Insight: Why the Govanhill community has trust in Nicola Sturgeon to deliver

“I’ve never known a community like this for people getting involved,” says poet and former Labour party activist Jim Monaghan as we meander along Calder Street in the heart of Govanhill, Glasgow’s most culturally vibrant, yet demonised neighbourhood. “Whatever needs done, 20 to 30 volunteers will immediately step forward.”

It is a glorious day, full of clashing colours. Under a cerulean sky, a shopkeeper sets out a dazzling array of fruit - tomatoes, lemons, aubergines, satsumas - in plastic bowls. Vivid Black Lives Matter murals brighten up once-drab walls.

Most of the eateries - the Italian cafes, African restaurants and Turkish kebab shops, for which Govanhill is known - are closed. The exotic spices and sticky Asian sweets which, in non-pandemic times, titillate the eyes and nose, are hidden behind shutters.

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But the streets still thrum with noise. Behind us, men in hard hats go in and out of the boarded-up Edwardian baths as regeneration work finally gets underway after 20 years of campaigning. “It’s such a thrill to see,” says Monaghan. “A proper victory for People Power.”

Support for Nicola Sturgeon on Allison St, Govanhill. Picture: John Devlin

On the surrounding streets, a man dressed in shalwar kameez and a skull cap hollers hello to a neighbour, faces peer out of chiffon-draped windows, while bin lorries stop to pick up rubbish.

It is the Holyrood election that has brought me to Govanhill which - famously - lies in Glasgow Southside, the constituency Nicola Sturgeon has held since its creation in 2011.

Glasgow Southside is one of Scotland’s most diverse constituencies. It takes in the gated mansions of Pollokshields as well as Ibrox and Govan, which once teemed with shipyard workers. It takes in Strathbungo, with its Greek Thomson terraces as well as the Gorbals, a former melting pot of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigration.

Govanhill encompasses just one square mile and 18,000 residents; and yet it is these few streets between Pollokshaws Road and Cathcart Road which garner the greatest attention.

Portrait of Jim Monaghan, 57, Govanhill community organiser and poet. Picture: John Devlin

With 52 nationalities and 32 languages, some friction is inevitable. The neighbourhood is also home to several thousand Roma, one of the most stigmatised ethnic groups in the world, and there is no shortage of rogue landlords willing to cram large families into single rooms in poorly maintained properties.

But it is the fact Sturgeon is its MSP that has made it a lightning rod for the far-right. In recent years, Govanhill has found itself at the centre of a succession of negative, and often unfounded, stories about litter, crime and child sexual exploitation.

“No-one ever wote in national papers about Govanhill until Sturgeon took over as First Minister, and then it became “GovanHELL” and you had all the stuff about children being sold for sex

which, as far as I can work out, is an urban myth,” says political commentator and southside resident Gerry Hassan.

Gorbals resident Bobby Corlett stands on Cumberland Street. Picture: John Devlin

In this election, the focus on Glasgow Southside, and Govanhill in particular, has been amplified by the decision of both Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar and Britain Freedom Party extremist and convicted racist Jayda Fransen to stand against her.

Sarwar is unlikely to make serious inroads on Sturgeon’s 9,593 majority. But the clash of the party leaders is compelling on many levels. In the 1997 General Election, Sturgeon lost to Sarwar’s father Mohammad Sarwar in Govan. Sarwar became the UK’s first Muslim MP and encountered racism throughout his political career.

His son too has been targeted. A few weeks ago, he was harassed by former Brexit Party candidate David Ballantine who made a series of remarks about Pakistan’s child rape laws and the alleged abuse of children by asylum seekers in Glasgow.

The allegations of child abuse echo those made against the Roma in Govanhill. These allegations - which have been investigated repeatedly by the police - are spread via a Facebook group and by the vlogger Alex Cairney who claimed to be “terrified” as he walked around filming the area. In recent weeks, one of the Black Lives Matters murals has been vandalised and spat at.

Inga Zaiceva, 45, The People's Pantry development worker. Picture: John Devlin

Fransen does not pose any kind of electoral threat. When she stood in the by-election in Rochester and Strood in 2014, she polled 56 votes - less than half the number polled by the Monster Raving Loony Party candidate. What she is expected to do, however, is to use her platform to spout bigotry and attempt to inflame existing tensions.

Monaghan is worried but says Govanhill is ready for her. “A load of us - local individuals, campaign groups, community groups - have formed a WhatsApp group to organise a response so that, if she sets foot here, she will know how unwelcome she is.”

Stand Up To Racism is gathering signatures to a statement calling on all candidates to “deny any space for Fascism to gain even a toe-hold in our communities”. Hundreds of posters with the words “Nae Nazis” written in the 10 most spoken languages in Govanhill will be put up in the windows of shops and flats.

