Guestpost: Organising for Engagement – An analysis of where #sc12 went wrong in Glasgow

This is a guestpost in two parts and I am indebted to Nick Durie for what is an outstanding critique of the state of democracy and local politics in Glasgow.  Nick is a community organiser for Power In Community.  He previously worked for London Citizens as a community organiser on their community land trust campaign and has been a member of the Scottish Tenants Organisation’s national committee since 2005.  Nick tweets as @PowerCIC.

Part one published today exposes some of the faultlines in Glasgow political culture and considers if apathy is the appropriate word to describe the disengagement and disenfranchisement in Scotland’s greatest city.  Read it and weep.

As the dust settles after the local election results, it is important to consider the ramifications for Scottish society. Yes, the SNP increased its share of council seats, and won the largest number across Scotland, yes the Scottish Greens had a good election, and yes Labour came out fighting, retaining Glasgow and winning Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

But scratch beneath the results and there is a deeper story going on here.

In the battle tipped to be the biggest show of the election, roughly 10% of Glasgow’s registered voters re-elected a Labour council, in a ballot where 68% of voters didn’t. It is high time we examined the cause of this disenchantment, what it says about our society and our economy, and what can be done about it.

I understand some of the issues around apathy, the challenge I would put out is that if people don’t like the system or the challenges presented by all means get involved and reinvigorate democracy.”

Derek Mackay MSP’s recent, timely comments about voter “apathy” bear some investigation.  The first point is that he, the Minister for Local Government, frames non-voting, non-participation as apathy.  Oxford dictionaries give, “lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern” as the meaning of apathy; however, in Let Glasgow Flourish, the Glasgow Centre for Population Health found that among those living in areas of multiple indices of deprivation – the kind of areas where voter “apathy” is at its highest – residents were the most likely in Glasgow to take personal action to solve local problems.

The same study found that social capital and levels of reciprocity in the poorest areas were weak, and that residents did not  trust their neighbours or like the environment in which they lived, so this result is all the more surprising in that it shows that the poorest are among the most likely to take action to improve their neighbourhoods.

The idea that poor people, living in poor areas are not interested in civics or politics, that they are “apathetic,” is not borne out by the evidence.  Something deeper is at the root of why the urban poor did not vote in large numbers in Glasgow’s local election.

Newsnicht helpfully interviewed some people in Possil, who were clear on why they did not vote:

They don’t dae nothin.  They don’t dae a hing for anybody.  […] It’s worthless.  There’s nae point in it.  Nae point in it.  Doesnae help nobody.”

>Do you think it would change anything? “No really, naw.”

>What’s the reason for people not exercising their vote d’you think? “Probably don’t think any of thaim will dae any different for ye, or no.  Thing is politicians are only in it for theirsels oniewey, ye know.

It is easy to dismiss such analysis as unhelpfully cynical.  But it must be remembered that during the height of the boom, Scottish society was content to let half the population of Possil, where these non-voters were interviewed, to be written off as “structural unemployment.”

People in places like Possilpark have good reason to be cynical about what the political process will deliver for them.  Indeed those who spend their lives studying data about social inequality are equally scathing, based on these kinds of data:-

The poor places always remain poor places unless something happens to change them. In these seats, the level of apathy is amazing. They vote Labour but more people don’t vote at all. A hell of a lot of people are just disengaged because they don’t see the point of it.” [Professor Douglas Robertson, Stirling University]

For a hundred years, the only party on offer to poor people has been Labour and it hasn’t been that great for them — so, often, they don’t bother to vote at all.” [Prof Danny Dorling, Sheffield University]

Across much of Glasgow, this kind of crushing inequality and poverty is mirrored.  In the home of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Glasgow’s East End, life expectancy among the poor appears actually to be on the decline, again during the years of the boom. “In many neighbourhoods with lower than average life expectancy, life expectancy appears to have remained static or may even have fallen.

Calton ward saw a turnout of 26.03%; it has the worst male life expectancy in Western Europe.  Indeed, six wards in Glasgow had a turnout in the 20% range: they all suffer from deprivation, however, the only ward which elected a Tory councillor had a turnout of 42.7%.

