Glasgow’s poorest have big say in fate of union

Most deprived areas of city are referendum battlegrounds that Yes side targeted

A boy plays football in  the Govan area of Glasgow. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

A boy plays football in the Govan area of Glasgow. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

 

For perhaps a few hours early into tomorrow morning, Shettleston, Castlemilk, Drumchapel and Easterhouse – some of Glasgow’s poorest districts – will become famous.

Usually, only three or four out of every 10 voters in such districts bother to vote; in parts of Castlemilk just 11 per cent went to a polling station in one recent election.

However, the turnout from socially deprived districts – not just in Glasgow, but all across the heavily populated central belt to Edinburgh, and places further north such as Dundee – may determine Scotland’s future.

Early last month, houses in the Glasgow district and elsewhere received a free newspaper from the pro-independence Yes Scotland group, which mixed Panglossian views of independence with a competition to win an Apple iPad.

Under the headline, “Bright Future: Boost for Families”, it told voters: “Families across Scotland are set to be nearly £5,000-a-year better-off after a Yes vote in September’s referendum.”

It went on: “Plans for a dramatic increase in childcare after independence, along with free school-meals, will make a massive difference to household budgets.”

Inside, Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, told readers that the Financial Times, no less, had confirmed that an independent Scotland would be one of the world’s top 20 economies.

For the past two years, the Yes campaign has had strong ground operations, beginning slowly, but working up to full pitch since the beginning of 2014.

Janice West, a retired academic, has staffed the Yes Scotland office on the Cathcart Road, the campaign HQ for the Glasgow Cathcart House of Commons constituency. “In March and April I was here on my own,” she told The Irish Times, as dozens of volunteers milled around the office readying for a final canvass of undecided voters.

 

Pro-independence literature

Since 2012, over 250,000 pieces of pro-independence literature have been delivered in Cathcart – which includes poor districts such as Castlemilk, but also comfortably off places such as Muirend.

 

“People have told me that this is the first vote that they have ever bothered with: this is the first time that they have felt connected,” says Neal Stewart, who has campaigned full-time for the past month.

Yes Scotland started off with an advantage since the Scottish National Party has for years asked voters on doorsteps for their views on independence, and carefully recorded the answers.

“We started off with a huge amount of data,” says Stewart McDonald, “which allowed us to target our resources on people who could be persuaded to vote Yes.”

If Yes Scotland’s campaign has been active, the one run by Better Together in the constituency – effectively meaning by the Labour Party – has been poor.

Earlier this month, former home secretary Jack Straw came to Cathcart as one of the 100 Labour MPs sent up by Ed Miliband in the wake of a poll showing a Yes lead. Following a late start in Glasgow, however, Labour has begun to appeal to its one-time solid support in the constituency, arguing that people on low incomes need to be cautious, not risk-takers.

Places such as Castlemilk, which stands on a hill overlooking Glasgow, were populated from the 1950s when the city’s slums were cleared. However, social problems – created on the back of no shops, no transport and broken community links – proliferated in the years following.

Easterhouse became a byword for unremittingly grim poverty, exacerbated by the loss of tens of thousands of jobs from the closure of Scotland’s heavy industries during the Thatcher era.

Poverty was reduced and lives improved in Glasgow during the Labour years, particularly after Gordon Brown took £1 billion (€1.26 billion) of the local authority’s housing debt on to the exchequer’s books.

However, poverty remains grim in places. Half of the city’s population – 286,000 people – live in the top fifth most deprived areas in Scotland. A third of all children in the city live in poverty, according to 2012 figures, but the numbers are unequally spread: more than half of children living in some districts are in poverty, compared to a 10th in others.

Having a job does not guarantee an escape from poverty, since half of all adults classified as living in poverty do so in homes where one adult does work – a problem exacerbated by the lack of wage rises since 2008, falling working hours, or the impact of zero-hours contracts.

Pointing to “real progress” having been made, the Child Poverty Action Group said the numbers of children living in poverty across Scotland had fallen by nearly half between 1996/97 and 2010/11. Today, however, one million Scots – just under one-in-five of the population – live in poverty, including 220,000 children, according to the group.

The despondency, disaffection and disconnection have offered fertile ground for the Yes campaign, as it seeks to blame Scotland’s ills on London and the existence of the union.

