The People’s Election: Part 8, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

Paisley has more than its fair share of attractions. There’s the medieval Abbey, cradle of the Royal House of Stewart. The art deco Russell Institute and the recently renovated Victorian town hall. But it’s not architectural history – nor this weekend’s Paisley Beer Festival – that has drawn the world’s media to Renfrewshire. CNN, The New York Times and countless others have come in recent weeks to witness a contest that could define this General Election: the– 20-year-old novice going toe-to-toe with the shadow Foreign Secretary.

Mhairi Black admits that the press attention has been “a bit bizarre”. But the SNP candidate for Paisley and Renfrewshire South appears largely unfazed. Wearing a button-up blue shirt with her blonde hair tied back, she looks like a quietly confident final year Glasgow University student on her way to her first proper job interview. And in a way she is.

Black, an SNP member since 2011, has only been involved in one previous political campaign, last year’s referendum.

She is up against Douglas Alexander, a Labour heavyweight with a national profile and a majority well north of 16,000. The latest Lord Ashcroft poll put Black 11 points ahead. Scotland stands on the cusp of its “Portillo moment”.

“I think this constituency is quite representative of what is happening across Scotland right now,” says Black when we meet in a busy coffee shop on Gauze Street, the name an echo of Paisley’s prosperous industrial past. “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.”

Across the table sits her father and election agent, Alan. The 54-year-old used to vote Labour before joining the SNP.

His daughter is appealing directly to voters to follow suit. “Now people are focusing on what Labour are offering or what Labour are not offering and they are saying ‘that doesn’t represent me’,” says Mhairi.

She describes Douglas Alexander, pictured right,

as “quite disappointing” and “a careerist”. “I’m sure he’s been good to some people but he has not represented this area half as well as he should have.”While Japanese reporters and Brazilian television crews have been a pleasant novelty on the campaign trail, Black has faced some harsh headlines closer to home. Old tweets and videos have been dredged up.

There have even been accusations of anti-Catholicism – even though she was baptized in the faith.

But Black is not the wild youth she has at times been depicted.

Behind the callow exterior lurks a definite steeliness. When she says she “wants to help people” only a churl could doubt her. Her belief in independence is steadfast but, like Nicola Sturgeon, insists that this election isn’t about the break-up of Britain. Top of her concerns is poverty. “The fact that in this day and age you have people relying on food banks is disgraceful,” Black says. Close your eyes and you can almost picture her mentor Jim Sillars.

That message resonates in Paisley, a town of contrasts. With 75,000 people, a university, a cathedral and an abbey, by rights it should be a city.

Singer Paolo Nutini lives in one of the numerous avenues lined with trees and palatial Victorian residences. Less than half a mile way is the local food bank. There is a soup kitchen, too.

On a warm spring day, an accordion duo plays outside Bargain Buys on Paisley’s pedestrianised high street. The high street is littered with To Let signs. Eddie Nardini’s ice-cream stall is doing a roaring trade but he complains that his nearby shop is struggling. “Scotland is not getting its fair share from the UK,” says Nardini. There is a yellow SNP sticker on the side of the cart. What will happen in the General Election? “The SNP will get the most seats.” He looks confident.

The crowd on the high street is evenly spread between shoppers and over-enthusiastic salespeople, mainly from mobile phone companies and charities. Sean Duffy is distributing leaflets, too, but for a rather different product. “We believe that capitalism is the problem,” Duffy, a warehouse worker, says handing me a Communist Party flyer with a cartoon of an over-sized cat smoking a cigar. “We believe that capitalism has to be taken away from the people.”

The Communists are not running a candidate in Paisley and Renfrewshire South but Duffy and his comrades come out once a week to sell the Morning Star and spread the word. Since the referendum people “people are talking to you more”, says Duffy. He comes from a family of Labour supporters, but when I ask if they will be sticking with the party he makes a face that says “maybe”.

Douglas Alexander was not available to speak with me, but I did call into the local Labour campaign headquarters, a large store-front on Causewayside Street festooned in red. Inside, more than half a dozen volunteers and party officials are busy drawing up campaign rotas and stuffing envelopes with personalised letters from Alexander, who has represented the area since 1997. “We are confident but not complacent,” says one staffer who asks not to be named.

Maureen Pollock, chairwoman of Labour’s Paisley branch, admits that there has been “a national trend” away from the party. In 46 years as an activist this election is “different to anything I’ve seen before”. But, she insists, “Douglas can win”.

Despite the lugubrious polling numbers, Labour has reason to be optimistic.

