Glasgow South is a relatively new constituency, born in 2005 of parts of previous Westminster seats with much more evocative names: Glasgow Cathcart, Glasgow Govan, Glasgow Rutherglen and Glasgow Pollok. The electorate, though, are still making Scottish voices heard — this time, by giving unprecedented support to the SNP.
For the first two years of its life, Glasgow South looked set to be another Glaswegian Labour stronghold, the kind that comes with a job for life and a majority that goes unbroken for decades. In 2010, six of the city’s seven Westminster seats had Labour majorities larger than 10,000. The SNP gains in 2010 were minuscule — under 1%. Recent Ashcroft polls, though, predict that the SNP will take the seat, recording a substantial 14 point lead for the SNP.
Stewart McDonald, SNP candidate for Glasgow South, is clearly conscious of just how shattering a shift this is. He grew up in South Side, and has lived there his whole life — except for a brief break working as a tour guide in the Canary Islands, understandable in a constituency where the chances of rain rarely dip below 50%. His heart seems firmly at home, though, and in his favourite coffee shop (also the location of the first same-sex marriage in Scotland) he muses on the political changes the area is undergoing.
“People are starting to finally wake up and question politics in a way that will be challenging for everyone. But at the minute it seems to be most challenging for Labour politicians who have represented Glasgow for decades — long before I was born!”
McDonald is fiercely proud to be Scottish, yet it’s clear he’s not of the old political vanguard. He crowdfunded part of his campaigning costs on IndieGogo, and when asked about devolution specifics, quickly moves onto the decision not to devolve the Equalities Act, and withholding a decision on abortion law.
He finds much of the English media’s attitude to the SNP, and its new generation of likely MPs, perturbing to say the least — and far from how he perceives the party’s identity.
“I remember seeing an editorial from the Times of London saying that the SNP was a “threat” to Britain that had to be “neutralised”. This is the kind of language you use against ISIS, not against a democratic party that’s been democratically elected to govern Scotland in the Scottish parliament”
It does seem that elements of the Scottish conversation get lost in translation. For one, it’s an interesting contrast with England that here, immigration isn’t a major issue in the run up to an election. When I ask McDonald if the issue gets much attention in the Scottish press, he racks his brains for the last time he saw an immigration-oriented front page.
Around the time we met, Pegida, an anti-immigration German group, were reportedly attempting to recruit in Glasgow; though no mass action ever did take place. And after a rally that attracted around 400 pro-Pegida protesters in Newcastle (and a counter-rally of around 2000), the organisation’s attempt to host a similar rally in Edinburgh reportedly attracted only four supporters, who were thrown out of the pub after the rally was cancelled.
McDonald speaks enthusiastically about the benefits of immigration in respect to his own constituency: “we have a very strong Pakistani community here on the South Side, and we also have some new migrants who’ve come here from different parts of Europe, which has been great. It comes with challenges obviously, but I think the mix of people from different backgrounds — whether that be from different countries or just different economic backgrounds — makes this place so great.”
The economic diversity of the constituency goes hand in hand with the residential mix. “Glasgow South has the village of Carmunnock, the last remaining village within the city boundary, so you can go from that to an area like Shawlands, which is very densely populated with tenements and some high rise flats.”
As different areas of the constituency have distinct identities, so they had varying responses to the independence referendum. McDonald tells me that though the Yes supporters won a majority in the Scottish Parliament constituency that most closely maps onto Glasgow South — as they did in every constituency in the city — the more affluent areas such as Newlands or Kilmarnock largely voted against.
Even where the yes vote was strong, voters’ reasons for supporting independence seemed to McDonald to differ from area to area.
“In Castlemilk, the reasons that people were buying into the Yes campaign were to do with fairness, an economy that works for everyone. Shawlands, actually, has always had a strong yes vote, but for different reasons. People in Shawlands wanted things like that as well, but they were also attracted to the democratic argument.”
Looking to the present, and forward to May, it’s evident that the referendum has done wonders for the SNP’s electoral support. Even though Scotland said No to independence, they were indeed promised more powers by the Westminster parties. As promised, proposals have been drawn up by the Smith Commission; but polling suggests that a majority of Scots want more powers than are on offer. Under the draft legislation, income tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax and a host of other powers remain with Westminster.
Unsurprisingly, McDonald has a few bones to pick with the Smith Commission’s work: “We welcome the new powers we would receive under the Smith Commission, but they don’t go far enough — in terms of practicality, and in terms of people’s expectations.”
“What we were promised was modern day federalism and home rule. If we’re going to have that we’ll need control for example over employment law, control to set the minimum wage, full control over all taxes raised and spent in Scotland. The Smith Commission proposes nowhere near any of that. And Labour’s apparent ‘top-up’ of powers doesn’t go far enough.”
This, according to McDonald, is a primary motivating factor for constituents who are leaning in his direction. “They now want to hold the promise of more powers to account, they want to deliver that and get the maximum amount of power to achieve social justice, to achieve a better governed society.”
Much of it, then, comes down to the negotiating power which the SNP will have after May: a thing feared by many in England (and, perhaps, augmented by the stances of many a leading newspaper), but converting Scots to the SNP left, right and centre. It’s an argument the SNP can really leverage off on the doorsteps, as the predictions of a large cohort of SNP MPs add credibility to the suggestion they can have some clout in altering what’s been proposed so far.
“If we go back to business as usual, and we reelect the same bunch of MPs — as we did in 2010, when not one seat changed hands — if we go back to business as usual then they will give us the least amount of powers they can get away with. Westminster and Westminster parties are instinctively against the business of ceding power.”
Like the drive against austerity, it’s a point that’s easy to make and well received; with an increasingly large and active membership, it will likely be made rather loudly. Before the referendum the SNP in Glasgow South had around 290 members. They now have 1400.
McDonald puts this down to one thing: the referendum. “The referendum changed all of it — people are no longer sitting around waiting for a candidate to do something, they’re hungry to get involved, whether it be setting up a meeting, leading a canvass team, or phone canvassing in their own time.”
This large a membership surge is a far cry from the experience of the mainstream parties in England. Setting aside value judgments on their policies and politics, the SNP have been at the helm of a series of events which have seen a formal, constitutional question transformed into a civic movement — one which is now delivering astounding electoral results.
In an era of otherwise declining membership and support for the large English parties, it’s an interesting question as to whether such a movement will ever be possible south of the border; or whether a country needs something to unite against, to see the kind of consensus that’s increasingly appearing in Scotland. In Glasgow South, this isn’t a question the SNP need worry themselves with. When discussing the proposals for further devolution to Scotland, McDonald makes a telling statement.
“We are answerable only to the people of Scotland.”