It’s worth taking a look at the picture in Calton ward, a ward that routinely has the lowest turnout in council elections, because it graphically illustrates just how much this was an election dominated by a shrinking pool of core voters:

Labour’s vote for George Redmond had a 72% transfer rate for 455 surplus ballots which were allocated to                   Yvonne Küçük, taking her above her quota.  For the remaining seat, the SNP struggled through 13 rounds of preference transfers before making the quota.

This demonstrates how little movement there was in preferences, indicating an election dominated by core voters.  The same pattern has emerged in other wards around the city, where first preference SNP voters were transferring second preferences at 70+%, and first preference Labour voters were transferring at around the same rate, and other Unionist-voting first preferences were not transferred to the SNP, after Labour candidates had made their quota.

The leader of Glasgow City Council, Gordon Matheson, standing in Anderston and City ward, may have made quota in round one, but he did so in a ward that recorded a 23.6% turnout.  There is something rotten about our democracy when the leader of a council is elected by less than 10% of the electorate in the ward where he stood.

Apathy is not the issue, it is poverty and disenchantment with electoral politics.  It is interesting to speculate about what this says about our society, but I prefer to look at the question of dismal mandates in areas of poverty as just a refraction of lived reality.

Whole communities have been written off by the political process and this is reflected at the ballot box.

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About burdzeyeview

A Scottish burd casting a beady eye over political, topical, economic and social issues that ruffle my feathers.

Posted on May 8, 2012, in All things policy related and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Burdy I think you’re being very hard on Indy I have to say. I think I can understand his exasperation to be honest.

    Some are sniping at Parties at all levels getting it all wrong last week by “not bothering to engage” with voters and lecturing how “strong relationships with communities” is the way to go. These are all easy observations to make but in the places we are talking about it is nigh impossible to achieve for many reasons some of which are not covered in this piece. What about the areas run by gangs and their lackeys? Where drug problems (and where the supply of drugs enables many “businesses” to thrive) are rife: where for every two people who want change there are eight who don’t and who don’t take kindly to those advocating change? .How do you actually build relationships in communities like that where fear is a factor many live with on a daily basis or the determination of the majority to hold on to their sad existence is total?

    These are not issues for the SNP alone to address: any Party that isn’t concerned about them shouldn’t be in politics yet they are and too many pretend these areas don’t exist. Like Glasgow they will say, “Never mind the wastelands here, look, we’re going to expand Buchanan Galleries so rich folk from London will come and shop in the designer shops!” Some are into third generation fatherless families: they don’t know what family means. And every new generation of weans hit sixteen (and often younger) and decide to repeat the cycle all over again. They don’t embrace education or learning. Why would they with the example set for them from when they are babies? Right now we have too many children who are left with addict parents. What chance do they have in that sort of environment or where Buckfast is the drink of choice? If we know children are with addict parents we should have one priority and that’s to get them out of there and give them half a chance. Why would a caring society leave helpless children with addict parents?

    Last night I nipped into my local shop. It sells booze, amongst other things, and the wine is all set out on shelves. At the counter I heard the woman in front of me ask for “a bottle of wine” and I thought that was strange and wondered why she hadn’t just taken one from a shelf. But no it wasn’t wine, wine, it was Buckfast and they keep that behind the counter. (They have to as it gets nicked otherwise.) She had with her a wee totey girl still in her school uniform. A lovely wee lassie. And where was that wee lassie going now, on a Wednesday night after school? Home with her mammy and her mammy’s bottle of Buckie! These are the “poverty-stricken” and the “disenfranchised”. But there’s enough money for Buckfast. Once again I found myself thinking back to when I was five or six and trying to imagine my own mother doing this. I couldn’t imagine it. In those days those sookin’ bottles of El D and Lanny were winos, not mammies. These days Buckfast is a way of life in small groups we now optimistically call “families”.

  2. “Apathy is not the issue, it is poverty and disenchantment with electoral politics.”

    I totally disagree with this. I am sick of hearing everyone else being blamed for the fact that so many don’t give a toss about their communities. The vast majority of the stay-aways are in that category.

    I agree that some people are genuinely disillusioned with politics: we’ve all been there, some of us are there right now. But there are others whose own lives and how they have ended up are entirely of their own making. No one else’s fault, just theirs.

