgow MPs were elected with a red rosette pinned to their lapel.

But there are signs that Labour’s supremacy in Glasgow – and Scotland – could be coming to an end, with huge repercussions for the whole of the United Kingdom.

In the 2010 general elections, Labour won 42 percent of the vote in Scotland, and up to 68 percent in some Glasgow constituencies.

But recent polls put the Scottish National Party (SNP) on course to win a crushing victory in May’s UK vote, ending Labour’s monopoly on power north of the border and jeopardising Labour leader Ed Miliband’s prospects of becoming prime minister.

Glasgow Central is the kind of seat Labour once held almost without trying. A diverse constituency taking in the luxury flats of the Merchant City and the tower blocks of the Gorbals, Glasgow Central has been united by one factor – Labour.

Crumbling support

In the last general election, Labour’s Anas Sarwar won more than half the vote.

People in Glasgow have voted Labour for generations and finally they are starting to wake up to the fact that the Labour Party are not the party they thought they were.

Alison Thewliss, SNP candidate

In Glasgow Central, the SNP polled barely one-third of the Labour vote in 2010. A recent poll, however, puts the nationalists 10 points ahead in the seat.

“People in Glasgow have voted Labour for generations, and finally they are starting to wake up to the fact that the Labour Party are not the party they thought they were,” said the SNP candidate, local councillor Alison Thewliss.

The most obvious reason for this dramatic turnaround is September’s independence referendum.

Although Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom, every constituency in Glasgow voted to leave.

Labour was at the forefront of the pro-union “Better Together” campaign, but some 190,000 Labour supporters backed independence.

Most are now expected to vote Scottish nationalist, turning a raft of once-red Labour heartlands to SNP canary yellow.

“People say Labour ganged up with the Tories during the referendum. That has really sickened them,” said Thewliss.

Defeat for Labour in seats such as Glasgow Central would make the task of winning control in Westminster much more difficult.

But on a cold weekday afternoon, there is little enthusiasm for the traditional party.

“I’m voting SNP. Labour seems to have the same policies as the Tories,” said a middle-aged Asian man, who requested anonymity, in Govanhill, home to one of Scotland’s largest immigrant communities and once a bedrock of Labour support.

Even those who voted “no” to independence are uncertain about Labour.

“I always voted Labour – but not now,” said Anne, who returned home to Glasgow six years ago after several decades in Canada. She said she likes SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, but “cringes” when she watches Ed Miliband on television.

Interests of Scotland

Across Scotland, Labour faces similar problems.

The SNP enjoy leads of up to 20 points in the polls. Recently elected Scottish leader Jim Murphy has not brought the electoral bounce many expected.

Ed Miliband has refused to rule out a deal with the SNP after the general election, much to the chagrin of many of Labour’s 40 Scottish MPs who face being washed away in a nationalist tsunami on May 7.

Writer Gerry Hassan said the stark decline of Labour in Scotland has deeper roots than just their alliance with the Conservatives in last year’s referendum campaign.

In an upmarket café on the edge of Pollokshields East, one of Anas Sarwar’s strongest areas in the constituency, the author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland explained: “This is a long-term thing. Getting into bed with the Tories has hurt Labour, but it’s not the biggest thing.

“They haven’t answered the question of what Scottish Labour is for, beyond its own self-preservation.”

Labour has failed to appreciate that most Scots actually like the SNP, said Hassan.

“Ever since the modern SNP was created, around 1974, opinion polls have shown that Scottish people have a positive view of the SNP.

“They think the SNP stand up for Scotland’s interests. The Labour party doesn’t understand that.”

Glasgow and Labour have long been synonymous in the Scottish political psyche, but Hassan said the party’s grip on the city has often been more imaginary than real.

“I don’t think there ever was a golden age for Scottish Labour. The Labour vote has died and moved,” said Hassan, citing the halving of Glasgow’s population since World War II, and dwindling election turnouts.

Labour’s Anas Sarwar succeeded his father Mohammad, Britain’s first Muslim MP, in 2005. The 32-year-old dentistry graduate said he is “confident, not complacent” of holding his seat in two month’s time.

Sarwar’s pitch is an unambiguous one – vote Labour to keep the Conservatives out. The Tories, who draw most of their support in the south of England, are unpopular in Scotland, and practically toxic in Glasgow.

Just one of Glasgow’s 79 councillors is Conservative.

“I know a Tory government is bad for Glasgow. I know what Glasgow needs is a Labour government, not a Tory one, and I want to make sure by accident that we don’t end up a Tory government,” said Sarwar.

But Cass MacGregor, Scottish Greens candidate in Glasgow Central, said voters are “fed up” being told to back Labour to keep the Tories out.

