Insight: Scotland’s voters changing allegiances

OVER the whirr of forklift trucks weaving in and out of each other’s paths like dodgems, and the clatter of crates being hoiked on and off, a voice rings out.

John Douglas, is a former Labour supporter who has become disillusioned with the party of the working classes and is hungry for change. Picture: John Devlin.
John Douglas, is a former Labour supporter who has become disillusioned with the party of the working classes and is hungry for change. Picture: John Devlin.

“Oi, Vote SNP.” The owner of the voice, John Douglas, is a former Labour supporter who has become disillusioned with the “party of the working classes” and is hungry for change.

His rallying cry, across the length of Blochairn fruit and vegetable market in the north-east of Glasgow, is done for effect, to wind up fellow wholesaler Ricky McDowall, a Tory voter whose allegiance to the Union is so great he put a No sign up during the indyref campaign. But Douglas is in earnest when it comes to his change in political loyalties. “My father and my grandfather were Labour voters. Most of my family worked in the steelworks. They would be turning in their grave if they knew I was voting SNP. But I hope, if they saw what was happening around Scotland now, they would understand,” he says.

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Douglas is one of the many thousands of Labour supporters who voted Yes and then deserted to join the SNP in the wake of defeat in September. He has taken stick from those who believed that, as a Rangers fan, he ought to have backed Better Together; but all the years spent in the boisterous atmosphere of the market mean he is capable of fighting his corner. He tells his critics they ought to vote with their heads, not according to their religion.

Rosalind Harvey. Picture: John Devlin

“I managed to talk most of my family round – my four sons are all SNP voters now, though not my daughter. My ex-wife, she is deputy something or other for Eastwood and I’ve even managed to convert a few in here.”

As other Total Produce workers make their morning inventory, vegetable manager Douglas takes stock of his journey away from his political roots. “The likes of Cameron and Clegg and all of those [Westminster] politicians look after the rich, and the poor can fend for themselves,” he says. “I thought Alex Salmond was a much better politician than Jim Murphy; and per head of the population Scotland was putting in more to the UK coffers than the English or Welsh and getting back less. Now Labour are trying to appease people like me, but I don’t think their policies will work. I prefer to take my chances with Nicola Sturgeon.”

With his loss of faith in his old party and his evangelism for the SNP, Douglas embodies the sea change which seems set to turn swathes of Scotland from red to yellow on 7 May. Labour has haemorrhaged support post-referendum, with the Ashcroft poll suggesting the SNP could win 50 of Scotland’s 59 seats. In Glasgow – home of the Red Clydesiders, where all seven constituencies have Labour MPs, and six of them have majorities of more than 10,000 – only Willie Bain in Glasgow North-East seems secure.

The reasons for this mass defection are many and complex. For some, the sight of Labour joining forces with the Conservatives for Better Together vindicated their suspicion that one was as bad as the other, hence the “Red Tory” tag. For others, it’s a more general sense of abandonment in the face of decades of unyielding poverty.

Pub landlord Billy Gold in The Hielan Jessie. Picture: John Devlin

Attempts to woo back the 190,000 Labour supporters who voted Yes are failing to convince. Murphy may come up with another social justice policy every time there is a lull in the national conversation, but it appears it will take more than allusions to his impoverished childhood and a promise to scrap zero hours contracts to persuade “Glasgow man” he means business. “They’re starting to sound like the SNP was before the referendum,” says fellow Labour deserter Charlie Conlon, at Johnston & Scott flower wholesaler, from amongst the hyacinths and gerbera. “The policies and all the things they are coming out with are like a recording of what the SNP have been saying for ages.” As for Murphy’s suggestion that voting SNP will let the Tories in? “Och, that’s a load of magumby. They’re just clutching at straws,” Douglas retorts.

Underlying the disaffection with Scottish Labour is the belief it is run from Westminster and a disgruntlement with the whole political system. Labour-voting supporters of independence hoped a Yes vote would upend the establishment; deprived of this, they see an SNP rout in the general election – and a possible role as power-broker – as the next best option.

This desire for upheaval is strongest, though not confined to, areas where unemployment is rife and food banks flourishing. At 3am, Blochairn may be a blur of activity, but the explosion of supermarkets means even here trade is in decline (where once there were 42 companies, only 13 remain); and the market is surrounded by deprivation: Springburn, Sighthill, Royston, Blackhill, all estates where need is mapped in the contours of people’s faces.

Inside the Forge Market in Parkhead, shoppers mill about stalls selling everything from christening gowns to headstones. In a mock marquee, fortune teller Sarah Petulengro promises to reveal the future, but in Glasgow East – where men have the lowest life expectancy in the UK – you don’t need second sight to understand that unless something changes soon, it will be bleak. On an inside wall, a mural is the only testament to the days when the site housed the largest iron and steelworks plant in Europe; an image of molten metal being poured out segues into planes, ships and tanks, a reminder that its furnaces produced armaments for two world wars.

Daniel Millen. Picture: John Devlin

Outside, there is both fury and defeat, and all the talk is of the bedroom tax, sanctions and food banks. Robina Hunter long ago lost patience, not just with the Labour Party, but with all politicians. A resident of Dalmarnock, a community torn apart to make way for the Commonwealth Games, she has never voted. “What’s the point? They say one thing, but they mean the other. They never give us the truth, they give us half-truths.”