“Fransen wants to preach her brand of hate in this vibrant place, but I have no doubt it will bring the community closer together," says Stand Up To Racism activist Ross Clark. "The people of Govanhill kicked out Oswald Mosely’s blackshirts in the 1930s, and, if Fransen comes, they will kick her out in 2021.”

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That Govanhill has its problems is beyond dispute. You don’t have to walk far to come across rubbish-strewn gutters and gardens infested with weeds. Visiting the area last week, Sarwar criticised the poor living conditions which he blamed on “14 years of SNP failure”. And yet, Sturgeon - who polled 61% of the vote last time round - is popular even with Labour supporters like Monaghan.

Govanhill Baths Community Trust office. Picture: John Devlin

“I will be voting for Anas,” he says, “but I think she is a good MSP. Given she has three jobs - (FM, party leader and MSP) - you would expect her to struggle for time, but you always get the support you need. I have worked for MSPs in the past, and she is as active and visible in her community than any politician I have seen.”

Monaghan regards Sarwar as an asset to Scottish Labour and believes he has run a positive campaign so far. “He is a much better communicator than previous Scottish leaders,” he says.

“And - though there are those in Labour who will place him on the right of the party - people round here know him as one of the Sarwar family, who were staunchly against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and staunchly against Trident.” Monaghan points out Sarwar has also been chair of Labour Friends of Palestine.

And yet, despite his leanings, Monaghan is protective of the SNP leader who - he believes - is in a no-win situation, vulnerable both to criticism that she is favouring her own constituency, and that she is neglecting it.

“From time to time I do toy with voting for Sturgeon as an act of solidarity," he says. "As a vote against all the people who shout at her for those things which are outwith her control,” he said.

One of the things that annoys Monaghan is the suggestion little has been done to improve poor housing conditions. In fact, he says, the Scottish Government introduced new powers in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014, with Govanhill in mind.

The legislation allowed local authorities to designate neighbourhoods blighted by slum landlords as “enhanced enforcement areas”. Landlords in those areas can be compelled to submit to a criminal record check, produce a building insurance policy and provide safety certificates. Local authorities also have the power to force entry to properties and to install smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and bill the owners.

The Scottish government then gave tens of millions of pounds to Govanhill Housing Association to buy back tenement flats from the private sector so it can upgrade them; so far it has acquired around 300.

Once the housing association owns 50% of the flats in any close, it can take over the factoring and make further improvements to the fabric of the building.

“I think anyone who doesn’t see a difference isn’t spending any time here,” Monaghan says. To prove the point, he takes me to his own street and shows me his close and the one next to it. “The flats next door have been done up from the foundations to the roof - every inch of the building,” he says. We also walk along Annette Street where entire blocks have been renovated. Their blonde sandstone facades and gardens are pristine.

Another bugbear for Monaghan is the claim Sturgeon is never in the constituency. In fact, everyone I speak to in Govanhill and elsewhere in Glasgow Southside says the opposite is true: that the SNP leader comes to everything from Bungo in the Back Lanes to the Roma Day parade, and rarely delegates her surgeries.

Two weeks ago, she visited The People’s Pantry - a shop that provides good quality food at a subsidised rate to members. Its aim is to provide a more dignified alternative to food banks for those who - for whatever reason - struggle to secure enough nutritious food.

Today, Inga Zaiceva - a hearty Lithuanian woman, who moved to Govanhill in 2006 - is telling me how those involved try to cater for all cultures.

“From FareShare [a food redistribution charity] we get big catering-sized packets of meat,” she says. “Roma, Polish, Lithuanian people are brought up that if you have meat in the freezer you are fine, so they are happy to take these away.

“The Asian community prefers halal meat. We cannot afford that right now, but we try to go to the fruit and vegetable markets to try to provide for them. The other day we were looking for dates because Eid is forthcoming.”

What she and others are doing is amazing but, at the moment, demand exceeds capacity and the shop has a 300-strong waiting list. Does Zaiceva not feel such desperate need is the product of political failure?

“I do feel if a person is working and needs to come in here to get fresh fruit and veg it’s not OK,” she says. “If a person is working they should get paid enough money to buy shopping in a supermarket and not have to look for something nearly out of date. As a single mum I have been in that situation. I always worked but sometimes after rent and electricity there was little left for food.”

Zaiceva plans to vote for Sturgeon. She wants independence, not only because of Brexit, which meant she had to apply for settled status and can no longer afford to send parcels home, but because she thinks the country would do better if it wasn’t “being curated by Nanny McPhee” in London.

For Fransen, she has nothing but contempt. “Some people in politics like to pick on anything that will give them publicity, so let her have it,” she says. “Of course bad things happen here

sometimes, but do they happen in the West End? Yes. They are happening in Pollokshaws and London and all over the world.

