Guestpost: Organising for Engagement – and for Change in Glasgow

Part two of Nick Durie‘s analysis of what went wrong in last week’s council election in Glasgow focuses on the solutions to current levels of disengagement and disenchantment with the political process among those who are urban poor.  Part one was published yesterday.

When I lived in the Possilpark area in 2009, I was active in trying to build a local residents’ association for the housing scheme I lived on: Hamiltonhill.  This was an area that faced stark political issues.

It had seen the housing association in control of the homes underspend its budget in the area by more than half, in 06/07, and the homes we lived in were under the constant threat of demolition, just like the local schools which had been closed two years earlier, or the community centre which had been shut down in the 1980s, or the community room at the local shops which had been closed down following an arson attack in 2005.

The area was plagued by suspicious fires, heroin was openly supplied via a regular ice cream van round, and while I was living there the GHA tried to double the rent, the council made a play to say the homes were built on toxic waste  (apart from the new build private homes in the area, which were built on  entirely safe ground), and I witnessed drug gangs exact retribution on wayward creditors with claw hammers.

[Contempt for local residents’ intelligence – Hamiltonhill’s toxic waste, a precursor to a rushed demolition, apart from in the square of newbuild private homes.  No investigations were carried out when the scheme was submitted for second stage stock transfer to another housing association]

My home was broken into by my next door neighbour twice.  My flatmate’s car tyres were slashed twice, and three of my immediate neighbours had drug and alcohol problems and would chuck needles or dirty nappies into my garden.

When you live in an environment like this, the council tax freeze is not going to get you making your way down to the ballot box.

Again it’s easy to frame this kind of everyday experience as belonging to pockets of poverty, but as 33 of Scotland’s 50 poorest areas are in Glasgow, those are rather spacious pockets.

Places which suffer from poverty like this are far from apathetic.  They are deeply political places, but the Overton Window of the mainstream political class has little on show to offer them.  In the two places I lived in which fall within the Canal ward in Glasgow, there have been active local campaigns to prevent the demolition of local communities. While private house building, alongside the demolition of social housing required to make way for it, has prompted the council to pilot “housing options” (due to increasing social home scarcity), there have been a number of community victories – victorious campaigns which represent real community politics.

In 2008, the St George’s Estate of nearly 3000 homes was saved from the wrecking ball by local tenant campaigners.  I was involved in that, and I can assure Mr Mackay that local residents were anything but apathetic.  Indeed, our community campaign won millions of pounds of investment into the area.

Nobody asked us if we wanted our homes demolished to make way for the regeneration scheme the council planned for the area. In fact, we only found out our homes were for the chop when a lift in one of the high rise blocks was off for two and half months without repair, leading to a demonstration and the formation of a tenants group, and a chance encounter with a senior housing manager who spoke to the demonstration and told us the uncertain position the estate was in.

This kind of local politics – the politics of urban clearance and regeneration – comes from a certain sort of prevailing economic consensus.

Glasgow is a low wage economy.  The council has successfully pursued growth in the hospitality and conferencing industries with significant GDP growth for the city in these industries, but they are low wage sectors.  Now more people work in hospitality than ever worked on the shipyards.  And yet, it must be remembered that many communities have unemployment of more than 1/3.  That means these jobs, which are not unionised, are often paid less than the national going rate, as high unemployment ensures an employers’ market for labour.

This has been the deliberate policy of the incumbents for the past decade or more and it has ancillaries in the property and retail sectors.  Huge tracts of social housing and brownfield land have been replaced with huge tracts of (often empty) private flats.  Challenging this economic consensus, which relies on a high level of structural poverty to function, and is often propped up by the proceeds of drugs, crime, and subject to corrupt insider trading at the council, is vital from a social justice perspective.

The SNP has started to do just that, in the Scottish Government’s economic strategy for Glasgow; success in this is vital if Glasgow’s urban poor are to see mainstream politics as having anything to say to them.

In community organising, one of the first things you learn is that PROBLEMS must be turned into ISSUES and then PERSONALISED, before they are given a SOLUTION around which you can organise, if you are to build momentum for change.

At this election the SNP made very little of the fact that the Scottish Government’s leadership in renewables has seen thousands of high value jobs created in Glasgow, in research and the engineering of these machines of the future.  The party went into the Glasgow election with a proposal to create a public renewable energy company to pursue investment into the poor areas of the city, generating jobs, revenue for the council, and tackling fuel poverty.  This was a really ambitious plan.