Hunter has a pacemaker and epilepsy, little support and, since the Games, a patchy bus service. Her friend, Annemarie Airens, on whom Hunter relies to get out and about, voted Labour when she voted at all, but is a zealous SNP convert. Dot Cotton with a Glaswegian accent, she is shrill with anger at the way the poorest have been forced to bear the brunt of austerity policies. “I’ve raised four kids and I’m supposed to pay the bedroom tax because I’ve got an extra room,” she says. “I’m not paying it, but I fought for a house with a front and back door and I’m not giving it up. I’ve told them: ‘They can come and brick it up. I’ll not be moving.’”

Airens blames Labour-dominated Glasgow City Council for what has happened in Dalmarnock and the party for sitting by and doing nothing to help the country at large. “They’re too busy thinking aboot themselves. Our councillor? If he was chocolate he would f***ing eat himself. I will never vote Labour again.”

Just over a mile away in Shettleston, Julie Ashcroft shares something of Airens’ sense of betrayal. She is standing near the Jobcentre. On the other side of the road are other hallmarks of under-privilege; two discount grocery shops, two take-aways and a betting shop.

“I gave up on Labour because of all the lies and false hopes,” she says. “The East End is a terrible place for kids to grow up, just generation after generation, nothing but drugs, drugs, drugs, and they’ve done nothing to help. It’s a cycle that’s not being broken.”

Bar owner Billy Gold believes Glasgow’s love affair with Labour has been on the rocks for years, and that the referendum merely gave it an excuse to send it packing. His pub, Hielan Jessie, with its wood panelling and ceramic tiles, is close to the Barras and has one of only two permanent exhibitions of photographer Oscar Marzaroli’s work. Portraits of craggy pensioners, working men and girls dressed up for the dancing summon up the era of clanking machines and Labour loyalty.

Gold remembers those days well. His father worked in the Burroughs Adding Machine Factory in Cumbernauld and was a trade union member and Labour activist. Gold was fascinated by politics; where others took up fishing or bowling, he read about socialism and flirted with fringe parties while continuing to vote Labour. His first doubts surfaced around the time of the 1979 referendum when the party opposed devolution.

“I knew the leaders Labour guys revered – the ones they looked back on with a wee tear in their eye, like John Maclean or Willie Gallacher, were advocating a Scottish Socialist republic, so I couldn’t understand why it was such a non-socialist idea to talk about nationalism,” he says.

Those doubts deepened with the poll tax when he felt it was far-left leaders like Tommy Sheridan – not the mainstream Labour party – who took a stand against the poindings, and eventually he started voting SNP.

“In some areas round here, people are against the powers that be: the polis, the social work, and they began to see the Labour Party as on the other side of the fence from them.

“It’s become more and more entrenched through things like the Iraq War and the Labour having the same economic policies as the Tories. People are saying: ‘I can’t vote for that.’ I think that’s why you have the upsurge in the SNP support. The referendum galvanised people; it gave them an excuse to say, ‘Wait a minute’.”

Gold says the reaction to Glasgow East MP Margaret Curran’s focus on the issue of poor broadband access is the perfect illustration of the disconnect that now exists. “She was ridiculed. Folk were saying, ‘Your constituency has some of the worst deprivation in Europe, people have to go to food banks and you’re worried about broadband. That shows the kind of world you live in.’ I think the best comment was: ‘Make sure the door doesn’t hit your arse on the way oot, Margaret.’”

Some Labour supporters are finding it harder to make the break than others. Daniel Millen, a security guard in Asda, voted Yes and now counts himself as undecided. The 37-year-old who is getting a trim at a Turkish barber’s, has a four-year-old daughter, worries about the cost of childcare and is going to watch the debates to choose which party is most likely to deliver.

And then there is Rosalind Harvey. During a fag break outside the Mecca bingo at the Forge Market, she argues with an SNP-supporting friend about the best strategy for the general election; they have to speak loudly to make themselves heard over the bingo caller shouting numbers. Like the others, Harvey believes Labour took working class people for granted; she voted Yes in the referendum and may vote SNP in the Holyrood elections in 2016, but she lives in Murphy’s East Renfrewshire constituency and agrees voting Labour is the only way to keep the Tories out.

“I hated the way Labour sided with the Tories, but I bet they are regretting it now. I think they have learned their lesson and I want to give them another chance,” says Harvey, whose father worked in the shipyards. “It was hard for my parents, bringing up five kids. They never had enough money to go on holiday. But it’s hard now when you hear about the sanctions and the food banks. The cuts are so terrible – people can’t take any more.” Harvey wants to see more apprenticeships, a higher minimum wage and an end to zero hour contracts – all issues Labour has made pledges on.

Not everyone is so forgiving. Theresa Ward, from Croftfoot, who works in telesales, and her daughter, Kerry, a nurse from Rutherglen, joined the SNP shortly after the referendum. If they could be convinced to return to the Labour fold, the current leaders wouldn’t be the ones to do it.

“I thought David Miliband should have been elected Labour leader, not Ed,” says Theresa. “He would have appealed to more people, you would have listened to him instead of just drifting off. And Jim Murphy just tries too hard to be pally pally and a man of the people, which you can’t be. You need to assert some authority.”

“There are pros and cons to both parties,” says Kerry, “but people are thinking, ‘It’s time for change up here in Scotland. We’ll try the SNP and we’ll see what they can do.’” «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1