JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 14.11.07
THERE WERE strange scenes at the Carnegie Hall in Dunfermline on Thursday night, when a lady in the audience took exception to Plan B theatre company’s beautiful but moody post-modern dance show about Glasgow, A Wee Home From Home. She rose from her seat, she rapped loudly on the edge of the stage, and she took the two performers to task for “making a mockery of Glasgow”, with what she called their arty-farty show. Glasgow people, she said, were proud of their town; she knew, because she was one of them.
And that, it seems to me, is Glasgow, or at least one very imortant strand of its character. There’s plenty of poverty, pain and trauma in the city’s history, plenty of half-suppressed grief and rage. But there’s also glitz and style to burn, a fierce fighting spirit, and a strong disinclination to take what seems like cheek or nonsense from anyone.
Which is why it seems to me that Scotland’s chattering classes should pause, this weekend, before using the word “apathy” too freely to account for the dismally low turnout in Thursday’s Glasgow North-East by-election. At just over 33%, it was certainly the lowest turnout ever registered at a parliamentary byelection in Scotland. But to ascribe it to “apathy” is to imply that there was no stronger emotion involved than a lazy disinclination to go out in the rain and vote; whereas it seems to me that this mass boycott of the polls may well reflect a far more epic and interesting range of emotions, including anger, grief, disgust, and something close to political despair.
It’s true that the Labour Party in Scotland can take some comfort from the decision of voters to stick with the devil they know, rather than defecting to the SNP or, for that matter, the much-hyped BNP. It’s as if they still recognise, in Gordon Brown’s battered Labour ranks, and in a parliamentary party shamed by the expenses scandal, the faint shadow of the party that gave them the NHS, the social security system, the good council housing of the mid-20th century; although in constituencies like Glasgow North-East, this recognition is itself tinged with melancholy regret for a party of the left that has largely been transformed, over the past 15 years, into just another team of men and women in expensive suits, fronting for capitalism in their own uniquely disingenuous way.
Look further down the list of thirteen candidates, though, and you see the traces of anger and despair at every stage of the journey. The SNP, for example – with just 4120 votes – has actually lost support in the area since the Scottish Parliament election of 2007. The Conservatives, likely to form the next UK government, have even less traction than the nationalists in places like Sprnigburn and Dennistoun; with only 1075 votes, their talented candidate scraped in only just ahead of the BNP. Despite massive media hype, the BNP won fewer votes than the Tories; although one Scottish newspaper was so excited by its presence that it wrongly reported it in third place rather than fourth. And the left-of-centre alternative that once created some real excitement in constituencies around Glasgow – Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party – is splattered all over the poll in tiny fragments with strange names, the victim of the long political car-crash that was the Tommy Sheridan court case, with all its divisive and shaming consequences.
What we see here, in other words, is a fierce, harshly-lit snapshot of an electorate which cannot find a party fit to represent its interests, and which – not being light-minded or media-crazed enough simply to vote for famous faces, like the have-a-go Glasgow Airport hero John Smeaton – therefore chooses not to vote at all. Of course, the electorate of North-East Glasgow is not in any way typical of voters in Britain, or even in Scotland; with the best will in the world, the constituency still shows a shockingly high incidence of social deprivation, low pay, poverty and ill health.
But in ethical and psychological terms, no constituency is an island; each one speaks to the nation, and to its neighbours.
And what North-East Glasgow has said this week, through the thunderous silence of two-thirds of its voters, is that formal politics in Britain is now fast becoming dangerously irrelevant to those who need it most; irrelevant to those who need strong, confident, efficient, well-run and enabling government, at all levels, to empower them to improve their lives. A general election run-off between a Labour Party that will cut spending in sorrow to bail out the bankers, and Tory Party who will do the same thing with ideological conviction and glee, is irrelevant to them. A Scottish Parliament election between all-things-to-all men tartan nationalists and dour, apologetic New Labour unionists is irrelevant to them. And the lies of the BNP are irrelevant to them.
What they need is a party that is not only committed to delivering social justice and equal opportunity; but is also explicit and articulate in its contempt for, and challenge to, a shallow and heartless bourgeois political culture which pretends that most of us can just carry on indefinitely living with the cold comforts of our material prosperity, while around us others suffer in poverty and despair. If our society is broken, it is that failure of solidarity, compassion nd justice, in a time of plenty, that has broken it, over a shameful 30 years. And on the day when the people of North-East Glasgow find a reason to start voting again, we will know that that dark cycle of politics is over; and that electoral politics has once again become a mechanism for making the world a better place, rather than a straw poll through which we choose the faces of those who will spend the next five years explaining to us why the world cannot really be changed at all, in north-east Glasgow, or anywhere else.