The party won the local elections here in 2012. Alexander has a particularly high profile – the former Scotland Secretary is overseeing Labour’s UK election campaign. Such a national presence is an “advantage” for the local area, says Hugh Henry, Renfrewshire South MSP. “People recognize that he is an asset.”

Alexander’s public stature counts for little, however, in the legal high shop next door to Labour’s campaign office.

“Labour had their chance and they never done nothing,” says Billy, who is looking after the shop for a friend. “No point putting your money on the same horse if they don’t do anything.” He wears a Rastafarian hat and sits surrounded by huge clear plastic bongs, boxes of over-sized cigarette papers and Jamaican flags.

He will be voting SNP. “Independence is going to happen,” he says as a disheveled middle-aged man hands over a £10 note for “a gram” of an undecipherable substance in a shiny wrapper. As I leave, three more customers arrive.

Paisley’s social problems have been acerbated by the recession, says Sandra Webster, the Scottish Socialist Party candidate. A carer with two children with autism who lives in a council house, Webster has

“experienced austerity first hand”.

Her one night a week respite has been cut.

Webster has no grand designs on a Westminster career. Indeed, the Scottish Socialists only stood in the seat because the party – like everyone else – assumed Alexander’s majority was unassailable. “We thought the SNP don’t have a chance, so we wouldn’t be splitting the Yes vote,” she says. But the SSP is keen to build on its own membership surge since the referendum. “We are the original anti-austerity party, not the SNP,” she says.

In 2010, Paisley and Renfrewshire South was stony soil for both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, and there is little sign of the Coalition parties seeing a revival in their fortunes this time around.

Eileen McCarten, a LibDem councillor with 27 years’ experience, is well liked and quick witted but admits that she has “not been packing my bags to go to London”. Her task, instead, is “to highlight the huge amount of good work we have done in the last five years.”

At 26, the Conservative’s Fraser Galloway is positively geriatric compared to Mhairi Black. An Edinburgh lawyer in a field dominated by candidates with strong local connections, Galloway’s pitch is firmly to Unionists. “We are the only party that is standing up for the Union,” he says. “We are proud of the role we played in Better Together. If you want a strong Unionist voice vote for me.”

But the indications are that few “Buddies” are looking for a strong pro-UK voice. Rona Rice was one of the majority of Renfrew folk who voted No last year. She has no intention of voting SNP next month but is swithering about whether to back Labour. “I’ve always been Labour but I’m not that happy. They don’t seem to be the same as they were. They don’t seem to be that working class any more,” Rice says sitting in the sun outside the town hall.

On a nearby bench, Patrick sits with his partner Isabella. He “will definitely be voting Labour”, but she is switching to the SNP. “I voted Labour all my days and what have they done? They’ve had their chance. Although my grandfather would be turning in his grave at me.”

Before I leave, taxi driver Hugh Hunter takes me on a scenic tour of Paisley. “It is overshadowed by the big city seven miles away [Glasgow]. But there is a lot of renewal. Paisley is coming back,” he says as we pass the last remaining mill, now turned into a business park. In the distance the magnificent neo-gothic red standstone Thomas Coats Memorial Church – known colloquially as the Baptist Cathedral of Europe – sparkles in the sunshine.

A onetime Labour voter, Hunter was swept up by the independence campaign. “The message just resonated with me. Socially progressive, honest, sincere. I just got caught up in the Zeitgeist.” If the post-referendum mood sweeps Mhairi Black into the House of Commons on May 8, Paisley will find itself firmly on the UK’s new political map.

The People’s Election: Part 7, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey

‘WE didn’t obtain the result we wanted but sooner or later we will get the result we want,” says Norman Will, leaning back on a comfy armchair in the Yes shop in the centre of Inverness. Saltires, Basque and Catalan flags compete for space on the wall behind him.

The atmosphere in here is upbeat to the point of giddiness. The first day I try to visit it is so busy I decide to come back. The following lunchtime is a little quieter, but the flow of people is still steady. Some pick up SNP posters and election material. Others just come for a chat.

Alongside the Yes badges and keyrings, there are dog neckerchiefs, SNP high-vis jackets and tote bags made out of old copies of The National. A lending library stocks books by Jim Sillars, Tom Devine and Lesley Riddoch.

It feels rather churlish but I have to ask: Why is there a Yes shop in Inverness? The referendum was lost more than seven months ago. “This came from the community spirit that developed between independence supporters during the referendum. We decided to keep going,” says Will, 58, who also manages the office of local SNP MSP Fergus Ewing.

