After 31 years, will Labour finally lose their grip on Glasgow?

The City Chambers of Glasgow in winter. Picture: Robert Perry
The City Chambers of Glasgow in winter. Picture: Robert Perry
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IS Glasgow about to do the unthinkable... and vote Labour out of office at the City Council? With the May elections fast approaching, Stephen McGinty canvasses opinion on whether there really is an appetite for change and sets the scene for the political battle ahead

THE edifice is vast and grand and inspired by Renaissance classicism. The staircase is made from Carrara marble and the panelling is rich, Spanish mahogany. When finished in 1888, the City Chambers of Glasgow were as opulent as one would expect from the Second City of the Empire. Queen Victoria, who inaugurated the building, must have felt quite at home in this palace of municipal politics. Over the years visiting heads of state have eyed the huge baroque banqueting hall in a manner that can only be described as covetous. Little wonder that in 1985, in the film Heavenly Pursuits, the building doubled as the Vatican. Yet, this year, on 3 May, metaphorically curling out of the roof, may come the puffs of white smoke heralding a new political pope.

Matheson: 'There is a bleeding away of resources from Glasgow'. Picture: Robert Perry

Matheson: 'There is a bleeding away of resources from Glasgow'. Picture: Robert Perry

For the past 31 years the Labour Party has kept a firm grip on Glasgow City Council, but the dominance of those who favour rose red is now being threatened by their opponents in canary yellow. When the local government elections take place in May, Alex Salmond, the First Minister, expects to see an SNP candidate occupying the office of Leader of Glasgow City Council and so a fierce political storm is now on the horizon.

It is said that the wings of a butterfly can trigger a hurricane, so what began as muttered admiration about Alex Salmond in the gritty pubs of the Gallowgate could yet develop into a wind of change that sweeps through the marbled corridors of the City Chambers. “I like Salmond” says Frances MacIntyre, who, at 82, has voted in every election and always for Labour. Always, that is, until now. Frances, who describes herself as a retired housewife – we are chatting near the monument in Battlefield, dedicated to the Battle of Langside in 1568 in which the army of Mary, Queen of Scots was defeated by James VI – says that Labour are facing their own comeuppance. They are, she says “in it for themselves” and “its time to give the SNP a shot”.

Yet to judge by the thoughts of the citizens of Glasgow, both sides will also struggle to break through the apathy that is smothering those they wish to serve. Later, on Buchanan Street, any attempt to engage the public in political discourse is fraught. It takes ten tries before I luck out with John Alexander, a 35-year-old folk and blues musician who, as the epitome of the good citizen, likes to read each party’s manifesto before deciding where to place his tick. Although these are still being formulated and are unlikely to appear prior to late March, he’s still happy to share his thoughts. “It is time for a change,” he says with a sigh. “A party that has been in power for 31 years – regardless of who it is – has been there too long. I’ll be voting for a change and that will be for the SNP.”

Alexander is concerned for the city. Although Buchanan Street, the city’s main shopping artery, is busy, just around the corner on St Vincent Street there are eight To Let signs in one short block, and Sauchiehill Street has the indignity of an abandoned pound shop plastered with posters discussing bankruptcy. “There is a feeling in the city, and it’s one we haven’t seen since the early 80s. You just have to look at all the potholes in the roads. It is a symbol of city that is struggling,” he says.

The image of Labour as an arrogant party with “a right to rule” the city took a battering during last year’s elections for the Scottish Parliament, when the SNP won five constituency seats to Labour’s three. Before that there had been the departure of Steven Purcell, the Labour leader of the council, over allegations of cocaine use and municipal corruption. A lengthy police investigation resulted in no charges being brought, but the whole affair has further tarnished Labour’s name. However, there are still plenty of loyal supporters. When I stop to speak to Joseph Broadly, 62, a retired commissioner and ask who will get his vote in May, he replies: “Labour, Labour, Labour. Always Labour.” According to Mr Broadly the SNP will not win. “Glasgow will remain Labour.”

It is a confidence that the Scottish Labour Party is keen to project, but behind closed doors there are deep concerns. Private polling by the party has revealed that if they manage to retain control it will be with a majority of as little as two. Last October the party decided to tackle the image of ageing councillors who appeared to have settled into a job for life by re-interviewing each of the party’s 45 councillors and demanding to know the extent of their campaigning and recent achievements. In a “night of the long knives” 16 councillors with a total of 190 years of experience were found wanting and deselected as candidates in favour of younger blood, a move that infuriated Alex Mosson, the former lord provost, who described it as “a travesty of justice”. He said: “Labour are consigning these people not only to the dole but to the scrapheap, because a lot of them will not get a job because of their age.” However, a spokesman for the Labour Party said this week that: “Labour councillor is not a job for life.”