And yet it was barely mentioned by SNP candidates, despite being exactly the right kind of policy to bring people out to vote.  Indeed, lack of decent jobs and the poverty which accompanies worklessness and casualised labour, is probably the big doorstep issue in Glasgow, an issue that the SNP has a real solution to, but one that they made very little attempt to publicise or organise around.

If communities where only an older generation votes, are to participate in the electoral process, then they need to be confident that they are voting for change.  Something of the campaign which swept US President Obama to power in his first term is what is needed to engage voters in Glasgow.  Crushing poverty, high levels of crime and insecurity have bred a deep distrust of anything that sounds like the status quo; indeed, it is perhaps for this reason that social scientists have discovered support for independence is highest among Glaswegians, living in poverty.

For those who support independence – I do – the SNP’s failure to create ISSUES in this election was a sobering observation.  The local elections seemed, at times, to be a clash of potential managers.  If what is offered is managerialism, then Glasgow voters have shown they will stay at home.

The same will be true of the independence referendum.  Those who have least at stake in the continuation of the status quo did not vote for the SNP last Thursday: they weren’t engaged.  Polling indicates that a majority of them support independence, but will they vote for it?  Engagement needs to be built, and it must be built around issues.

It is possible to build engagement with electoral politics in poor communities.  I know because I work as a community organiser for an NGO which just ran a small but successful community accountability campaign in Glasgow during this election.

On April 1st, 63 community leaders from across the city, many from poor communities, came together to launch the Glasgow Won’t Be Fooled accountability campaign.  Drawing together a mini-manifesto of all their concerns, these community leaders gathered over 1000 minutes of hustings filming, and they won a number of important community victories.

Their efforts gained commitments from a fifth of the now elected councillors to meet with community leaders after the election to discuss their concerns, won support for (and progress on) several local green spaces facing destruction or dereliction (North Kelvin Meadows, Maryhill Running Track and Tennis Courts), and won a commitment to up the number of socially rented homes at a Commonwealth Games legacy development in Maryhill from 143 to over 400, as well as a commitment to work in partnership with student leadership organisations, from each of the candidates in Hillhead, to tackle anti-social private landlords.

As the community organiser helping to facilitate community leaders working on this campaign, I would be the first to admit that these victories and this level of engagement and participation are small in comparison to the scale of the challenge of political disaffection.  However, from conversations with a number of the participants, I know that this was the first time many had ever cast a ballot.  Issues-based engagement and campaigning had encouraged people involved to see a role for themselves in the political process.

Power In Community which organised this campaign is less than a year old and is a long way from being able to shape an election, but what this does show is that the efforts of a few determined individuals can challenge disillusionment.

As Scotland marches forward to the independence referendum, it is important to bear in mind that in 305 out of 353 wards, the SNP gained 32.7 per cent of the vote, Labour 31.5 per cent, the Conservatives 13.1 per cent and the Lib Dems 6.4 per cent.

But by far the biggest vote was represented by those who didn’t see anything in the vote for them.  If we want to secure independence we need 50+%.  Much of that vote is going to be concentrated in those who have little to gain from the status quo, and the vast majority of those urban poor did not vote in this election.

We need to use the methods of community organising to build engagement.  That is, we have to explain how the issues people face in their daily lives can be solved by their taking action and voting in 2014.

We cannot rely on those who feel disenfranchised to watch these events unfolding and credit them with the importance that they have been given by the political class.  We have to make them have that political importance, in the way that we connect on the issues.

7 thoughts on “Guestpost: Organising for Engagement – and for Change in Glasgow

  1. I found this quite interesting but I think it is a bit naive to imply that the SNP doesn’t appreciate all (or at least a lot) of this.

    The major problem with modern politics is that there are far too many elections. We have just come through a run of 5 elections in 6 years and the missing year – 2008 – was dominated by the will he, won’t he antics of Gordon Brown.

    The kind of approach being discussed (which I fully agree with) is very difficult to balance with the short-termism of party politics.

    But let’s just give a little credit for the proposed timing of the Referendum which gives us more or less a 30 month clear run (2014 Euro Election aside) to D-Day. Let’s also be aware that the Independence strategy is fully appreciative of the need to be bottom-up as well as top-down.

    It is still not much time but the message we have is very powerful for the types of networks that want to see radical / transformational change and, like the author, I suspect we will begin to see a lot of traction very quickly.

    We have to remember that the overall strategy was all about obtaining the ability to hold a Referendum. That has now been achieved and the last year has been about working out the strategy to build the necessary coalition to achieve Indendence via that Referendum.