Ciarn MacFhionnlaigh, 32, who works in the nearby Marks & Spencer, is a regular visitor. A small blue Yes badge is pinned to the lapel of his leather jacket. “I really enjoyed the energy of the referendum especially on the street in the final week,” he says. Pinned on the walls of the shop are photographs of dense Inverness crowds, waving flags and placards, in the days leading up to September 18. “It was amazing.”

The Yes shop, which reopened in October after a brief hiatus, is supposed to be an ecumenical space. There are posters on the wall for the Green party, who are running in the constituency, but there is little doubt about where the General Election allegiances lie.

“The reality is [the SNP] are the only ones who can beat the Unionists,” says Will. A larger-than-life placard of local council leader and SNP candidate Drew Hendry leans against a nearby wall.

Hendry, well-built with a regulation army haircut, pops in briefly before heading back out on the campaign trail. A woman at McDonald’s wants to have her picture taken with him.

For decades the Highlands has been a bastion of liberalism. From Aviemore to the tip of Shetland is all shaded Liberal Democrat yellow on the UK electoral map.

The vast Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey constituency – which borders former LibDem leader Charles Kennedy’s Skye and Lochaber seat to the west – has rarely been fertile ground for the Nationalists. Danny Alexander won the seat for the LibDems with more than 40 per cent of the vote in 2010; the SNP finished a distant third on less than half that.

But this time around the polls – and the rows of posters attached to lampposts on Inverness’ blustery main street – suggest it is a straight fight between Hendry and Alexander. It is a battle between a party in the ascendancy and one trying to cling on in its one-time strongholds.

“I am pretty confident,” Alexander says during a weekday morning meet-and-greet on the streets of Inverness. I am finding that people here like the fact that we have had a Highland MP at the top of government for the last five years who has been able to get a lot of things done for this area.”

Frequently caricatured as the Conservatives’ lackey during his time in the Treasury, in the flesh Alexander is disarmingly articulate. The exchanges with Inverness voters are at times testy. One man, visibly worked up, says he will never vote liberal again. But Alexander never looks flustered. He just keeps smiling, cleaving tightly to his core message: without the LibDems in coalition, the country would be in a far worse state.

Whether that pitch will be enough for Alexander to keep his seat remains to be seen. “He definitely gets my vote,” says pensioner Ken Mackenzie. “He takes an interest in the local aspect of things, which is important, I think. Even though he spends a lot of time in London he spends a lot of time here.”

Alexander admits that the volte-face on tuition fees “does come up” – in 2010, the LibDems, having pledged to abolish university fees, promptly raised them to £9,000 a year – but says local voters are more concerned about the centralisation of power in Edinburgh. “People see that the SNP is a party that has taken power away from the Highlands,” he says, identifying the creation of a unified Police Scotland as a particular cause of alarm. Personalities have often played a bigger role in Highland politics than elsewhere in Scotland. Alexander remains well liked by many constituents. That, however, does not mean they will all be voting for him. “I don’t believe in them anymore. I used to but not now,” says Avril, a former LibDem voter in Inverness. “There are other parties that I think can do a better job.” In Inverness, the SNP is well placed to profit from the decline in LibDem support nationally and the energy generated by the referendum. The Highlands rejected independence but the result was closer than the national average and sample polling suggests the city of Inverness voted Yes.

“The SNP are doing things for Scotland, not just Westminster,” says Iona McMurtrie, 20, after a mid-week meeting with Hendry at the Iron Works, an impressive live venue in the centre of Inverness. Her friend, Roslyn Keane, 48, a support practitioner, voted for the very first time in the referendum. She will be voting SNP next month, she says. “People are seeing we are offering an opportunity for a different way of doing things,” says Hendry.

Inverness is in need of regeneration. In the city centre, To Let signs are as common as adverts for Highland tours and Loch Ness cruises, and about 30 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Retaining young people is a problem. Technology, oil and gas and renewable energy offer “a great opportunity” for the Highlands that is not being realised, says Hendry.

A City Deal is set to deliver £300 million in investment for Inverness. Hendry says that it has been local pressure, not the ear of the Treasury, that has brought an agreement on more cash for the Highland capital to the brink of completion. He adds: “I would be quite happy for Danny [Alexander] to take the credit to get the deal over the line. But so far all we have had from him is warm words.”

There is a marked urban/rural divide in the seat, too. Hendry’s own Aird and Loch Ness ward is the size of Luxembourg. More than half the electorate is in Inverness city, with the remainder dispersed across the constituency. That demographic breakdown has meant that, despite finishing second in the seat in 2010, Labour has often struggled to make inroads. Mike Robb, runner-up last time out, says Inverness “has the same difficulties as Glasgow or Edinburgh” but in the rural hinterland public transport, broadband and wind farms are pivotal issues.

