By-elections inevitably bring an excess of media scrutiny, but the struggle over Glasgow East is attracting a particularly morbid curiosity in the UK. The East Glaswegians go to the polls on 24 July to decide the replacement in Westminster for Labour MP David Marshall who retired mid-term on health grounds.
Not only are parts of the east end of Glasgow among the most impoverished areas in Britain, there is an added fascination. A Labour loss could potentially bring down the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.
Labour holds Glasgow East by more than 13,000 votes, making it the party’s 25th safest seat. The poll should be a no-contest. But so miserably is Brown’s Government travelling, that a loss is genuinely feared. And if Glasgow East has an almighty electoral sneeze, then Brown’s Prime Ministership may well catch a mortal cold.
Glasgow East is a hard place to try and defend after a decade of being in government. Life expectancy in the electorate is a staggering 14 years less than the national average and other indicators are also startlingly bad. Scottish Nationalists have gone so far as to compare the east end of Glasgow to the chaos and poverty of the Gaza Strip.
Labour’s campaign for East Glasgow began badly. The Labor candidate Margaret Curran, although impressive on her own terms and already a member of Scotland’s devolved Parliament, was very publicly not her Party’s first choice. Curran was pre-selected belatedly and in shambolic fashion, giving her opponents an easy free hit.
Then there was the incident of actor John Michie, star of the series Taggart which is set in Glasgow. Michie was wheeled out in support of Curran’s campaign – only to be outed shortly afterwards as having once spoken up for Scottish autonomy, which is contrary to Labour’s position.
And to complicate matters further, the Scottish Labour Party currently has no leader, following Wendy Alexander’s resignation after a breach of parliamentary regulations on the declaration of political donations.
Scotland is not about to turn Tory any time soon, but Scottish nationalism complicates the traditional left-right divide. If anyone is to beat Labour’s Curran, it won’t be the Conservatives (whose candidate Davena Rankin is refreshingly not your typical Tory) but the Scottish National Party (SNP)’s John Mason. The SNP currently has the largest number of seats in the devolved Scottish Parliament and is in minority government under First Minister Alex Salmond. The SNP would still need a huge swing of around 22 per cent to claim Glasgow East.
There is no doubting that Labour is in huge political trouble at a national level. The UK’s economy is slowing and the media is preoccupied with an appalling spate of fatal knife crimes that have cast a pall over the country. In actual fact, the most recent British Crime Survey figures indicate that overall rate of offences are well down. Indeed, the UK is enjoying her longest recorded period of falling crime rates. Typical of the Government’s current woes, though, Brown’s crew has been unable to generate much political momentum on the back of these remarkable national crime statistics. Instead it is the spree of stabbings that are taking up the column inches and have become the focus in Glasgow East.
One nightmare vision of Labour’s future has defeat in Glasgow East as a grim harbinger of the loss of Westminster to the Conservatives in 2010, to be followed by the entrenchment of the Scottish Nationals’ ascent in Holyrood in 2011.
As The Guardian‘s Michael White pointed out, it’s not that Labour has not made considerable redevelopment efforts in East Glasgow. The 2014 Commonwealth Games are also expected to bring jobs and development to Glasgow. But no plan or program can deny the awfulness of the current situation, epitomised by that 14 year gap in life expectancy.
In spite of the campaign mishaps and the general air of foreboding, given the size of the margin and the qualities of their candidate, Labour probably will hang on in Glasgow East. And even if the east end of Glasgow does sneeze and Labour loses, the absence of an obvious challenger to Brown and the inevitable political slowdown over late summer means that the Prime Minister might just survive the political cold to fight another day.
But without a dramatic shift in political fortunes, Brown’s longer term prognosis doesn’t look good.
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