General Election 2024 battle for Glasgow: Is Yes City set to return to Red Clydeside?

Paul Sweeney was the last person to win a seat at Westminster for Labour in the city of Glasgow.

In 2017, he squeaked home by fewer than 250 votes against SNP incumbent Anne McLaughlin. “242 votes - it’s tattooed on my forehead,” Sweeney joked.

It was, at the time, a remarkable result and upset. And it’s been 14 years since anyone else managed the feat.

For the best part of a decade, the city that was once Red Clydeside has been the near impregnable fortress of the SNP.

But this general election, the Nationalists are under siege. Labour are in front in most of the polls in Scotland - even if they’ve tightened in recent weeks.

Polling generally puts Keir Starmer’s party on about 35 per cent of the vote up here, with the SNP a few points behind. One Savanta survey last week had them at level pegging.

Speaking to the Record from his office in Glasgow - where he now represents his party and city at Holyrood - Sweeney said Labour activists sense a step-change among voters, with rising confidence of a comeback.

"A lot of the conversation on doors hasn’t been difficult,” said Sweeney. “People have made their minds up. People are quite settled and confident in expressing that they want to vote for Labour.”

He claimed both anti-Tory and anti-SNP sentiment has been coming up routinely with voters - “a contempt that is expressed quite freely without any prompting… that is quite unusual”.

Scots polling expert Mark Diffley, of the Diffley Partnership, said he expects the SNP-Labour fight across Glasgow and the wider central belt to be “the story of the night” as the July 4 results roll in.

“It’s virtually all SNP across the central belt currently,” he told the Record. “It definitely won’t be after the election.

“But it’s the scale of that change that’s up for grabs and in question - how many of those SNP seats Labour can win.

“The scale of the swing that we’re seeing nationally from the SNP to Labour would suggest, if that comes to pass across the central belt, there will be huge amounts of movement.

“But a slight swing back to the SNP in the last few days could actually save them quite a number of seats. In other words, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty.”

Even before 2014, Labour’s grip on a city that has once been its heartland had been slipping.

And in the independence referendum, Scotland’s largest metropolis famously became a Yes City, with 53 per cent of Glaswegians voting for an indy Scotland.

SNP domination under Nicola Sturgeon was confirmed a year later, when the party wiped Labour out in Glasgow.

It’s difficult to understate what a profound shift this was.

Glasgow has long had a radical political tradition - city of legendary Labour founder Keir Hardie, of Red Clydeside in the 1920s, of anti-Thatcher discontent

It hasn’t returned a Tory MP since the 1970s, and for decades had been a Labour fiefdom.

Sweeney said the 2014 vote and his party’s decimation a year later reflected a political “alienation” amongst once Labour-loyal Glaswegians.

“People just felt a deep disconnect with the political system,” he said. “And they felt their vote in the referendum was an expression of agency to disrupt the status quo.

“I think that behaviour is actually typical of Glasgow and what we're seeing in this election is a similar idea - that they're wanting to shake things up again.”

The question, though, is just how enthusiastic voters in Glasgow will be on July 4 amidst a brutal cost of living crisis, soaring use of food banks, a citywide housing emergency - and an election campaign that, for many, has failed to inspire.

Sally Thomas, chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA), told the Record the situation in Glasgow is “desperate”.

She said: “No one declares a housing emergency unless things are really bad… Glasgow has its share of the 10,000 children nationally who are in temporary accommodation.

“It has its share of the 30,000 people who are homeless and a really big share of the 250,000 people on a waiting list for a social home.”

Thomas warned whoever triumphs on July 4, it will “need emphatic and wide-ranging and long-lasting and significant measures to overcome” these entwined crises.

“That thing about people feeling that politicians are not listening or not responding across the board is, I think, one that's felt quite strongly and quite deeply by lots of people,” she said.

On Labour’s manifesto, Thomas added: “There probably isn’t the level of intent in terms of significant changes that we'd like to see, for example, abandoning the two-child benefit limit, taking away the bedroom tax, and uprating benefits annually in line with inflation.

“[But] the other thing that we're seeing which is welcomed, which is more positive, is the Labour Party at UK level are talking about a significant house-building programme… which implies that we might see the knock-on effects of that in Scotland.”

Is Sweeney concerned that Labour’s prospectus to voters in Glasgow in 2024 is not radical enough - particularly compared to the Corbyn-led manifesto he ran and won on in 2017?

He replied: “Our biggest weakness traditionally has been being seen as profligate with national finances so I can understand the party’s desire to try to manage that and contain that risk.”

“I think any activist, anyone who's passionate about delivering democratic socialism in Britain, would be frustrated at not being able to be more fulsome about our discussion of policy, but I can understand the strategy.”

But he insists a Labour government will be transformative and “one of the most effective governments in improving people’s lives” of modern times.

The MSP added: “I'm not bothered with the manifesto, but I'm bothered about what happens next.”

Can the SNP, who have dominated Glasgow for a decade, take heart from tightening polls? Diffley isn’t so sure. “There’s about a 15 per cent swing going on [from SNP to Labour]...

“And that means Glasgow isn’t any safer SNP territory than anywhere else.”

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