A Labour member for more than 30 years, Robb says the SNP are “picking up a strong vote on the back of the referendum” but that there is also a “silent majority” in favour of Unionist candidates.

“The Yes supporters are very visible, but there are a lot of people out there who very quietly don’t agree. They don’t put up posters but they are there,” he says. Conservative candidate Edward Mountain believes that Inverness, and Scotland, need to “move on” from the referendum. “It was an unpleasant time. We don’t need to re-fight old battles,” he says.

A soldier turned farmer, Mountain is a textbook case of nominative determinism; rugged, broad-shouldered and amiable as an episode of The Archers.

Inverness has been at the heart of another election battle in Scotland – that between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over tactical voting. Mountain supports his party leader Ruth Davidson’s calls to resist the urge for Unionists to vote for incumbents in liberal-held seats.

“You are much better off voting for what you believe in,” he says, when we met in the local Conservative office in Inverness. On the wall are photographs of David Cameron and some of his predecessors, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Alec Douglas-Home. The Conservatives finished a distant fourth here in 2010, but are hoping to build for the future in a region where they already have two list MSPs.

In a a measure of how constitutional politics has come to the fore, even Scottish Christian Party leader Donald Boyd says that he “a local man who wants to retain the Union” – albeit with an added emphasis on “the Christian voice”. Boyd, a minister and doctor in the local hospital, finished ahead of the Greens and Ukip in 2010. His party’s policies are closer to the latter: keep Trident, reduce immigration, pay off the national debt.

“We have a Christian attitude that begins with love your neighbour, but we also have an attitude of Christian prudence towards what the country can sustain,” says Boyd.

The Nationalists, however, seem to have a monopoly on evangelical zeal. Back in the Yes shop the glass-plated front door squeaks open. A young boy decked out in SNP yellow bounds into the centre of the floor. He is “eleven and a half” and grinning from ear to ear. He has just come back from his first ever canvass: “It was great.”

In the Highlands, as across Scotland, politics is changing. The question now is what that change will look like on May 7.

The People’s Election: Part 5, Midlothian

‘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. “We’re all Labour,” says one man with a broad smile, his shoulders noticeably hunched from almost three decades down the pits. “Are we f***!” roars his drinking companion across the table.

The sound of televised horseracing fills the room. A barrel-chested man with a booming voice breaks the momentary silence. “Never talk about religion or politics in a pub.” His warning goes unheeded.

“This has been a Labour seat for years. That’s the way it will stay,” says Henry.

He worked in the colliery at nearby Bilston Glen until waves of closures hit in the mid-1980s, decimating parts of

Midlothian. Across the table Bill, an SNP supporter, shakes his head.

“No way, no way.”

Thirty years ago, Loanhead miners club was at the coalface of the 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 in the club’s squat, modern community centre advertise Thai Chi and country music.

In the main function hall the weekly bingo session has just finished.

A band plays a brisk polka to mainly grey-haired older women. There is no blue plaque, but this unremarkable room has an important place in the modern political history of Scotland. It was here, on September 8 last year, that Gordon Brown made his promise for greater devolution if Scots rejected independence. Just days earlier that poll appeared showing a narrow Yes lead.

The UK would, the former Labour leader said, “move as close to federalism as you can in a country where 85 per cent of it is one nation, England”. Brown pledged to deliver “the equivalent of what Keir

Hardie asked for when he called for Home Rule for Scotland”.

Academic research suggests the significance of “the Vow” has been overstated, but in the bar at Loanhead miners club there is little doubt that the former Chancellor’s intervention was a pivotal moment.

“Gordon Brown came in here, promising this and that. That swung the vote,” says Bill. For once Henry agrees. “Brown was the best man we had.”

The connection between mining and

Labour runs deep in this corner of

Scotland. Midlothian Labour MP David Hamilton introduced Brown in the miners club last September. A former mine worker, Hamilton spent months on remand during the 1980s strike – only to be acquitted in less than a quarter of an hour at trial.

But Hamilton is standing down this time. And while the politics of the pits are not gone, they are fast disappearing. “It is still Labour here but not as staunch as it was,” says a former miner in Loanhead.

Midlothian itself is changing, its undulating hills increasingly populated by commuters who work in nearby

Edinburgh. Some of the one-time pit villages have struggled to reinvent themselves, but expectations are high that the new

Borders railway will transform towns such as Gorebridge and Bonnyrigg when it opens in September.