“Everywhere, there are good people, everywhere idiots. But I think Govanhill is more inclusive than other places. People know if they need something they can come and chap the doors of shops or different organisations, and they will get a welcome. I love Govanhill for that.”

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Of course, not everyone is so happy with Sturgeon.

In the New Gorbals, the sun is glancing off the multi-coloured shutters on the flats in Queen Elizabeth Square, transforming it into an abstract, urban Balamory. Not far away, on Cumberland Street, Bobby Corlett, 87, is catching his breath after a trip to the shop. “I have had a bad shock,” he says, a twinkle in his eye. “They charged me £2.50 for a bottle of white spirit. It’s so expensive I’m going to go home and drink it.”

Corlett is sitting close to The Gorbals Boys statue - Oscar Marzaroli’s photograph of three lads in their mother’s over-sized shoes cast in bronze on the site of the former brutalist Hutchesontown C tower blocks. Corlett was living in the Gorbals when the photograph was taken back in 1963. Like many others, he made the transition from tenement to high rise to low rise. “They put us out of the high flats and blew them up,” he says.

Corlett says he will be voting SNP again. But former soldier Owen Dill tells me many people are “losing faith” with Sturgeon.

“I’ve voted for Sturgeon before but I don’t know this time,” he shouts down from the balcony of his flat where he is tucking into a ham sandwich. “I don’t trust her as much. I’m not sure she told the whole truth in the Salmond inquiry and it feels like lockdown has gone on too long.”

Dill’s 24-year-old son, also a soldier, is currently at home for two weeks from Afghanistan, but he says he has found it tough to get through the pandemic.

“It’ll be either Labour or SNP,” he adds. “But I might not decide until I get into the booth.”

In the old Gorbals burial ground - now the Rose Garden - a single bronze flower bows its head in memory of local resident James Stokes, awarded a posthumous VC in WWII.

There, two women - one on a park bench, the other in a wheelchair - are engaged in a lengthy discussion about the two candidates and politics in general. The friends - who met at the local Givin’ It Laldy choir - love living in the Gorbals. They say its chequered history means it benefits from a lot of positive initiatives.

The woman on the bench says there isn’t much difference between Labour and the SNP in terms of social policies, but that she finds Sturgeon relatable and hard working, while the one time she met Sarwar he came across as “a bit patronising and smarmy.”

“When we had trouble with the housing association Sturgeon came to mediate,” she says. “She said she could only spare an hour, but was still there at 10pm. And then I received an email from her after midnight.”

And yet, the woman says, what she’s picking up from traditional SNP voters is that they feel - with the pandemic ongoing - now is not the time to be talking about a second independence referendum.

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The women, who don’t want to be named, won’t tell me who they are voting for, but it doesn’t matter: the result is a foregone conclusion.

Sturgeon will win Glasgow Southside, just as the SNP will retain power at Holyrood. The only thing in doubt is the scale of their respective victories. One recent poll suggests the SNP will secure 63 MSPs, the same as last time, and so miss out on an overall majority.

Sarwar is widely perceived to be performing well, with commentators agreeing he has grown in maturity and gravitas since his time as an MP for Glasgow Central from 2010 to 2015.

And yet this is unlikely to improve Labour’s showing. Indeed Monaghan believes that - with Dumbarton and Edinburgh Southern marginals - the party might actually drop a seat. “They will gain a list seat for losing Dumbarton,” he says, “but they might not gain a list seat for losing Edinburgh Southern because the Greens will be strong there.”

“So I think their vote will go up, but I don’t think they will have any more MSPs, and, while the Tories will lose MSPs, they have a seven-seat lead on Labour so I don’t see his election changing much at all.”

Nor is Sarwar expected to cut into Sturgeon’s majority. “I guess, he can pull his vote up a wee bit,” says Gerry Hassan. “Two thirds of Pollokshields East is Asian - he could maybe poll better there through name recognition because he has won before, and he might benefit from Tory tactical voting, but I can’t think it would make more than a couple of percent difference.”

Hassan believes the only thing that could cut her vote would be a significant fall in turn-out. “That could knock a couple of thousand off,” he says. Then again, it would still leave her 7,500 votes ahead.

Even so, she is not complacent. At the tail-end of last week she was working her patch as if she were hanging on to it by a thread. There were photographs of her peering through bike spokes

and cooing at babies. There were photographs of her in front of the statue of rent strike campaigner Mary Barbour, between the funnels of the miniature Waverley at Govan Community Garden and wearing a headscarf at the Sikh Gurdwara. She was also spotted in Queen’s Park.

However predestined her victory, Sturgeon is taking nothing for granted.

British activist Jayda Fransen. Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
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