Labour battles to hold its only Glasgow seat

Paul Sweeney surprised pundits by winning Glasgow North East in the election two years ago.

It’s among the most deprived constituencies in the UK, with one of the highest unemployment rates in Scotland.

The seat of Glasgow North East comprises areas like Possilpark, which has one of the most acute heroin problems in the country, and Sighthill.

Child poverty rates range from about one in three in places like Springburn to as high as 41% in Possilpark and Milton.

There’s Balornock and Barmulloch, the areas that the famous – or infamous, depending on your view – Red Road flats once straddled, dominating the skyline before they were demolished four years ago.

But it was a botched demolition – two of the iconic six red towers refused to be blown up because, as a report later found, they were “too tough”. That’s Glasgow for you.

Like any city, it has its more and less affluent parts, and Glasgow North East is no different, such as the more middle-class suburbs of Robroyston and Millerston.

There’s also the city district of Dennistoun, becoming increasingly gentrified and popular with students and young professionals.

But swathes of this constituency have long struggled: with getting decent, affordable housing, with staying in work, and with cuts to public services and changes to benefits.

Some of these social problems continue to get worse, deepening partly as a result of the austerity first introduced by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in 2010.

I met Tory candidate Lauren Bennie to film a social media clip for a “quickfire” series of videos with people running in the election.

However, she declined to answer further questions for tonight’s constituency profile on the STV News at Six.

STV News colleagues repeatedly tried in recent weeks to arrange a broadcast interview with Ms Bennie, but were ultimately told by the Scottish Conservatives she was unavailable.

The Tories polled just 13% here in the snap election in 2017, with this seat one of the most closely-fought Labour-SNP contests in Scotland.

Labour’s Paul Sweeney unseated former SNP MP Anne McLaughlin by less than 250 votes as part of a surge for Jeremy Corbyn’s party in central Scotland that many pollsters didn’t see coming.

The party picked up six seats, up from just one, in the election two years ago, including three in its former stomping ground of the west of Scotland: Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and, of course, Glasgow North East.

Sweeney has been a prominent representative for his party, spearheading a high-profile campaign against the closure of the “Caley” rail works in Springburn and becoming shadow Scotland minister under Corbyn.

In 2019, he was cited as the least expensive MP in Scotland, calculating office, staff and travel expenses.

“I was born and brought up in this constituency, I’ve lived my whole life in this constituency, I know it so well,” Sweeney told STV News.

“I was the wildcard when I actually won this seat, I was 16/1 at the bookies when I won it.

“I’ve hit the ground running as the MP, knew that I had to build trust, to build resilience in the constituency, so I’ve done that, helping more than 4000 constituents since my election.”

Sweeney claims his party is no longer associated with 2014’s Better Together campaign in the eyes of voters. In Glasgow North East, they backed independence five years ago with 57% of the vote.

“I understand the frustrations behind that. I understand they yearned for a better future, they yearned for socialism in the face of Toryism at Westminster,” he said.

“I think now, we have changed the dial completely, because we now have a socialist in control of the Labour party, we now have an avowedly, unashamedly socialist manifesto to deliver radical change across the UK.

“We’re seeing loads of Yes voters coming to the Labour party, we’re seeing people who voted Yes campaigning with me in my team.

“People who campaigned with Anne McLaughlin in 2015 are now campaigning in my team.”

Unsurprisingly, that’s not the view of the SNP candidate as she seeks to regain the seat she lost two years ago.

On the 2017 election, McLaughlin said: “The Labour vote didn’t go up by much at all but our vote came down.

“It seems it was a level of complacency: people thought because we’d broken all records with the highest swing in history the last time [in 2015], they assumed support was enough and they didn’t actually have to vote.

“And it was absolutely pouring down all day. It was a miserable day for a summer’s day and that was a big part of it.

“I was inundated with messages from people saying ‘I’m so sorry, I really thought you’d be fine, I thought you’d be safe’.”

But she conceded: “I think people, at that time, had a bit of hope that Jeremy Corbyn would do something UK-wide and they wanted to put their faith in Labour one last time.”

‘To me, it’s a lot of s**t.’

Glasgow North East voter on Brexit

Now, McLaughlin says, things have come back around to independence.

“SNP MPs will make one crucial difference to having a Labour MP, and that is we’ll be arguing for what the Scottish people want and what the Scottish people deserve,” she said.

“That is the right to decide our own future – the right not to have the Boris Johnsons of the world ever again telling us what we have to do.

“That’s what I’m hearing from people here, they’re saying, yeah, we thought Jeremy Corbyn would be good but they’re not happy with the fact that he’s all over the place on Scottish independence.

“People don’t expect him to support Scottish independence, but they expect him to support their right to decide whether they’re going to have it or not.”

Having done the job before, McLaughlin thinks she can swing into action immediately a second time out and describes herself as “tenacious” and a “natural campaigner for social justice”.

The Liberal Democrats traditionally haven’t polled well here, losing their deposits at the last two elections and taking 2% of the vote in 2017.

For candidate Nicholas Moohan, who helps run a family tyre business, that doesn’t matter.

“I want to speak up, I want to appear, I want to cut through through the mustard in places like Glasgow North East,” he told STV News.

“I’m assured, often, that I won’t win – but that doesn’t put me off. There’s message to be carried and there’s a lot of work to be done.

“We want to stop Brexit, we want to stop independence, we want to get back to the issues that affect people every day and within that we end division.”

“And get back to loving each other,” Moohan added, with a wink and wide smile.

He said: “There’s extremism in both traditional parties (Labour and the Conservatives) and that’s what really brought me from my slumber.

“I shouldn’t be here. I should be selling tyres as I’ve always done… but that’s what it’s come to. Things need to change.

“People have accepted the unacceptable by now. It’s poverty of spirit, really.”

The links between low turnout and high levels of deprivation are long-established, and in this wintry election – however the polls look nationally for the SNP and Labour – it will ultimately come down to who can get the most voters out on polling day.

In the last general election, Glasgow North East had the lowest voter turnout of any seat in the UK.

At a community centre in Possil, where staff and volunteers provide homemade meals for just two pounds, the concerns of the campaign trail seem far away.

“I’ve hardly any money to live off as it is, never mind trying to fork out for Christmas as well,” one mother told STV.

“Obviously if you’ve got more than one child, trying to give your family some presents, it’s a worrying time.”

Do politicians understand these kinds of challenges? “No, definitely not,” she answered.

“They expect you to live off pennies when the government is living the high life.

“I don’t think they realise the poverty within these areas and the conditions we’re bringing up our kids in.”

A man at the same table added: “See, instead of talking about Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, I think they should start dealing with local issues.”

On Brexit, an older woman was even more forthright: “To me, it’s a lot of s**t.”