Midlothian now has two SNP MSPs and its first-ever nationalist council, elected in 2012. Council leader Owen Thompson is hoping to make it another first in May, by becoming the SNP MP.

Thompson grew up in Loanhead, and in the SNP. His father, a local minister, was a passionate party advocate. His mother supported Margo MacDonald’s seismic 1973 Govan by-election victory. “I probably put my first leaflet out when I was seven or eight,” says Thompson, now 37, when we meet in Midlothian House, the council’s bright, airy offices in Dalkeith. A copy of the Declaration of Arbroath on faux parchment hangs over his desk. Beside it is a Loanhead Miners’ Youth football pendant.

His election pitch is squarely aimed at Labour voters. “Many traditional Labour people are seeing that the party has gone so far from the traditional principles that the SNP is now their natural home,” says Thompson.

There is no mythical “middle Scotland”, but if there was it might be Midlothian. Just over 56 per cent of voters said No to independence.

David Hamilton’s majority is north of 10,000 but the swing needed for the SNP to take the seat is well within current nationwide polling.

Over the reception at Midlothian council offices hangs a woven tapestry bearing the inscription: “Change Comes”

Thompson is hoping the words prove prophetic.

There are, however, local considerations that could stymie the nationalist surge. The SNP council has hardly been universally popular. Cutbacks have cost jobs across the community sector and even led to the introduction of charges for care alarms.

“Every decision we have made hasn’t been easy, but there were good reasons for every decision,” says Thompson, who cites the introduction of the living wage for council employees and a sharp increase in Midlothian’s popularity as a destination for school leavers as his most significant achievements in just over a year in charge of Scotland’s second smallest council.

Labour candidate Kenny Young says that the SNP “will pay the price at the ballot box” for failing to protect the most vulnerable from council cuts.

HE says: “The nationalists are working with an independent Tory [Peter De Vink] here. The SNP say

‘we are against the Tories’ but they are working with the Tories here. That’s the big issue.”

If there is one central issue in Young’s campaign, it is health. A diabetic, he is “passionate about” the promise of 1,000 extra nurses for Scotland that Labour have pledged to fund through a so-called “mansion tax” on the UK’s richest homeowners. Young has lobbied government to have disability benefit extended to suffers of Dupuytren’s Contracture, a condition caused by operating vibrating machinery that affects the hands and fingers of many former miners. He also wants to see a

Scottish government inquiry into the policing of the miners’ strikes.

In some respects, Young and his SNP opponent are not that dissimilar.

Both grew up locally, graduating almost straight into politics. After studying history at Edinburgh University – emulating his hero Gordon Brown – Young was elected Labour student chair. He went to work on Ed Miliband’s successful leadership campaign, subsequently joining his staff before returning to Scotland to run for public office.

Young has demonstrated a steely political resolve that belies his fresh-faced

29 years. In November, he won a council by-election for Labour in the midst of the post-referendum SNP groundswell. He is confident of holding Midlothian in May.

“I would rather be the Labour candidate than the SNP candidate,” says Young. “There is no doom and gloom in the

Labour party in Midlothian.

“Part of that is we are buoyed by what people are saying on the doorsteps. We are talking about what people care about.”

Midlothian has been cited as the birthplace of the modern political campaign; it was in Dalkeith, in 1879, that William Gladstone relaunched his career, unifying the liberals and spectacularly defeating the incumbent Tory prime minister Disraeli. Nowadays, the battle on Dalkeith’s wide High Street is firmly between Labour and the SNP.

Outside a discount store, a man with a union flag pin on his flat cap will be voting “tactically” for Labour. “I don’t want another referendum. Whatever happens we need to stay together,” he says.

Elsewhere, Jim, a retired vicar, supported independence but is “expecting” to vote Labour next month.

Englishwoman Sue Kinloch is voting SNP for the first time next month.

“I want to vote with my mind and my heart,” says Kinloch, who previously backed Labour. “Scotland and Wales get sidelined. I’m not nationalist really but the only way to get Nicola Sturgeon a voice is to vote [SNP].”

Outside Dalkeith library, 18-year-old Aaron Thompson waits for a bus to take him to the nearby college. He voted

Yes in September and is divided between the SNP and the Greens this time around. But he thinks Labour’s message that only they will be able to prevent a Conservative government could sway

Midlothian voters because “people here hate the Tories, hate them with a passion”.

Back in Loanhead miners club, Alan is in two minds about his vote. The 63-year-old says he has been “Labour all my life” but is thinking of switching to the SNP. “I’m that close,” he says, holding his thumb and index finger barely an inch apart.

