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.