Susan Aitken, the worst thing to hit Glasgow since the Luftwaffe, might well be Britain’s most hapless council leader. The SNP leader of Glasgow City Council was challenged again on the city’s cleaning crisis during a BBC interview last night. Shown footage of graffiti at the Scottish Event Campus, soon to host the COP26 conference, Aitken blamed ‘a wee ned with a spray can’. It is not Aitken’s first gaffe over a city-wide waste and dumping epidemic. In a knuckle-gnawingly awkward TV grilling earlier this month, she insisted Glasgow’s streets weren’t ‘filthy’ and just needed ‘a spruce up’.
Last month, Sir Keir Starmer visited and met with campaigners from the GMB union, which has been at the forefront of efforts to get the council to clean up the city. Sir Keir opined that the situation showed ‘a failure of leadership from the SNP council’, prompting Aitken to retort that he was ‘on pretty shaky ground as a London MP, coming up and telling Glasgow that we’re filthy’. She added that there was ‘a real echo of the language that some far-right organisations have used about Govanhill’, a Glasgow neighbourhood where some have blamed immigrants for a prolonged fly-tipping problem. Using the term ‘far right’ to describe a campaign by trade unionists for more frequent bin collections was not only incendiary but sounded slightly unhinged.
The ‘ned’ comment is likely to hurt Aitken more than her other boo-boos. A ned is a ‘non-educated delinquent’ and is a term applied to working-class young people from run-down communities in Scotland in much the same way as ‘chav’ is used in England. Truth be told, ‘ned’ is on the milder end of the spectrum of what most Glaswegians, including most working-class Glaswegians, would call youngsters who go about graffitiing the city. Aitken’s problem will be with her educated liberal supporters and those leftist and ex-Labour converts who convinced themselves that the SNP was an authentic party of the left in order to justify their own embrace of political nationalism. They will not like a senior party figure using a term seen as stigmatising of working-class kids and certainly not to scapegoat them for an environmental scandal caused by an SNP council carrying out cuts imposed by an SNP government at Holyrood.
It is another dent in the reputation of a (former) rising star who swept Labour from power in Glasgow in 2017 on a wave of hope, change and widespread good will. Since then, Aitken has spent her time in office affirming HL Mencken: ‘Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.’ Good and hard they have got it.
Since taking control of the city, Aitken has become embroiled in row with Rangers Football Club; been accused of billing the taxpayer for taxi journeys to SNP campaigning events and a Paul Simon concert; defended her Lord Provost, who went on to resign anyway, after she spent £8,000 in taxpayers’ money on shoes, clothes, underwear, haircuts and manicures; and come under fire over library closures. She has lost six councillors so far, with allegations of ‘bullying’ and a ‘dictatorship’ within the SNP group, one councillor walking because Aitken lacked ‘the leadership skill’, and another two defecting to Alex Salmond’s Alba.
The waste crisis is a new low for her leadership. A shift from two- to three-weekly bin collections and the introduction of uplift charges have been blamed for a spike in fly-tipping. Scenes of overflowing bins on city centre streets and household waste dumped along pavements in residential areas have become commonplace across Glasgow. So far this year two binmen have been attacked by rats and, in the absence of speedy action by the council, Glaswegians have begun cleaning the streets themselves. With COP26 delegates about to descend on the city, there couldn’t be a worse time for Dear Green Place to be so grotty-looking.
Blaming the situation on the deprived and socially excluded won’t play well with Aitken’s leftish supporters but a deeper problem is what it says about her suitability and competence. The Langside councillor keeps feeding the suspicion that she is out of touch, a cardinal sin in a city that puts so much emphasis on down-to-earth authenticity. Politically, she is landing more blows on herself than her rivals across the city chambers are. Susan Aitken may be Britain’s most hapless council leader but she’s also its most effective leader of the opposition.