“I voted against independence. I want us to be together, but Labour have lost the vision that they had. Labour are finished in Scotland.”

Around the table a couple of heads nod in agreement. Just as many shake vigorously from side to side. As the bar closes up for the afternoon, the debate goes on.

The People’s Election: Part 4, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

ON the last Friday of every July, Langholm hosts the Common Riding. In a throwback to the days of vicious Reiver battles with the English across the Border, the neat streets of brick houses and busy shops selling artisan chocolates and colourful tweed resound to a cacophony of horses’ hooves on asphalt and cheering crowds.Like many children growing in Langholm, Laura Ellis’s daughter loved the Common Riding. She dreamed of being the “principal”, carrying aloft a blue banner at the head of the party. Her mother, who owns a craft shop on the main street, told neighbours about the young child’s wish. They laughed and said: “The principal has to be man.” But why, pressed Ellis, is it always a man? The answer came: “Because it’s aye been.”

This sense of unbending Borders tradition – “It’s Aye Been”, meaning “it’s like that and it has always been” – extends to politics too. Where the rest of Scotland fell out of love with the Conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s, the tree-lined valleys here have remained solidly blue.

Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale was the only Scottish seat to return a Tory MP, David Mundell, in the 2010 General Election. This sprawling constituency, created in 2005, crosses three local authority boundaries, taking in everything from the sparsely populated farming country around Langholm to the Edinburgh commuter towns of Peebles and Biggar and even a thin slice of urban Dumfries. Before David Mundell, one-time Tory chief whip Sir Hector Munro was the Westminster representative here for more than 30 years before stepping down in 1997.

While the battle between the SNP, Labour and, in places, the Liberal Democrats rages across Scotland, there seems little appetite for political change on a weekday afternoon in Langholm. Near the imposing town hall, formerly a tollbooth, which sits bang in the middle of the main street, forcing cars to weave around it, one woman nods emphatically when I ask if she will be voting Conservative.

“[Mundell] looks after the area,” she says. “You want anything done, you phone him and he does it.” Her friend agrees. He is worried about another referendum. “We are too close to England for that [independence]. It’s alright for the people in the north of Scotland, but our hospital is just over there.”

But the sense of sleepy permanence can be misleading, too. For four centuries, Langholm lay at the heart of the Debatable Lands, a 40-square-mile tract of territory that, as the name suggests, was claimed by both England and Scotland. The cross-Border banditry only ended with the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when the wild men of the Marches came up against King James VI & I’s iron fist.

The radicalism did not end with the Reivers swinging from the gallows. The Covenanters found fertile ground in the soft Border soil. But over time the Debatable Lands were pacified. The belligerent reputation was replaced by a softer image of soporific bucolicism. The Borders, in the popular imagination, became a place where change happened slowly, if it happened at all. The area overwhelmingly voted No in the independence referendum last September. The bookmakers do not expect anything dramatic in May, either. Mundell is firm favourite to hold on.

On the winding road between Gretna and Annan, the car stereo is interrupted by traffic reports from BBC Radio Cumbria. There’s a tailback on the road to Keswick. An accident near Windermere. The names seem familiar yet foreign to my adopted Glaswegian ears. This is Border territory. Whatever Scotland’s future constitutional settlement, England will remain an integral part of life in this corner of the country.

In Annan, a tractor trundles down the main street, past solid terraces hewn of red sandstone. In the car park of the local Co-op almost a dozen SNP canvassers are gathered. It’s not even 11am and they have already been out delivering leaflets for the local candidate, Emma Harper. In normal election times the flame-haired nurse who lives outside Annan would have no hope in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale – the Nationalists barely scraped 10 per cent of the vote here last time around – but these are not normal times.

“The other candidates aren’t at the races at all. We are the only optimists who want a better Scotland,” says Harper, who returned to Scotland just over a decade ago after 14 years in California, bringing with her a US west coast sense of energy. The metallic SNP and CND badges on her jacket twinkle in the bright morning sun.

Harper’s election material stresses her 30 years’ nursing experience. She says: “I see the struggles that nurses have on the ward everyday. It is really challenging to be a nurse in the NHS right now.”

There are also particular local concerns at play: the unemployment that sends so many over the Border to work in Carlisle and further afield; food poverty; the ongoing decommissioning of Chapelcross. The plant, a few miles outside the town, used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Landowners are powerful in this part of Scotland, too. The Duke of Buccleuch controls some 270,000 acres, much of it running through the constituency. In 2008, Buccleuch was granted planning permission for 22 drilling sites in Canonbie, a picturesque village bisected by the River Esk. Extraction of the coal bed methane is on hold but locals worry that it could start soon.