In Easterhouse, Ian Montague from the charity Fare points the finger at the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith for much of the difficulties since 2010.

Following his sacking as Conservative leader, Duncan Smith came to Easterhouse to gain an understanding of the district’s issues and “to learn why they didn’t vote Tory”, says the Labour-supporting Montague.

The Conservative “is a decent fellow”, says Montague, but he took the wrong messages from Easterhouse that because some people said they knew others who were abusing welfare rules that everybody was doing it. In time, Duncan Smith thought up the so-called bedroom tax, which penalises local authority tenants if they are thought to have too many rooms.

Few actions by a Conservative have been so hated in Scotland, even by people who are not affected by it. Indeed, the reaction bears comparison with Scots’ reactions in the 1980s to the poll tax.

In Easterhouse, the hard cases are everywhere: the man who lost his disabled daughter and who then faced immediate penalty for the bedroom she no longer used. “He had a triple-whammy at a time of great trial. He was told he could take in two lodgers, or downsize. But lodgers in a council estate can be in chaotic lifestyles,” says Montague.

 

Food banks

The number of food banks offered by the Trussell Trust is mushrooming: Easterhouse got its first six weeks ago, he told The Irish Times.

 

Ewen Gurr, the trust’s Scotland manager, says its network fed 5,726 people in 2011/12; 14,318 a year later, while over the last year it has fed 71,248 people. “Food poverty wasn’t on the radar in Scotland until 2011,” says Gurr, sitting in his office in Dundee, “I used the service myself when I ran into trouble at one point.”

The unfairness of some of the welfare rules rankles, particularly the sanctions that are applied – too quickly, he argues – against those who fail to turn up for meetings with JobCentre officials. “We had one case in Thurso where a man battled to get through snow and turned up 15 minutes late. He was sanctioned and he went back to a house with no food, no light and no heat,” he says.

The appeals system leaves people in limbo for months, he argues: “Two thirds of the appeals win, so that should tell people that there is a problem with the rules and the way that they are being applied.”

In March, a survey of more than 2,000 families in Scotland jointly published by the Trussell Trust and the parenting website Netmums found that one in five families have had to choose between paying a bill or putting food on the table in the past year. Four out of five have cut spending; over half are buying cheaper food, while more than four out of 10 admitted that they were “just about coping”.

 

Lists of undecideds

Back in Glasgow Cathcart, the Yes canvassers divided up a list of names of undecided voters: “Don’t tell them that you know that they are undecided,” said Stewart, “give them a chance to talk.” In some streets, just one or two names remained to be canvassed. Nevertheless, the lists were painstakingly followed, with names crossed off, one by one.

 

For some, however, the concentration on Muirend – the better-off part of Cathcart – was questionable so late in the campaign, when the poorer districts appeared to offer better territory.

“In Kennishead, we found just two Nos in two blocks of flats. There are 21 floors in each and six flats on each floor. All right, people were out, but it was still a hell of a result,” said Denis Donoghue. “People in places like that are not worried about banks withdrawing their operations. They haven’t got much and they have less to lose.”

“We should be in the poorer districts rather than here. Here, we are chasing after voters in their ones and twos: this is not where it is going to be won, if it is to be won.”

On Coylton Road, curtains were drawn. Some houses did not respond to a bell-ringing. In another, a woman answered, wearily sighing at the sight of yet another canvasser.

Neal Stewart offered more information, gently probing for some insight into her voting intentions: “I haven’t decided, I’ll talk it over with my husband. It’s on TV all the time,” she said, irritatedly. “Well, that’s a Better Together voter, anyway,” said Stewart, ticking her name off his list as he backed on to the street. “It’s understandable that some people are getting weary.”

The Yes team met up with an opposing team from the Better Together campaign. Both were embarrassed, before politely separating quickly into different streets.

Following a full evening’s canvassing, as darkness fell, the Yes team stood at a street corner totting up the figures from their notes: 12 Yes, 11 No, 11 still undecided. Cars passed by. From one, a group of youths aggressively shouted “Better Together!” with one putting a finger out the window – the only sign of tension all evening.

Across the road from where they were gathered stands the White Elephant on Merrylee Road, the location for a Yes party on Saturday night, win or lose.

 

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