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Glasgow East. Labour goes South.

It’s often said that people in constituencies like Glasgow East would vote for a monkey provided it was wearing a red rosette. I would not dream of comparing Labour’s capable candidate Margaret Curran to a sub-human primate, but I suspect even she would agree that her party have made monkeys of themselves.

Labour could hardly have got off to a worse start in this crucial by-election. Its Scottish leader, Wendy Alexander, resigning on the eve of the campaign over a Holyrood fund-raising scandal; the sitting Labour MP, David Marshall, resigning on health grounds amid expense account allegations, and Labour’s intended by-election candidate, John Ryan, resigning even before he had been selected. Margaret Curran hasn’t resigned yet, but she doesn’t even appear to know what constituency she’s living in so maybe she’ll get round to it.

Yet despite all this, the smart money is still on the monkeys to win in Glasgow East. If so, this represents quite heroic dedication to a lost cause by the good folk of Greater Shettleston. After a decade of Labour government, nearly half the population here is living on benefits, life expectancy is lower than in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed, and unemployment is running at nearly twice the national average. Loyalty is its own reward, they say, and Glasgow East is living proof.

But I don’t seek to disparage the voters of Glasgow for supporting Labour so doggedly over the years. Those who know this part of the city insist that the people here are not suffering from mental delusion or a chronic brain cell loss but from a kind of anachronistic altruism: they do what they think is morally right rather than what is in their narrow self interest. They’re a little like Robert Tressell’s “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Residents of Glasgow East can see perfectly well what Labour has done, or not done for this broken community, but many believe that, in the end, Labour is still the party of the working man – even though most of the men are on incapacity benefit – and that voting Labour therefore must be the correct moral choice.

This is reinforced by the leaders of the influential Catholic Church – a third of Glasgow East voters are Catholic – which has traditionally looked to Labour in West Central Scotland to secure the interests of its faith community. There has been speculation that the goverenment has postponed this week’s debate on the Embryology Bill to avoid giving offence to local church leaders – a maneovre which, I’m afraid, sounds only too in keeping with the cynical standards of this administration.

But this moral imperative represents a problem too for the SNP. Many Glaswegians still regard the SNP is a selfish party out to line its own tartan nest by redirecting oil revenues to it Scottish business friends. Alex Salmond rather encouraged this view by making “Scotland’s Oil” and cutting fuel duty the centrepiece of its campaign launch last week, forgetting that most people in Glasgow East don’t actually own a car, and that many feel that the oil is a national resourse, to be used ‘for the good of all’. You may laugh, but that’s the way they think in traditional Labour constituencies. Crude resource politics don’t work in places where people vote not on their pocket books but on their consciences.

And the SNP would be wrong to believe that the “Tartan Tory” tag can no longer be hung around their necks. We are about to discover that Labour is suddenly a party of red blooded socialists. They will be out and about in Glasgow parading their anti-capitalist credentials – at least until polling day. They’ll paint the Nats as the modern Thatcherites, in the pockets of businessmen like Brian Souter and Donald Trump; bent on cutting services and cutting business rates. Enough voters might even believe it.

So, what do you say to the people of Glasgow East? Should they continue to vote with their hearts or with their heads? By rejecting Labour they could place themselves on the map for the first time in Shettleston’s history. It’s no accident that nearby Glasgow Govan has been showered with infrastructure benefits, Garden Festivals, Science Centres over the last 20 years. Govan voted twice for the SNP in by-elections – in 1973, when it returned Margo MacDonald, and in 1988 when it returned her husband, Jim Sillars. The surest way to get noticed in the pork-barrel world of West Central Scotland Labour politics is to play the nationalist card. Otherwise you are just voting fodder.

Now, Glasgow East may be perfectly content to remain routine feedstuff for the great Laboru ruminant. That is a choice it is entitled to make and the voters deserve respect for their decision. But they should also reflect on whether Labour any longer deserves loyalty on this scale. Yes, this is the constituency of John Wheatley – health minister in the first ever Labour government in 1924 whose Housing Act created mass council housing and released thousands of Glaswegian families from the grip of the slum landlords. But is the spirit of Wheatley alive today? It is a grim irony that his former constituency now has some of he worst health statistics in the developed world, according to the United Nations, and that Glasgow housing is in a dreadful state.

Labour will try to argue that the stalled Glasgow housing stock transfer is in the tradition of John Wheatley, but that botched semi-privatisation has about as much to do with social housing as an interest-only mortgage. It is to Labour’s shame that it has taken a nationalist government to curb the right to buy, a policy which has diminished the quantity and quality of council housing by selling off the best properties at knock-down prices. New Labour is too committed now to Thatcherite economics to contemplate a return to council housing.

The SNP has no social democratic traditions to fall back on, but it has become a repository of the policies New Labour has discarded. . The Nationalists are wise not to compare themselves with the Independent Labour Party and Red Clydeside – as they did so disastrously in the 1990s. But they must somehow to demonstrate that they have become the inheritors of that social democratic tradition to win the moral high ground. The Nationalists should be highlighting measures like free prescriptions, abolition of university tuition fees, extension of elderly care and suchlike. A few attacks on the banks and big oil wouldn’t go amiss either.

Still, Glagow East will take a lot of persuading. The link with Labour is more than just a question of political affiliation; it is almost an existential question about what this communty believes about itself. And there is one final point. This isn’t a normal by-election. Glasgow East voters realise that they could kill the UK Labour government on Thursday week by voting Labour out of its third safest seat in Scotland. Gordon Brown would probably be finished. Many voters here believe Labour deserves to lose Glasgow East, but more may decide that Britain doesn’t deserve a return of the Tories. Better the monkeys you know than the monkeys you don’t.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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