Election special by Paul Kavanagh (a.k.a. The Wee Ginger Dug)
There’s a mountain in Glasgow North East. It’s the sheer rock face of Wullie Bain’s massif, a majority that towers over any opposition, so large and imposing that it has always been described as impregnable.
Even with the massive swings to the SNP reported in a slew of recent opinion polls, Glasgow North East is still regarded as a safe redoubt for Labour. An Ashcroft poll taken in February showed that Wullie’s majority would be much diminished, but he was still in front, the seat looked like it would be the last bastion of Labour in Glasgow.
So Glasgow North East is one of the safest Labour seats in the country – so far.
Undaunted, a woman from Glasgow North East has taken on the challenge. She’s got her rope, she’s got her crampons, the SNP’s Anne McLaughlin is the Sherpa Tensing of Springburn and she’s going to climb Labour’s Mount Everest, door-chap by door-chap, street by street.
If she gets to the top she’ll look down on a radically different Scottish political landscape, one where Labour has been wiped out. And Anne will have been instrumental in changing it. She’ll be the one on the top of Labour’s highest mountain, planting the Saltire marking the end of that party’s dominance of Scottish politics. Anne is determined to carry the message of hope and renewal to the top of the mountain.
It was a bright and sunny day when I visited Anne and her campaign team in an industrial unit in Royston. Even though the office was off the main road, there was a steady stream of visitors and local residents. Not all come in to offer help with the campaign. Mhairi Love, one of Anne’s campaign volunteers, told me that they often get people in requesting help with benefits problems, and they always take the time to sit down with them and do what they can. They have nowhere else to turn for help. It’s a symptom of the great social and structural problems faced by the constituency, an area which has been represented and taken for granted by the Labour Party for generations.
Anne is a local resident. She knows better than most the issues and problems faced by Glasgow North East, the product of years of systematic neglect, but she wants to focus on the positive. Although challenged by circumstances and ignored by the centres of power, local residents have incredible reserves of strength and resilience. These are qualities that Anne displays in abundance herself. “I only put myself forward for this area. It’s here, where I live, that I want to represent,” she said. “People told me that it was hopeless, that it would be impossible to overturn a massive Labour majority. But I like a challenge.”
The sun lights her from behind as we chat in the cavern of her campaign office, “I knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” she says urgently. “It’s exhausting, but the only way to get through this campaign is to embrace the exhaustion.”
She tells me about community projects, such as Love Milton, which were begun and are run by local residents who aim to restore a sense of community and improve the local area. The strength and determination of people behind projects like Love Milton are the truth about this area – but the media prefers to focus on the social deprivation, the drug abuse, and the short life spans.
Anne’s not blind to the negatives or the great challenges, but she knows that they can best be addressed by local people themselves, taking the initiative into their own hands and not being the passive subjects of a distant power. She sees her role as being a spokesperson and someone who can empower local people, a representative who is part of the community she speaks for.
Willie Bain is typical of Labour’s machine politicians, representing an area but not of it. Anne mentions a hustings meeting when she debated Willie, and how during his introductory speech he spoke for several minutes about big power politics between Labour and the Conservatives in London, but didn’t address himself to the concerns of the area he was elected to represent. While he was out canvassing one local resident asked him what he was going to do about the poverty, the low life expectancy, and the drug and alcohol abuse that stalk the streets of Glasgow North East, and his reply was “I’ll look into that for you” as though it was news to him.
Of course you can’t climb a mountain this high without any assistance. Anne can count on the support of an enthusiastic and dedicated team of volunteers who trudge the streets, knock on doors, and deliver leaflets, carrying the message that things can change. Some are young, like Mhairi – who was collating paperwork with the assistance of her young daughter – and David Houston who has taken time away from his PhD in order to campaign.
Others are not so young, like an 84 year old who comes into the office most days to help out, and was a lifelong Labour voter until the referendum made him challenge his own views. “He said you’re never too old to change,” Anne told me.
There’s a change in the air, you can almost taste it. The change is in the smiles of Anne’s volunteers, their excited banter, the enthusiasm and energy with which they set out to canvass and leaflet. They know that Scotland is changing, they know that they’re a part of history, and they’re making it happen. Scotland, and Glasgow North East, can be a better place.
Despite the odds, despite the seat being regarded as impregnable and safe for Labour, Anne and her team have been making steady progress, slowly climbing ever higher, hand hold by hand hold. The canvass returns are better than anyone could have hoped for, and Anne is quietly confident that she’s going to defy expectations and stand on top of the mountain in Glasgow North East.