“People have to vote for what they believe in. Trying to vote based on the people you don’t want to win is what has got us into this mess in the first place,” said MacGregor.

The Greens are unlikely to win but could attract plenty of support, particularly from students in a constituency that includes a large student body.

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Nationalist supporters demonstrate outside a Scottish Labour party conference [Getty Images]

Alex Mosson is testament to how much politics in Glasgow has changed. The former Lord Provost spent 23 years as a Labour councillor in the city, but no longer backs the party he joined as a Clyde shipyard worker in 1978.

“A lot of people have lost faith in the Labour party,” said Mosson, who left the Labour party and voted for independence last year.

“They want someone who speaks for their views. There has been a sea-change in people’s thinking.

“In the months leading up to the referendum, there was a mood among people. There was a feeling that something could be done. That will not change now.”

Whether this shift will be enough to deliver a sweeping SNP victory in May remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain – the days when scales were needed to tally Labour votes in Glasgow are coming to an end.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

UK elections and the shift from ‘tribal’ politics

feafea349263405dad36c9ac9efa79df_18The historic multi-party debates in the UK have rekindled political diversity [Reuters]

Glasgow, UK – Some seven million viewers across Britain tuned into the first, and only, televised multi-party debate ahead of May’s general election. What they saw on April 2 was a stark illustration of how much UK politics has changed in recent years.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron fielded questions from the live studio audience, and parried blows from opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband.

But the real winners were the five smaller parties also on the stage.

Polls declared Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon the victor of the night, followed by the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) Nigel Farage.

British politics has long been a two-horse race. But the field for May’s general election is increasingly open, potentially spelling a permanent end to centuries of single-party majority rule at Westminster.

In 1951, 97 percent of the UK electorate voted Labour or Conservative. At the last general election, in 2010, that figure was just two in three, leading to a historic coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

This time around, the prospects of one party winning overall control look even slimmer.

We have about a quarter of the electorate saying they are going to vote for someone other than Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. That is just off the end of the historical pattern.

John Curtice, Strathclyde University professor

Labour and Conservatives are tied at 34 percent each, according to aBBC poll of polls.

The Labour party would need a lead of around five points to win a majority, said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University.

Due to the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, the Tories, who draw most of their support in the richer south, would require a seven-point margin of victory to emerge with the 326 seats needed to command a majority in the House of Commons.

The reality, said Curtice, is there is unlikely to be a clear winner on May 7. “We have never seen an election like this.”

“We have about a quarter of the electorate saying they are going to vote for someone other than Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. That is just off the end of the historical pattern. You can go all the way back to 1832 and you won’t beat it,” Curtice said.

Horse-trading and deal-brokering

A hung parliament would necessitate something on which British politics has traditionally not been strong: horse-trading and deal-brokering.

The coalition government has long been the norm on the continent, but in the UK it is still a relative novelty. A predicted collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote – and theFixed Term Parliaments Act introduced in 2011 to make dissolving Westminster almost impossible – could make the business of forming a new government even more tricky.

This all means that the party that emerges in the strongest position may have to reach an arrangement – either a formal coalition or a looser deal – with one or more of the UK’s insurgent parties.

The most likely kingmaker is the SNP, which is campaigning on an anti-austerity message. Despite defeat in last September’s independence referendum, the nationalists have seen their support surge.

Membership has quadrupled to more than 100,000. Polls suggest that the SNP may win dozens of seats from Labour, making it far more difficult for Miliband to secure a majority.

Last year’s independence referendum fundamentally changed Scottish politics, said political commentator Gerry Hassan.

“Something has profoundly changed about how the Scottish public see and do politics and their role in the union. Passivity, acceptance and belief in traditional elites – Labour included – now seem a thing of the past.”

UK parties have struggled to understand the SNP surge.

Last weekend a leaked memo purportedly revealing that nationalist leader Sturgeon had told a French diplomat that she would prefer another Tory administration, appeared in the right-wing Daily Telegraph.

But the smear appears to have backfired, with both sides flatly denying the claims. Questions have been raised about how the civil service document was released. An inquiry will now be held.

 


While the SNP will take votes from Labour in Scotland, the Conservatives in particular face a threat from the UKIP. The party, which campaigns on a hard-right platform based on clamping down on immigration and leaving the European Union, is particularly popular with socially conservative, white working class voters.

Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in a bid to stem the UKIP tide. UKIP’s best chances of success rest with its colourful leader Farage in South Thanet.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Greens believe this could be their breakthrough year. Having polled barely one percent in the 2010 general elections, the left-wing environmentalists are hoping to add to their solitary seat in Brighton Pavilion. 

However, the winner takes all nature of the British electoral system means both UKIP and the Greens are struggling to win more than a handful of seats.