    Hold on to your hats because this Referendum campaign is going to be quite unlike anything we have seen in Scotland before. And, as someone who has just been on the wrong end of a large Labour vote in central Scotland, I am comforted that about half of those Labour votes are also Independence votes.

  2. These messages did not get through to the electorate because we have a hostile press – Viv Nicolls is basically the Labour Party’s press officer and refused to run many of the stories the SNP gave her – and we did not have enough bodies on the ground to counteract that. As a member you need to take your share of responsibility for that instead of attacking the SNP members who did all the work. Unless you do that your other points are compromised. It is perfectly fair to criticise from the sidelines if you are not involved but if you have taken the step of actually joining the party then it’s not really on to criticise a campaign online when you have made no effort to contribute to it.

  3. Attempts to bring communities alive have been ongoing for many years, especially in the areas highlighted in this piece. Many of them were taken over by the very sorts you did NOT want to see in charge and many ended up being closed down having been run by bent Management Committees whose focus was not on poor communities but on what was in it for them. The racket previously known as the Urban Aid Fund is a good example of tens of thousands of public money being thrown away on such projects. I recall Glasgow fighting to regain control over a community hall facility that had been taken over by some family or other and which was being run by them and their lackies and the community itself couldn’t get a look in! They were also misusing a mini-bus that had come with the project and keeping it for their private use. (The same will happen with “local” Housing Associations, mark my words. You’ll get a house if certain local Management Committee big wigs say so and equality and fairness will not come into it.)

    As for poverty, I grew up in a fairly poor household but communities then were not like those described in the piece above. They weren’t throwing needles out of windows or dirty nappies either. They weren’t setting fire to their neighbours’ homes and destroying other property belonging to neighbours. And it was safe too. People looked out for each other, for each other’s weans and for the elderly. I think all this “Let’s blame poverty for everything.” insults those who, not so very long ago, knew what poverty was and still managed to rear families, survive on low wages and keep decent homes and communities ticking over.

  4. Good set of articles, and nice to see first hand accounts of local issues.

    There seems to be an assumption that people would vote for the SNP. True, more did, but they did not have any real effect on Labour’s core vote.

    At present, I do not think the SNP will have the Referendum their way, and not even close. Something just doesn’t feel right at all.

    Perhaps the leadership should be talking to people like Nick.

  5. I totally agree about the conclusion regarding the ‘managerial’ policies on offer. I was very unimpressed with the complete lack of any local initiatives being championed by my local SNP candidates. The SNP GCC manifesto focused on regurgitating central policies about police, council tax freeze and nursery places. Local policies amounted to vague promises about better road maintenance and less dog poo (without detailing how they would be achieved).

    Little wonder people failed to engage – I didn’t engage – and I am a party member and advocate of independence. I think the party wonks took the vote a little for granted and thought reminding them of why the Scottish Government is a good one would be enough.

    The emergence of the Murdoch issue was the final straw for many – maybe not a huge number as Stephen Noon highlights – but enough. Particualrly the lefty, anti-war, progressive types that switched to the SNP in 2007 and 2011 who were put off by this folly. They either stayed at home or voted Green in wards like Partick, Langside and East Centre.

    I think that poverty is a big factor – but the turnout was dreadful even in more affluent areas – I just think people don’t recognise any hope of radical change being brought about through local government. A factor not helped by the increasing centralisation of local campaigns. I hope the SNP recognise that they can do something about this – but they need to untighten the reins while in a position of strength.

    • You must have read a different manifesto to me. Because the one I read did not say a lot about dog poo but talked more about fly tipping and bin collection and specifically said that the entire LES operation would be reviewed and strengthened IN HOUSE. However I was told by at least 6 council employees that they would not vote SNP because we were going to privatise LES. That was told to people as a fact and they believed it and did not believe our denials.

      And if you are a member hell mend you. The manifesto was not written by HQ. It was written in Glasgow and was signed off at every stage by the GRA. If you cannot be bothered to engage in that then don’t bother to criticise pal.

      • I engage in many ways and also happen to believe that critical analysis is perfectly reasonable in a democratic party. I’m sure what you say is true but these messages either did not get through to the electorate or did not excite them. The labour bus cuts campaign may have been negative but it got people interested. These are issues the party needs to address. Burying heads in sand will only have one result.

        Saying we were right and the electorate was wrong is not a good way to move forward towards the referendum.

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