Glasgow, United Kingdom – In 2017, the Scottish National Party held off an insurgent Labour challenge by just 75 votes in Glasgow East. This time around sees the incumbent SNP MP, David Linden, take on Labour Party’s Kate Watson – but it is unlikely the result will be so close.
With less than three weeks until the election, there are few signs here of it taking place at all. The usual placards and posters are yet to be placed. Activists have suggested it is common sense – Glasgow’s famously hospitable weather would likely obliterate anything not nailed down, while most voters are wary about voting at all, or have already made up their minds.
Despite the current political ennui, Glasgow East has become a bellwether seat as well as one of the country’s poorest constituencies. For decades it was safely Labour, as was common among Scotland’s working-class communities. But 2008 saw a shock by-election win for the SNP which confirmed their entry into mainstream Scottish politics.
Labour regained the seat in the 2010 general election, before voters flocked to the SNP in 2015 – a landslide win for the nationalists. Margaret Curran, a veteran stalwart of the Labour Party in Scotland, lost by more than 10,000 votes in a result which became an emblem for its decline in its heartlands.
New Labour’s third-way politics were designed to appeal to wealthier voters, typically in more affluent constituencies in England. While their plan successfully paved the way for Blair and Brown’s administrations, it neglected the concerns of voters in seats such as Glasgow East, whose Easterhouse estate had been memorably described as “a desert with windows”.
Malik runs a laundrette in Shettleston and summed up the situation neatly. “I’ve always been SNP,” he told Al Jazeera. “Well, not always – I used to be Labour, but they have no chance here now.”
Brexit vs the economy
Altaf, a shopkeeper in Shettleston, summed up what people here want to see from politics: “Keeping people in jobs is the most important thing. The economy used to be shipbuilding, and Ravenscraig [once Europe’s largest steel mill, now closed].”
Labour Party has perhaps the most ambitious manifesto seen in decades, but it has little traction here. “This election is all about Brexit – nothing else,” says Malik.
Rich grew up in Devon, England, and now lives in East Dunbartonshire – Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson’s seat. Breaking away from his son’s football matches to get breakfast rolls at a cafe, he was emphatic about his motivations in December: “I just don’t know what England’s doing – I’ll probably vote SNP.”
The Lib Dems’ strategy across the United Kingdom is to appeal to remain-minded Tories in the same way that New Labour did. But as Rich put it, “Some of Jo Swinson’s voting record is really troubling.” It has become harder for UK parties to draw on right-wing support in England without a trade-off among liberal voters in Scotland.
The SNP has positioned itself as the vanguard of Scotland’s anti-Brexit public. The country voted by a 62-38 margin to remain in the European Union, and the SNP has spent the past three years capitalising on the image of a Tory-run Westminster government tearing Scotland away from the EU’s financial prosperity.
SNP? Yes. Independence? Maybe
Crucially, some voters are comfortable voting for the SNP even if, like Malik, they feel “Brexit and independence are different things – I’m SNP but not sure about independence yet”. At a UK general election, the SNP enjoys unambiguous positions on both EU membership and Scottish independence, but voters do not need to agree with both to vote against a political agenda set down south.
Labour’s position on key policies is less clear to voters. “I think they want to remain [in the EU], probably,” adds Malik. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has signalled he could allow a new independence referendum later on under a Labour government. This leaves the door open to a minority Labour government operating with SNP support in return for a future independence vote.
Scotland’s political kaleidoscope has turned in recent years. Now the SNP enjoys popularity across the country, as its anti-Brexit stance appeals even to voters who might not agree with them on Scottish independence.
Still, the SNP’s political goals rely on the support of Labour, and while they hope to defeat Corbyn’s acolytes in Glasgow East, they know Labour must succeed south of the border if the SNP is to realise any of its political aims. UK politics has rarely been more confused.
Note: Also in Glasgow East, Thomas Kerr is standing for the Conservatives, and James Harrison is standing for the Liberal Democrats.