All the same

Darren Hughes of the Electoral Reform Society, says that the “lottery” nature of the May’s election shows that the time has come to replace first-past-the-post with a more proportional voting system.

Regardless of the prospects of electoral reform, the duopoly in British politics could be coming to an end as voters leave Labour and Conservatives for small, identity-based parties.

Across the UK, traditional class structures, and the political affiliations that went with them, are breaking down, says Professor Curtice.

“Fewer people now feel a strong sense of identification with a political party. There are fewer people who say ‘I am Labour, I am Tory or whatever.’ We are less tribal about our politics.”

At the same time, voters see little to choose between Miliband and Cameron, or between their respective parties.

“The Conservatives and Labour in recent elections have tended to look more similar to each other in the eyes of the electorate,” says Curtice.

Whoever wins in May, the likelihood is that when the UK general election next swings around in 2020 television producers will need to invest in larger studios. The panel of party leaders could be even bigger.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Glasgow smiles: how the city halved its murders by ‘caring people into change’

In a squat redbrick community hall in the shadow of a pair of vertiginous north Glasgow tower blocks, half a dozen men sit on plastic chairs around a sturdy wooden table. The carpet is threadbare, the overhead lights harsh. Through shatterproof glass windows, dusk has turned to night.

“I can’t get a job anywhere, not with my history,” a lean man in late middle age says, his eyes turned downward. A little further along the table, a lad in his early 20s with a tattoo on his neck emphatically nods: “I need to get my shit together.”

There are echoes of the 12-step programme in the raw honesty, the white knuckles and supportive arms on shoulders. But this monthly meeting is being organised by a Scottish police taskforce, the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). The man with his head bowed has a conviction for murder. Opposite him is a onetime major drug dealer. Another has done time for assault. Everyone around the table is on the same, long road: trying, with help from the VRU, to wrest new lives from the ashes of old, chaotic, violent ones.

The Violence Reduction Unit is a product of Glasgow’s own turbulent recent past. The unit, initially part of Strathclyde police, was set up in 2005 to tackle the city’s endemic knife fighting and gang crime. At the time, Glasgow was western Europe’s murder capital. A decade later, Glasgow’s murder rate has more than halved, from 39 in 2004-05 to 18 last year. Similar drops have been recorded for attempted murder, serious assault and possession of an offensive weapon.

The precipitous decline began when police acknowledged that the only way to stem the tide of violence was to tackle the culture that spawned it, says John Carnochan, a former Glasgow murder detective involved in setting up the VRU. While young men grew up in unstable, violent homes, joined gangs, carried knives, drank and fought, death and mayhem was almost inevitable.

The VRU attempted to break this cycle. Their strategy – borrowed from anti-gang violence initiatives spearheaded in Boston in the 1990s – combined creative thinking with old-fashioned enforcement.

Doctors, nurses, dentists, even vets were all enlisted to look out for the signs of violence and domestic abuse, and to counsel the young men who arrived at every hour of the day with fresh knife wounds.

There were legislative changes, too. The VRU lobbied successfully for increases in maximum sentences for carrying knives. Where previously those caught with a blade were allowed back on their street while their case slowly progressed through the justice system, now once caught they were fingerprinted, DNA-swabbed and held in custody until court.

Paul joined the VRU’s small team last year. The 37-year-old father of three has a calm, quiet self-possession that belies the chaotic story of his life. Born to an alcoholic mother and abusive father, he grew up in a North Glasgow house “where no one ever showed any emotion”. When his grandfather dropped dead in front of him, nobody asked how he felt.

Within a few years he was running away from home. By his early teenager years, he was in a gang, talking drugs and getting into fights.

One night, a street fight went badly wrong. Paul (not his real name) was quarrelling with a childhood friend at a bus stop. His erstwhile pal fell under the wheels of a bus. He was crushed to death. Paul pled guilty to culpable homicide and was sent to prison.

A police officer in Crosshill, Glasgow.

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A police officer in Crosshill, Glasgow. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Released back into the same environment he had left, filled with drink, drugs and violence, Paul decided he had to change. “I’d been in prison and I’d been in care and I didn’t want my kids going through what I went through,” he recalls.

Then he met the VRU. In 2008, the unit – extended the previous year to cover all of Scotland – had set up the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) in Glasgow’s East End, where sprawling housing schemes had hosted the worst of the gang violence. More than 600 gang members were “called in” to listen to hard truths from police, paramedics, the mother of a young man killed by a gang with machetes, and former offenders, including Paul.

“I felt excluded all my life,” he says. “Now here was the police, who used to exclude me all the time, and they were trying to include me.”

Funded primarily by the Scottish government, CIRV combined the carrot and the stick. Gang members were given a choice: renounce violence and get help into education, training and employment, or face zero tolerance on the street.

