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Scottish Labour, increasingly cash-strapped, have withdrawn resources from some seats they hold to concentrate on Glasgow and the West of Scotland.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.

Living in the Shadows of Glasgow’s High Rise Ghettos Before They Get Blown Up

Early last April, a letter arrived at Betty Caw’s neat, pebbledash terrace house directly opposite Glasgow’s towering Red Road flats. “The regeneration of North Glasgow is continuing at great pace and with that in mind I have some exciting news,” began a single page on council headed paper signed by Gordon Matheson, leader of Glasgow City Council. Five of the six Red Road multi-storey flats, the letter said, were to be demolished live as part of the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

But the planned demolition never took place. After a week insisting, in the face of public outrage, that blowing up the 1960s-era flats was “a bold and dramatic statement” Glasgow City council finally announced that the plan was being shelved. It was a bold and dramatic statement alright – and an amazingly crass one, the kind that would get you asked to leave a dinner party. The Commonwealth Games would not begin with a bang.

Now, more than nine months later, Betty Caw and her husband, Alec, still look out every day from their living room window at the vertiginous Red Road flats.

finlay red road

“No one knows when they will come down,” says Betty, who spent more than two decades living in the Red Road flats. The multi-storey towers, covered in red clay coloured tarpaulin emblazoned with the Glasgow Housing Association logo, dominate the view from the couple’s second floor window. “We had good times in those flats, good memories. Now I just want to see the back of them.”

The Caws moved into the Red Road towers in 1968. When architect Sam Bunton’s vision of a city in the sky was completed the following year, Red Road was the largest high-rise development in Europe. The tallest of the eight towers was 31 floors. The modernist development – partly inspired by frequent visits to Marseille by Glasgow corporation functionaries and plans bought from Algeria – housed 5,000 people.

“For ten years it was good”, says Alec. “Then the drugs moved in and it was downhill from there.” After raising three children in the towers, the family moved across the road in 1990. By then Glasgow authorities neglect of the Red Road had left the flats run down and unstable, both socially and architecturally. “We were glad to get out”, says Alec.

Glasgow Housing Association says it is on track to have all the Red Road towers demolished and the site cleared by 2017 but nearby residents complain that since the Commonwealth Games volte face little has been done.

“Nobody has contacted us to give us a date or anything. We only get what we read in the papers,” says Betty and Alec Caws’ nextdoor neighbour Rose Bambrick. A pair of West Highland terriers nip around her ankles.

The Red Road flats were celebrated when they were completed, in the late 1960s. But now Bambrick says they are, “an eyesore. It’s like living in a warzone country.”

Directly underneath the hulking, 30-storey towers sits the Springburn Alive and Kicking Project. The community centre, which serves some 200 pensioners and disabled people from across Glasgow, is housed in a former primary school. The function room is filled with the smell of soup. Photographs line the walls.

“Nobody knows what the plans are for the area,” says a staff member who asks not to be named. “We have been here for 26 years. We don’t want to leave. We love this area. Hopefully we’ll get a refurbishment and can stay.”

Outside, in the fierce wind that rushes between the towers, a sign pinned to a padlocked gate warns: “Demolition in progress – keep out.”

The Red Road towers were scheduled to come down long before last summer’s Commonwealth Games. Two have already been demolished. The five that are currently empty look like skeletons on stilts, shimmering in a winter’s late afternoon sun. The asbestos that riddled the buildings has been manually removed ahead of demolition. Thirty of the workers who built the flats contracted Asbestos-related illnesses.

Former Red Road residents complain about the pace and cost of the protracted demolition. “It has been going on for 12 years,” says Finlay McKay, a 46-year-old firefighter who grew up in the Red Road flats. “How much money has been spent to demolish them and they are still sitting there? It must have been millions and millions. Surely it would have been cheaper just to upgrade them.”

“For all these houses that they are demolishing, we have massive homelessness, Surely if you were homeless and had the choice of living up there” – McKay points up at the high rises – “you’d take it instead of being on the street.”

McKay now lives in another part of Glasgow but he has fond memories of growing up in Red Road. He takes me to a former BMX track, now overgrown with weeds and high grass, and a flat stretch of grass near the road where kids used to play football. They called this “Little Wembley”.

During the media storm that followed the proposed demolition last April, national and international television crews gathered on a small hillside overlooking the towers that used to serve as Red Road’s summer sunbathing spot and a sledging slope in snowing winters.

“It was fantastic living here. You had everything you needed. Two pubs, bingo, shops, chippies, everything you needed was on site,” says McKay.

McKay thinks it is wrong to blame the flats for the anti-social behaviour that increasingly took place in them as the initial tenants moved out and replaced, often by single people and troubled families. “You have to deal with the people. You can’t blame the building for the people,” says McKay.

Glasgow academic and artist Mitch Miller agrees. “Steel frame buildings of that size are great in Manhattan where there is money invested in maintaining them. In a windy cabbage patch in North Glasgow, run by a bankrupt corporation, it is a different story,” says Miller, who spent three years as “resident illustrator” on the Red Road Cultural Project.

Red Road did work in the early years, says Miller, who believes that too much focus – in Glasgow and nationally – has been placed on high-rise housing developments that have failed, rather than those that have succeeded.

“The story of Glasgow high rises is not a universally grim story. They got some of it right,” says Miller.

Finlay McKay, for one, will have mixed emotions when the Red Road flats do eventually come down. “Whenever I am up here it still feels like home. It still feels safe even though they look so sad and pathetic now.”

This piece originally appeared on Vice.