Outside Pollok Health Centre, pensioners are standing, a cigarette in one hand, their freshly collected medication in the other. Immediately opposite, the cliff face of Silverburn Shopping Centre looms up: a gleaming temple to consumerism into which they rarely venture.
“Have you seen they prices?” says one woman. “A hundred and fifty pounds for trainers. That’s for folk from Newton Mearns, no’ for us.” When Silverburn was built, the old Pollok Shopping Centre was demolished. Many of its shops were run down and it had been linked with drug dealing, but residents talk fondly of congregating under the giant clock and waiting for its mechanical figures to crank into action.
The Glasgow Pollok constituency – which encompasses the 1950s schemes of Pollok, Nitshill, Priesthill, Corkerhill and Arden – includes areas of multiple deprivation; though much of the original housing has been renovated or replaced, unemployment remains high and life expectancy low. Like most Glasgow constituencies, it used to be solidly Labour.
Since the Scottish Parliament began, its MSP has been the party’s former Scottish leader Johann Lamont. But in 2011, as the SNP gained momentum, her 4,555 majority was cut to 623 by Chris Stephens. Stephens went on to win the overlapping Glasgow South West constituency for the SNP in last year’s general election. With no evidence of the SNP tsunami retreating, it seems likely that Lamont will lose her seat to Humza Yousaf on 5 May, although she is also on her party’s regional list.
Her best hope is that those who were drawn to the SNP by its promises to tackle social inequality will be disillusioned by the pace of change. Last month, rapper, cultural commentator and former SNP voter, Loki, who endured a traumatic upbringing in Pollok, said he believed the party’s recent policies have been aimed at affluent No voters. Loki, whose real name is Darren McGarvey, accused the SNP of “cultivating a tolerance for low taxation coupled with moderate incremental reform, peppered with comforting social justice rhetoric.”
If this is true, it has made no impact on Helen McNicoll. The 63-year-old, who works part-time in a supermarket, has been visiting the Civic Realm, an anodyne complex which houses the health centre, swimming pool, library and community museum. Having looked after her sister, she admires Lamont’s efforts on behalf of carers, but has decided to give both votes to the SNP. Her own complex medical problems mean she is grateful for free prescriptions. “I was on eight tablets for my heart, blood pressure and depression. I had to pay for them because I was working, so it has made a huge difference to me,” she says.
In Arden – the estate where Jim Murphy grew up – Archie Hunter is also a believer. The garden of his home is bedecked with flowers and his front window bedecked with SNP posters. “I’ve got another one that says ‘I’m with Nicola’, but I don’t know where I’ve put it,” he frets, as he ushers me into a room full of Native American collectibles. Hunter, a retired taxi driver, has always voted SNP and has no intention of stopping now. “Since they’ve come in, they’ve done a lot of good, and the more power they get, the more good they will do. I think they are for the people; very socialist in their outlook.” What about Labour? “They’re dead here. That Kezia Dugdale: what a muppet.”
Yet, despite these avowals of SNP loyalty, there continues to be a degree of dispossession in Glasgow Pollok. Some of those I speak to don’t know about the election while others have decided to stay away because “there’s no-one worth voting for” or because they believe the result is a foregone conclusion.
Jimmy Clark, a retired janitor, won’t be voting because “politicians are liars”. Michael Duffy, a unionist, won’t be voting because he believes there’s no single party strong enough to form an effective opposition. Robert Savage will probably vote SNP, but would prefer to see a “People’s Party” which would work for the good of ordinary folk.
In parts of Glasgow Pollok, where poverty is woven into the fabric of existence, you sense a hunger for something more radical. Once, the disaffected might have voted for local folk hero Tommy Sheridan. He came second to Lamont in the 2003 Holyrood elections, the same year six Scottish Socialist Party members, including Sheridan, were voted in from the lists. Savage remembers him holding forth on a patch of land in Arden. “He never came back,” he says.
Sheridan’s conviction for perjury damaged his credibility, but a few still look to him and his current party, Solidarity, as an alternative. So while Hunter praises the SNP for refusing to countenance university tuition fees, his step-granddaughter, Dionne Newman, 20, who has just won a place at Glasgow University, will give her list vote to Sheridan (if he was standing as a constituency candidate she’d give him that vote too).
“Nicola talked big, but she has let herself down,” Newman says. “She promised she was going to target the disadvantaged, but nothing’s been done and every day kids are dropping out of school.”
Hunter is having none of this. When Yousaf set up a stall on the estate, he was straight out to help with his campaign. Yet even Hunter seems to want the SNP to be more radical, at least when it comes to taxing the wealthy.
“I think the party has done a good job,” Hunter says. “But I would like nothing better than a proper Labour party run from Scotland. If we could have that [within an independent Scotland] – that’s probably the way I’d go.”
The candidates standing for Glasgow Pollok are: Conservative – Thomas Haddow; Labour – Johann Lamont; Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition – Ian Leech; Liberal Democrats – Isabel Nelson; SNP – Humza Yousaf.