Among the new candidates is Martin Rhodes, 45, who works for the Scottish Fair Trade Forum and will be standing in Maryhill Kelvin. He believes that it is not a case of how long Labour has ruled but what are its plans for the future: “I am absolutely confident we will win.”

The SNP has a curious relationship with Glasgow. In 1968, following on from Winnie Ewing’s historic victory in Hamilton, the SNP secured 13 council seats and ruled in coalition with the Conservative Party, a feat which was repeated nine years later when it helped steer the city as part of a coalition from 1977 to 1980. Yet for three decades the electoral system of “first past the post” counted against the SNP. Labour once secured 69 out of the 79 seats with around 50 per cent of the vote, while the SNP won just four with 20 per cent of the vote. The introduction of proportional representation in 2007 has produced a more balanced set of results, with the SNP now holding 22 councillors.

Thirty years ago, when Labour took control, the large number of Catholics in Glasgow would not have considered voting for the SNP which was still viewed by many as a Protestant party, a position not helped in 1982 by the party’s president, William Wolfe, who spoke out against the Papal visit. However, Alex Salmond’s skilful wooing of the late cardinal archbishop of Glasgow, Thomas Winning – to the point in which he announced from the pulpit (albeit in South Africa), “we want our freedom” – did much to build bridges with the Catholic community over which many have now run.

As the political historian and Scotsman columnist Gerry Hassan says: “The Labour folklore of the city has forgotten it has lost control of the city when it was unpopular and so Labour has chosen to believe a story of itself that they were more strong and entrenched in the city than the party actually is, and that is the road to disaster. What could happen is that Labour lose Glasgow and the SNP end up as the biggest party.” However, he adds: “The SNP never had a Glasgow strategy – ever. They never acknowledged that this city was different and that required an organisational strategy that was different.”

The forthcoming campaign will be fought by Labour on its achievements, such as the low rise of youth unemployment (3 per cent, compared to 12 per across Scotland), the housing stock transfer that led to a £1 billion investment in housing and the regeneration of the East End ahead of the Commonwealth Games. The party will also hammer home what it sees as the SNP Government’s failure to support Glasgow with the cancellation of the Glasgow airport rail link and an unfair budget cut.

Gordon Matheson, the Labour leader of Glasgow City Council, argues that if Glasgow got the same percentage of the local government budget as they did when the Labour Scottish Executive were in power, the city would have an extra £42 million in the budget: “There is a bleeding away of resources from Glasgow, demonstrably, to other parts of the country in which the SNP have more of an interest.”

However, there have been accusations of cronyism and the poor use of public funds by Labour, such as the recent decision to give Ronnie Saez, the head of a charity set up to tackle poverty in the poorest parts of Glasgow, a golden goodbye worth £500,000 after he was made redundant as the chief executive of the Glasgow East Regeneration Agency. The deal included a “severance payment” of £42,000 and a boost to his pension of £470,000, of which £208,000 was discretionary. When questioned by the press, Councillor George Coleman replied: “We must have felt he deserved it.” Matheson dismissed accusations of cronyism as “a lazy argument”.

When I meet Allison Hunter, leader of the SNP at Glasgow City Council, she raises transparency and openness as one of the party’s goals, and says that they are increasingly popular with Glaswegians. However, she is refreshingly honest on certain points.

The Scotsman: If people on the doorstep ask how will you get more money for Glasgow – how will you answer that?

Allison Hunter: “How will we get more money for Glasgow? Independence. Get rid of the Westminster government, as they are the ones holding the purse strings.”

The Scotsman: As that is not yet an option, let’s concentrate on the levers that are within your control?

Allison Hunter: “Well, quite honestly, I don’t know how we could do that, but we would certainly explore every avenue to see how we could get more money for Glasgow. We are passionate about Glasgow. Because we are SNP does not mean we don’t care about Glasgow. We do care about Glasgow very much. All of us. We will fight as hard as we can to get as much money as we can for Glasgow. Being beholden to the SNP does not mean that we can’t fight our corner.”

Later I ask about the SNP’s plans for power in Glasgow.

The Scotsman: If you seize control of the council, are there two or three policies you would be keen to push through?

Allison Hunter: “I haven’t thought about that yet. Actually, I’m not an out-there leader. I’m a team leader. So we haven’t actually thought about that yet.”

Still, there is plenty of time as neither have the public given it much thought. However, back out on the streets of Glasgow there are some who now find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Jamie Horton, 28, has the smart suit and confident demeanour of a surveyor: “I will not be voting for Labour. They do believe they have a birthright to run Glasgow and I will not be voting for the SNP because I disagree with their central policy, and I don’t want to put any more wind into their sails, which pretty much leaves medisenfranchised.”