Glasgow East symbolises — as few other places in Britain can — the fact that the problem Labour faces is not just lack of leadership but lack of mission. What is to be seen in this constituency encapsulates and dramatises Labour’s abject failures to comprehend, let alone tackle, the nature of the poverty which grips our council estates.
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When Tony Blair was Prime Minister he used to joke in private that his writ — like that of the Roman Empire — ended at Hadrian’s Wall. Beyond that lay Gordon’s land, a graveyard for Conservatives, home of the murky Scottish Labour party and a press corps whom Mr Blair once described with a phrase unprintable in this magazine. Scotland, everyone accepted, was Mr Brown’s personal fiefdom. As far as Mr Blair was concerned, he was welcome to it.
Like many of the myths swirling around Mr Brown, it is possible he believed this himself. If so, he will have been roughly disabused of it last weekend when Wendy Alexander resigned as leader of Labour’s Scottish Parliament group and David Marshall, MP for Glasgow East, stood down due to ‘ill health’. Mr Brown now faces a by-election fought by a leaderless party. Remarkably, he is expected — by the bookies — to lose this once-safe seat with its majority of 13,507.
If he does it will be, in what is a fairly hotly contested category, his worst disaster yet and show that the PM had made the phrase ‘safe Labour seat’ into an oxymoron. It would also suggest that the Scottish National Party can supplant Labour as the main party of the left-of-centre in Scotland, having soaked up former Tory areas long ago. After the BNP beat Labour into fifth place in Henley, losing Glasgow East would send a chilling message to Mr Brown’s 349 MPs: that, under his leadership, not one of them is safe.
Yet Glasgow East symbolises — as few other places in Britain can — the fact that the problem Labour faces is not just lack of leadership but lack of mission. Although David Cameron has no chance of winning here, he should still send his shadow Cabinet up three times, as he did in Crewe and Nantwich. For what is to be seen in this constituency encapsulates and dramatises Labour’s abject failures to comprehend, let alone tackle, the nature of the poverty which grips our council estates.
Glasgow East is about as far from Henley on Thames as it is possible to be on one continent. Archie Kirkwood, a Liberal Democrat peer who is from this constituency, told me recently how in Henley he canvassed a house with a moat (and was almost thrown in, on account of his yellow rosette). In Glasgow, the trick is stepping over used needles, navigating the guard dogs and plotting the safest route. One thinks up any excuse not to go door-to-door in its rougher council estates.
I speak with some experience. I once had the job of signing up the good people of Glasgow East to the electoral register — at the time, regarded as an invitation to pay poll tax. Gang graffiti scars the walls, police are virtually unseen. This no-go-zone status is new, and cost billions to achieve. Houses there are in good condition, money is being spent. But it has funded a hideous social experiment, showing what happens when the horizontal ties which bind those within communities to one another are replaced with vertical ties, binding individuals to the welfare state.
On Monday, Nick Clegg drew gasps at a reception in Westminster by observing that there are parts of Glasgow where life expectancy is the same as the Gaza Strip and North Korea. If only this were so. Glasgow City, as a whole, has a male life expectancy of 71 years which is actually lower than the 72 years of both Gaza and Pyongyang. But this includes its lush suburbs. Those in the welfare ghettoes of Glasgow East can only dream of such longevity.
The life expectancy of its sink estates is worth recording here. A boy born in Camlachie is expected to live to 64.5 — the same as in Uzbekistan. In Parkhead it is 62, the same as Bangladesh. Just outside its boundaries lies Dalmarnock where the figure is 58 — lower than Sudan, Cambodia or Ghana. The lowest is Carlton, where the figure of 54 is lower than even Gambia’s equivalent. When I first uncovered these numbers three years ago, I called this part of the country ‘Third Scotland’, as life expectancy here was closer to that in the Third World than in the rest of Britain. These are our fellow countrymen, yet they live in an invisible, benighted country of their own.
It is invisible because the people in this Labour stronghold are of no use to politicians, who only do battle nowadays in marginal seats. When I last visited a pub there, to research an article, I was asked if I was a missionary — church groups are about the only people who bother with such places these days. Its horrors are hidden by statistical manipulation. Official unemployment is just 6.7 per cent. But add in such factors as those claiming incapacity benefit, and it quickly emerges that a scandalous 50 per cent of the working-age population are on out-of-work benefits. And here, as everywhere, dependency begets poverty.
Once, Labour would have been outraged at this. Now, the party refuses to recognise this as a problem — or thinks, madly, that even more money is the answer. What Beveridge once called the ‘great evil’ of idleness is now being mass-produced by a welfare state that pays the poor to do nothing. It is fuelling the very problem it was set up to eradicate, petrol on fire.
Mr Brown’s energies have been devoted to moving people from just beneath his arbitrary poverty line to just above it — and then claiming they have been ‘lifted out of poverty’. Those at the bottom, with no hope of crossing any threshold, are literally growing poorer each year. Languishing on welfare, they have been ignored and replaced in the British labour market by an industrious, ambitious immigrant workforce. This has been Labour’s deplorable formula for the last decade.
It was in Easterhouse, the most notorious council estate in Glasgow East, that Iain Duncan Smith was inspired to devote his career to understanding and fighting Britain’s new poverty. As a result the Tories are buzzing with new ideas, from family policy to welfare reform. Their lack of profile in Scotland will, of course, deny them any chance in this by-election. It is for Alex Salmond’s nationalists to see if they can take as big a bite out of Mr Brown north of the border as Mr Cameron now can in the south.
Labour, forced for the first time to focus attention on one of its ‘safe’ welfare ghettoes, may find it has nothing to say. Is it to promise more of the same? Or blame the wicked Conservatives? It is one thing for Labour to lose the leafy suburbs which Mr Blair won over in 1997. But to be rejected in a supposed heartland like Glasgow East would plunge the party into existential crisis, and rightly so. Because after all those years in power, and all those billions spent, its main legacy has been, quite simply, the most expensive poverty in the world.