    I hear all these phrases being trotted out, time after time about “people written off by society” and now I just get bloody angry. I am in my late early 50s. I knew poverty when I was young. There were six of us weans and there were times when my dad didn’t have work and there wasn’t much of anything. Even when he was working it was hard going for my parents. My friends lived similar lives. There was no such thing as the Benefits system we have now. Your rent didn’t get paid for a start! There was no Working Families Tax Credits. And there certainly weren’t hordes of very young and very single women being kept and housed by the state along with their fatherless weans! There was poverty, yes, but there was also community. The concept of community to me is stone dead these days and many have stood by and allowed their communities to be written off and to die.

    It is all very well to turn on political Parties and tell them they aren’t engaging the electorate but I defy anyone to find a way to engage many of these sprawling areas throughout Scotland (and the wider UK) where the ones I feel sorriest for are the weans because they haven’t a snowball’s chance in Hell of going anywhere in their sad wee lives. Even very ordinary community activists who don’t do Party politics at all but are simply committed to building worthwhile communities are exhausted and in despair. Where money is being spent building new housing and schools or community halls the vandals surrounding these facilities entertain themselves by destroying them, damaging them, setting fire to them. I think I mentioned in a separate post the NN Scotland piece where they went into the Council Ward known as Canal and talked to people there only one of whom had actually voted. The responses to the questions, the whole attitude of those questioned terrified me because it seems to me things can actually only get worse when all attempts to engage people fail time after time. There is only so much you can do. At some point however we all have to choose to get involved and if people like these are saying no then I really don’t know what the answer is.

    Those who actually belong to political Parties work hard I’m sure but we should remember that the vast majority of people, even those of us who are interested in our communities and in politics, don’t. So I don’t think it is reasonable to say Party activists got it wrong. In fact I think it is plain daft to blame it on them. They can achieve only so much on the doorsteps but if those behind the doors don’t care anyway they will achieve nothing at all.

  3. If you took the trouble to read what I said before dismissing it Burd you would have seen that I was actually replying to Barbarian who said “Matters are not helped by so-called local councillors and candidates not even bothering their backsides to engage with their communities, relying it seems on photocalls and dealing with residents letters. But no proactive attempts to make themselves known.”

    In point of fact council candidates and their campaign teams made strenuous efforts to engage with their communities.

    Your dismissive comments kind of say it all though about your attitude.

  4. if you don’t vote it should be assumed that you support the governing party.

    that would be interesting :)

  5. That some coun illors were elected by 10% – or in some cases, God help us, less – of the people they “represent” is both depressing and twrrifying. What is even more depressing and terrifying is that we seem unable to do anything about it. Other than, as Kate suggests, weep. Next time I engage with my newly elected representative and he mentions his (for it is a he) I will ask him what percentage of his constituency voted for him. In fact I am having a vision of a new page on the Council’s web site, with the photo and profile of each Member tagged with “Elected by 9.86% of you”.

  6. The answers from Possil sum things up – what is the point in voting?

    Matters are not helped by so-called local councillors and candidates not even bothering their backsides to engage with their communities, relying it seems on photocalls and dealing with residents letters. But no proactive attempts to make themselves known.

    A strong relationship with a community can make all the difference.

    • About which, more tomorrow in part two!

      • Do us a favour please. Those of us who spent months knocking doors and delivering leaflets, who took annual leave to do so, don’t really want to be told that it’s all our fault for not doing enough. It would not be physically possible for the small number of political activists in Glasgow – of all parties – to do more.

        Let’s address why the many hundreds of people who have strong political beliefs and some of whom join political parties then do nothing. What can parties do to educate their members that work is an expected part of membership?

        Also, you could boil the election result in Glasgow down to the simple fact that Labour shelled out for paid delivery while the SNP didn’t. That enabled Labour’s local teams to focus on its doorstep operation and crucially to do a very effective postal vote campaign. In many wards that meant Labour had won long before polling day.

        But it’s an expensive way of campaigning and they won’t be able to do that in every election. So where does that leave them for future campaigns? And where does that leave all of us if we have to raise that kind of money on a regular basis?

      • And by those statements, Indy, you absolutely fail to grasp what Nick’s article is saying. This isn’t about you or any other hardworking activist – and there’s something I think in how you turn this debate into being about you and the political activists and parties – rather than about the people and communities Nick talks about.