“And that’s just phase one,” says Bill Frew, chairman of Canonbie and District Residents Association. “It’s feudal. The Duke owns everything. People work for him, or they live in his houses, or they’re tenant farmers. So they are disenfranchised and afraid to speak out.”

The SNP has become the party of protest for many fed up with the old ways. In Annan, SNP membership has soared since the referendum. A local party branch was recently reformed, having disbanded in the 1960s. The new chairman will be businessman Henry McClelland. A stocky, middle-aged man with a broad smile, McClelland is also in charge of Annan’s most famous institution: Annan Athletic football club.

Annan Athletic has “given the town profile” he says proudly. “On Sky Sports every Saturday you see Annan.” The side has reached three national semi-finals and two playoffs since joining the Scottish league in 2008, but more than that it has become a focal point of the community. McClelland is a firm believer in independence for Scotland. He says that he cried on September 19.

“The referendum isn’t going to go away,” he says. “There is going to be opportunities in the future. It won’t go away.”

Despite the strong vote for the Union in the constituency, Harper is profiting from the energy of the referendum. Her canvassers carry bright blue “Yes Scotland” clipboards. Many became politically active last year. Val is typical. Originally from Lancashire, she voted Labour for 35 years. Now she is firmly behind the SNP. “The Labour Party has diluted, diluted until it is just a shadow of the Tory Party,” she says.

But if Labour really are Tories in disguise, nobody has told Archie Dryburgh. The hirsute former union organiser at Chapelcross sits firmly on the left of the party. He supported Neil Findlay’s leadership campaign and speaks of his concerns about TTIP, the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that many fear could lead to the privatisation of vast swathes of the NHS.

He is worried about unemployment, the threat of community hospital closures and lack of broadband investment (“Never mind superfast broadband, some of the families just want broadband!”).

We meet outside a cafe in Gretna Green, a bagpiper playing as small groups of tourists drink tea in the sunshine. Just half a mile away lies the site of the worst rail disaster in UK history. On May 22 1915, signalmen’s error led to the catastrophic crash that claimed an estimated 226 lives. Many were members of the Leith Battalion of the Scots Guard, bound for Gallipoli. Dryburgh, an army veteran himself, is spearheading the centenary commemorations. “It’s going to be a poignant time around here,” he says.

Dryburgh is unlikely to be attending the Quintinshill disaster commemorations as the local MP. But the Dumfries and Galloway councillor says he will fight hard, and rejects any suggestion that Labour supporters should vote tactically to keep the SNP out. Mundell, he says, “has a great PR team behind him. [But] people want to see action, not words.”

Dryburgh is hoping to pick up disaffected LibDem voters; the party took almost a fifth of the vote in 2010 but are nowhere to be seen this time around. Ukip polled strongly in the region in last summer’s European Parliament elections but the party is not expected to pull up any trees in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale come May. Despite the party’s fiery anti-Conservative rhetoric, their candidate, Kevin Newtown, stood numerous times – unsuccessfully – for the Tories. Mundell remains the man to beat.

The assistant secretary of state for Scotland says: “I am making a case for why we need a strong UK Government with a clear economic plan, but also we need to speak out for this area because people here often feel marginalised from central government, whether it is in London or Edinburgh.”

Earlier this week, the House of Commons’ Scottish affairs committee reported that the tendency for Whitehall departments to neglect devolved issues in Scotland and for Holyrood to centralise power in Edinburgh had created “negative consequences” for the Borders.

Mundell says the SNP represent his strongest challenge. While there is a strong Tory vote in Tweeddale, the former Social Democratic Party councillor in Annandale and Eskdale (“I was young”) can also expect to win Unionist votes in Clydesdale, long a bastion of liberal leader David Steel, and Labour-leaning Dumfriesshire.

Being Scotland’s only Tory MP has unlikely advantages. “There has never been a disagreement within our Westminster Scottish Conservative group,” Mundell chuckles. But there are real difficulties too. The Tories’ recent adverts depicting Ed Miliband as Alex Salmond’s puppet have riled many. The campaign, orchestrated from London Conservative headquarters, is aimed squarely at marginal English seats. Mundell, however, is at pains to stress: “I don’t find on the doorstep people seeing it as an anti-Scottish message”.