The results were remarkable. Among the 200 gang members who became directly involved with CIRV, violent offending fell by almost half, according to a 2011 study. Weapon possession was down 85%. Even among gang members who had not attended a call-in, violence had fallen by almost a quarter.

Karyn McCluskey of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU)

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Karyn McCluskey of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

The walls of Karyn McCluskey’s cluttered office, located in a 1970s office block in downtown Glasgow, are decorated with photographs. There is a picture from a stint at the Met in London in 2010 – her long, sandy-coloured hair and knee-length boots stand out among a sea of men in uniforms – alongside stark, black-and-white photos of blood-soaked young Glaswegians in doctors’ surgeries.

“People ask me, ‘Why do you spend your time getting these bad boys jobs?’ I always say, ‘I’m not doing it for them, I’m doing it for their kids,’” McCluskey says.

In 2004, McCluskey was a young intelligence officer on Strathclyde Police. Then commissioner Sir William Rae asked the recent recruit from West Mercia to pen a report on how to reduce the city’s headline grabbing rates of violence. McCluskey’s paper lead directly to the creation of the VRU. A decade later, she is the unit’s director.

A long-time single parent, McCluskey has no shortage of empathy for the young men – they are overwhelmingly men – whose names and faces come across her desk. She goes to the christenings of ex-offenders’ children; more than once, our long conversation is broken by a phone call from a charge seeking advice. But she is hard-headed, too, which perhaps explains why home secretary Theresa May is one of her many fans.

McCluskey believes inequality breeds violence. She wants “a revolution” in how we tackle violence – by focusing on the traumatic environments in which so many offenders are reared. Reversing the effects of 20 years of deprivation and neglect is not easy, but it has to be done.

“If jail on its own worked, America would have no crime,” she points out. “You need a different approach.”

Part of this fresh tack is enlisting former offenders and gang members to work continually with current ones trying to escape the chaos. One of those former members is Paul, who, having participated in the CIRV project, was recruited by the VRU as a “navigator”. The best part of his job, he says, is when his charges realise that they, too, can change. “You can see the light going on. They have an opportunity to break a cycle that has gone on for years.”

One of the young men Paul works with is 19. His earliest memory is his father holding a gun to his mother’s head: she was using her son as a shield. “Once you understand where he is coming from, it is not hard to want to help him,” Paul says.

Although Glasgow’s crime rates have continued to fall, some question the
VRU approach. “Violence dropped and weapon-carrying
offences dropped, but that was on the back of substantial work by
police and other agencies,” says William Graham, a lecturer in criminology at Abertay University. “So it is hard to say that CIRV was the sole cause of the reductions, though it did show a degree of success.” Some say the publicity-savvy VRU were given credit for a general decline in violence across Scottish society.

But former murder detective and VRU founder John Carnochan warns that people “might forget how bad it was” in Glasgow. “All we have done to that community is to show what life is like without gang violence. We have changed the normal. Same as we changed the normal for smoking. But the challenge is keeping the normal.”

Now retired, Carnochan spends much of his time travelling the world talking about the VRU. “All we did was start to think about things differently,” he says. “It was really difficult but it was wonderful, too.”

Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan of The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) at their HQ in Glasgow.

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John Carnochan, now retired, of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) at their HQ in Glasgow. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

CIRV was discontinued in 2011. Although the programme seemed to produce significant falls in violent crime, a source close to the project says the political will wasn’t there to carry on funding it once government funding ran out.

Across Scotland, the policing climate has changed dramatically in recent years. Previously separate forces such as Strathclyde are now amalgamated. The new national force, Police Scotland, has often been accused of adopting a command-and-control approach, focused more on cracking down on crime than addressing its causes. Stop and search has been used excessively, with young men in deprived communities disproportionately targeted.

The VRU approach of “caring people into change”, as one officer puts it, doesn’t necessarily fit well with such heavy-handed tactics. Now the VRU is looking for new ways to ensure ex-offenders stay out of the cycle of drink, violence and, often, early death. They established a small charity to create employment opportunities for former gang members who might otherwise struggle to find jobs, modelled on Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. Early projects included work placements at the Edinburgh Tattoo and last year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. So far, 79% of those involved are still in employment. The eventual goal is to set up a social enterprise restaurant in the city centre.

Back in north Glasgow, the evening’s meet-up is drawing to a close. The last person to speak is the quietest. Michael, not his real name, spent time in prison for assault. Tonight he is exhausted, but not from the all-day benders he used to go on. He was up at 5am for work in a burger van near a building site. His first child was born before Christmas.

“I want to show my wean something I never had.” His voice is low, but the note of pride is unmistakable. When he finishes everyone around the table is smiling.

This piece originally appeared in the print Guardian April 6, 2015.