        It’s not about narrow margins of who spent most, or who had the most effective campaign techniques. Here’s the truth. You could all have sat at home, done nothing, chapped not a single door, delivered nowt and turnout would have been largely the same and the result more or less the same too.

        What Nick is trying to discuss is where are the other 70+% of the electorate who don’t turn out or rarely do in Glasgow. And the fact that you as a political activist ignore all that he says and focus on your own very narrow concerns says it all really.

        There, glad I got that off my chest.

      • Have to agree with Kate Indy – youve missed the point entirely. The problem is not necessarily with campaigning (in so far as effort goes), but with proper engagement in the political process – people having problems, and their politicians delivering. As such, it’s largely outside of the campaigning window where the damage is done.

        That said, there is a huge problem IMO with communication. There seems to be a real lack of penetration in candidates getting their identity and their message across. I gave up researching some of the less well known candidates and even the major parties, seemed to churn out utter guff in terms of literature. People arent even sure what local authorities are responsible for, never mind where the candidates stand on various issues.

        This extends beyond election time as well IMO. People are probably completely oblivious to some of the problems that need to be addressed in their own community and the various forums they can use to get involved in whatever way, whether it be to understand what is going on or to actually get involved.

        Im not so convinced about the apathy angle – I think the disengagement is a just a reflection of an increasingly insular society. It’s not that people dont care, it’s that they just dont interact with their neighbourhood as much as they used to. With every passing year, we retreat further into our homes, and are increasingly oblivious/ignorant about what is going on in our own communites.

        I look over to France and see turnout above 70% and think WOW. We are doing something wrong… and it’s far bigger than campaigning.

      • James Morton

        I also believe it to be an issue of relevance. Most people don’t vote anymore because of the increasing irrelevance of the politicians in question. You only have to look at their empty hand wringing over increasing heating/lighting costs, increasing food bills and realise that the fools sold off too many levers of power were they could have made a difference in peoples lives. Rattle off the list of services that people rely on and more & more of them are provided by the private sector: Transport, roads, building maintenance, respite care etc etc. In this environment you see cuts to community programmes that forces people to rely on themselves and their friends. What relevance does a councillor have or that matter an MP.

        Where were the public meetings, the face to face chats? I haven’t seen hide nor tail of a public official for decades. It seems to me that the only time you see them canvassing is when there is an opportunity to get their fizogs on the telly. Much good it does them as most folks still won’t know who they are except by the colour of the rosette on their jacket.

        We were treated to leaflets – though to be fair I only ever saw leaflets for Labour and the SNP. The other parties didn’t even bother, though they had the brass neck to field candidates in the vague hope they might pick up some votes. Votes, I should add they hadn’t bothered trying to work for. It’s a charge I can lay at the feet of Labour & the SNP.

        So to the party activists and the politicos themselves I say this:
        How Dare you think that a leaflet is enough to make me want to vote for you and then wonder why we won’t. If you want my vote then you had better be ready to work for it. I want meetings, I want to vent my spleen at you on the door step then hear what you have to say. I want to see you get out and about a lot more. I want to hear about the things that matter at the local level…not how keech you think the other candidate is…I want to hear what you are going to do for me.

        If you can’t or won’t do that then you’ll have to be happy with what little support you do get. But always please bear in mind that the increasing majority of us regard you the same we regard potholes in our roads or dog dirt on our streets…something unpleasent that really needs to be gotten rid of.

        ….ahhh, that’s better

      • Your solution is anarchy then, James? Nobody in the Town Halls, nobody in parliament, no budget, no legislation? I wonder how that would work out.

        All you want to do is abuse people who are actually trying to make a difference to the community, and you want them to call on you so you can tell them you compare them to dog dirt. Nice.

        There are self-serving placemen, and there are genuinely public-spirited people with a vision for their towns. How would you suggest getting the latter elected instead of the former? While you sit waiting for them to call so you can insult them?

  7. Not so much as a swing for apathy and disdain – more of a bedrock support.

    If you want to get turnouts up for elections start with a “none of the above” box – that’s plus 10-15% right away. Can anyone think of a name for a Political Party that could use the acronym GTF?

  1. Pingback: How do we fix the gender deficit in our political culture? « A Burdz Eye View

  2. Pingback: Guestpost: Organising for Engagement – and for Change in Glasgow « A Burdz Eye View

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