Ironically, the Conservatives, implacably opposed to electoral reform, are hamstrung in Scotland by first-past-the-post. The party took more than 412,000 votes in 2010 General Election – barely 80,000 fewer than the SNP – but won just one seat. The LibDems, whose vote was far more concentrated, took 11 seats with just over 465,000 votes.

“Sometimes when people look from outside they think Conservative support in Scotland is one in 59 when it reality it is around one in six,” says Mundell.

But he admits that there is “no silver bullet” for Scottish Conservatives.

“It is about talking about the issues that are important to people and having a clear set of policies and a case to make”. Nevertheless, come May, the likelihood is that there will still be more pandas than Tory MPs in Scotland.

LAST July, Rory Stewart, a former Black Watch officer and current Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border, opened the Old Acquaintances Cairn in a field on the Scottish side of the Border at Gretna. The idea was to give “ordinary people the chance to show how they feel”. The cairn still stands, and is more impressive than in the weeks before the referendum. The piles of rocks painted red, white and blue reach up to 12 feet.

There have been reports of vandalism but the only trace of this on my visit was a single profanity scrawled on a rock that said, “thanks you all”.

Inside the cairn, a stone slab says Scotland and England should not be divided “like snarling curs”. Another proclaims “we’re better far together [sic]. United we must stay.” In the corner of a molehill-filled field the River Sark burbles away. You could toss a coin and hit England.

The cairn is deserted, but in the car park of the adjacent hostelry I meet Deirdre, a Northern Irish woman who lives near Annan. She is no fan of Mundell. “I’ve never seen him. Never met him. He sends a little newsletter every now and then saying ‘I’ve done this, I’ve done that’. I just bin it.”

In May she will be sticking with Labour. “Ed Miliband isn’t a brilliant leader, but he beats David Cameron. And that’s what matters.”

While across Scotland voters seem to be turning away from once steadfast political beliefs, in the Borders it seems old certainties still hold. It’s aye been.

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

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.

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.

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)

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.

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.

Election Posters Banned Across Scotland

Competing “yes” banners and “no thanks” posters were among the most colourful features of the referendum campaign, but as May’s general election hoves into view there will be less political posters than ever on Scotland’s streets.

Experts fear that the lack of posters could depress turnout.

Just a handful of Scottish councils permit candidates and parties to display election material on lampposts and other “street furniture”.

Of Scotland’s 32 council areas just four – Shetland, the Highlands, the Western Isles, and Argyll and Bute – now allow political posters on council property.

The number of councils passing legislation banning political material on their property has increased dramatically since the last general election in 2010.
lamppost posters
Last year, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire and North Ayrshire all moved to outlaw election posters. South Lanarkshire will follow suit in a matter of weeks.

The main reason cited for the bans is the expense of removing election material from council property after the country goes to the polls.

But an expert fears that the lack of posters could contribute to lower turnouts and have a deleterious effect on Scottish democracy.

“People often don’t pay attention to politics. They need every reminder they can get (to turn out to vote). One way of reminding people is by posters in localities. It is important for democratically getting people out to vote and mobilising them,” says Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University.

There is a strong link between the visibility of political campaigns and higher turnouts, says Clark.

The decision to ban political posters is “a peculiarly self-denying ordnance from councils,” Clark says.

While councils cite the cost of removing posters, there already exists legislation requiring parties to remove election material after polls close.

There appears to be little party political variation on the decision to ban political posters with councils of all strips across Scotland outlawing them.

“Most Scottish councils are run by a mix of parties and coalitions. You can’t say it is one party against another,” says Clark. “It is a broader council issue. It just seems to be that this will cost us money.”

The outlawing of election material on council property means Scotland is out step, both with rest of Europe, where political posters are a common sight, and even other parts of the UK.

“Northern Ireland in the run-up to May you’ll find is postered from one end of the street to another,” says Clark.

“Scotland somehow has become an outlier here. It is strange given the democratic experience of the referendum that this is something that is being allowed to happen.”

Juliet Swann, campaigns and research officer at Electoral Reform Society Scotland, says that election posters add colour to political campaigns but that the best way to ensure that the enthusiasm of the referendum is not lost is to make sure people feel that their vote counts.

“Perhaps celebrating elections more as a carnival of democracy, complete with colourful election posters would bring some public enthusiasm back into politics. But the only way to be sure of re-engaging the people in politics is to make them feel like their vote counts for something,” she said.

Alistair Clark called on Scottish councils to overturn the ban on election material on their property.

“The danger is that people just won’t go out and vote. It is pointless complaining about turnout unless people are given every encouragement to vote. And among that encouragement are posters being permitted to be placed in places where people might see them.”