Alice Murray has three complaints about her neighbourhood in Scotland: lamp posts, dog poo and politicians. Standing outside her pebble-dashed house in Springburn, a northern suburb of Glasgow, the 85-year-old bemoaned the poor infrastructure, particularly the rusting street lights.
Murray, who voted Labour all her life until 2017 when she backed the Scottish National party in local elections, pointed to the “awful” nearby park and asked: “What has happened to Glasgow? What has gone wrong?” She was “fed up” with the pro-independence SNP, which runs the city council as well as the Scottish government based in Edinburgh, and declared she would vote Labour again in the local elections on May 5.
Labour, which once dominated Scottish politics but suffered a wholesale collapse after the 2014 independence referendum, is hoping these elections will show the party has turned a corner. Under its youthful Scottish leader Anas Sarwar, it is aiming to at least leapfrog the Conservatives and become the second largest party in local government after the SNP.
Scotland is crucial to Labour. If the party is to have any chance of winning the next UK general election, likely in 2024, it badly needs a revival north of the border. Sir Keir Starmer, leader of Britain’s largest opposition party at Westminster, will find it almost impossible to secure a House of Commons majority without major gains in Scotland.
The local elections in Scotland are held under a proportional system known as the single transferable vote. In 2017, the last time a poll took place, the SNP came top across the country, with 32 per cent of first preference votes. Labour were pushed into third place behind the Conservatives, who took 25 per cent of the vote under the leadership of Ruth Davidson.
The SNP took control of Glasgow council for the first time in 2017, ending Labour’s 37 years of dominance in Scotland’s largest city. But over the past five years, the nationalists have been criticised for their management of Glasgow: critics point to a significant rise in the city’s rat population and a long-running bin strike.
Springburn is one of Glasgow’s working class suburbs that has fallen on hard times. Once dominated by the St Rollox railway works, which went into gradual decline in the 1980s until the final closure in 2019, it has struggled to find new sources of employment. The community was further disrupted by a dual carriageway built in the early 1990s.
In Springburn’s main shopping area, residents showed signs of drifting away from the SNP. William Devine, a 65-year-old railway worker, said he was “fed up with the SNP”, adding “their time is done” and he would be returning to Labour.
Rita Brennan, 77, became an SNP supporter “a long time ago”, abandoning her family’s Labour tradition, but this time she was “really struggling to know who to vote for” next Thursday.
Elizabeth Flannagan, 87, said Springburn had been neglected by the council, highlighting the area’s problems with drugs. “It used to be such a lovely area,” she added, saying she hoped a new council would listen to the suburbs. “Sometimes they forget we pay council tax.”
Graham Campbell, who is seeking re-election as one of Springburn’s SNP councillors, described himself as “the most leftwing councillor, in the most leftwing ward, in the most leftwing constituency” in Scotland. He was “fairly positive” about the elections, noting that “support for the party was holding up well” after five years in office.
Despite the criticism of the SNP’s record in Glasgow, Campbell argued that the party had delivered “real material changes”. He likened the challenge of renewing Glasgow to an oil tanker, saying: “We’ve been changing a council which was very bureaucratic and top down. One party had been in power for too long.” In response to accusations of poor management, he blamed funding cuts. “We’re just like any other place, struggling with the impact of austerity.”
Campbell admitted more change was required in Springburn. “There’s certainly an improvement environment wise, we’ve had more money in our parks than we’ve ever had before.” He said re-election of the SNP would allow it to focus on “community wealth and community assets”, pointing to a need to redevelop two recently vacated high street bank premises.
Labour is strongly critical of the SNP’s record in Glasgow, and an opposition party official said a decent performance next Thursday “would be some gains, a really good night would be taking back control”.
Opinion polls suggest voters have yet to fundamentally shift away from the SNP. According to Survation, the SNP is set to return its best ever local election performance, with 44 per cent of first preference votes. But the survey found that with Labour on 23 per cent, it had overtaken the Conservatives to be in second place.
Mark Diffley, an independent pollster, predicted Labour would “quite comfortably” replace the Tories as the second largest party in Scottish local government. “It would be a straight reversal on 2017,” he said.
He added that he expected Glasgow to follow Scotland’s national picture, and suggested Labour would struggle to take control of the council because the party was not chipping into the SNP’s vote. “Tory voters are jumping back to Labour but not at the expense of the SNP,” he said. “If the polls are correct, Labour will claim to have recaptured the second place in Scottish politics.”
Diffley pointed to the unpopularity of Boris Johnson in Scotland, plus the partygate scandal at Westminster, as being responsible for a voter shift from Tory to Labour.
For Sarwar, who became Scottish Labour leader last year, Thursday’s local elections are a major test. If he can show he is securing increased voter support, it will affirm his strategy of taking Labour back to the centre ground and seeking to replace the Tories as the most potent voice advocating that Scotland remains part of the UK.
“We have done a good job over the course of last year to build credibility, to build likeability, but then we need to turn that into electability,” he said. “Making positive progress in terms of share of the vote, gains in the number of councillors is really important for us.”
Sarwar said there are two categories of voters his party must win back: unionists who defected to the Tories in 2017, and those interested in independence who switched to the SNP after the 2014 referendum.
The local elections are about wooing the Tory defectors, he added. Winning back the SNP switchers would be crucial to gaining seats at the next UK general election and is “a longer term, harder piece of work” that comes after re-establishing Labour at a local level, said Sarwar.