Can Labour win back Glasgow South West? Interview with Matt Kerr

Sienna Rodgers
© Twitter/@MattKerrLabour

Matt will take a worker’s wage if elected to parliament. Labour will end zero-hour contracts and kick-start a green industrial revolution. We’ve promised £58bn to WASPI women, and 5,000 women in this seat are affected. You’ll get the odd Tory here, the uber-unionists. Tell them they need to vote tactically – a Tory vote is a wasted one. There is only a handful of Liberals. There’s three of them on the road around the corner. Oh, and housing: Labour will build 12,000 social and council homes a year. It’s only 5,000 at the moment. Last thing. Universal Credit was rolled out here – and this constituency has the busiest food bank in Scotland.

This is the briefing discussion being had around me in a group of Labour activists in Glasgow South West. We are standing outside a huge primary school – everything in Glasgow looks like Diagon Alley’s Gringotts to me – which was attended by Gordon Brown’s big brother, I’m told by Labour candidate Matt Kerr. He only has 60 votes to make up, but it’s a tough climate. And I’m not just talking about the sub-zero temperatures. This highly marginal seat is one of those that turned from safe red to strong yellow in the 2015 SNP landslide that realigned Scottish politics. The gap almost closed in 2017, though not quite enough for the seat to be won back by Labour. With such a small majority to overturn, at this election Labour needs this one to start making inroads into Scotland again.

It will not be easy, despite the small vote differential on paper. But the Glaswegians are surprisingly optimistic, I find. There is “a very big difference” between Labour’s 2017 campaign locally and the one being undertaken on the ground now, I’m told by Matt, who stood here then and has been selected again since that narrow loss. “Last time, if we’re honest, after 2015 in Scotland people’s heads were down a bit, and it was really hard to get people out to campaign. Nobody thought we had any chance in 2017. We had a 10,000 majority to overturn. I think people were quite demotivated.” And now? “Different ballgame. We’re getting great numbers out, we’re covering a lot more ground and it’s hugely encouraging because I’m not sure that my opponent is getting quite the same numbers.”

This is a theme that emerges during my time in Glasgow. “We have seen them out on the doors. But actually it’s been quite telling that it’s been a low profile campaign locally by the SNP,” Matt says. When I chat to Labour activists in another part of Glasgow the next day, they report the same and reckon Nicola Sturgeon’s party is concentrating on toppling Tories on the east coast – even though the SNP/Labour seats in this area have wafer thin majorities. If her game is to pressure a minority Labour government into allowing a fresh independence referendum early on, this approach by the SNP would make a lot of sense.

Matt Kerr’s focus for the local Labour campaign is firmly on policy. He is particularly pleased with the WASPI (women against state pension inequality) pledge. “When it wasn’t in the manifesto initially, I was getting a bit nervous,” he admits. “But the announcement dispelled all those concerns. It was a game changer. I really needed that.” Local residents had been raising the issue before the announcement, which came after the manifesto release, and Matt says he returned to those constituents afterwards with the new commitment. ”I think people have really taken to it.” And apparently its considerable cost of £58bn has not been of much concern to locals.

What about universal basic income? The idea is that every citizen – regardless of their income or employment status – could be offered a regular payment by the state, and Matt is a supporter. Having read in the Guardian about his plan to pilot a UBI in parts of Fife and Glasgow, I ask him whether that went anywhere. “It hasn’t, which is very annoying,” he replies, although he says “concrete proposals” are now “on the shelf, ready to go”.

Labour’s manifesto does include a promise – I point out – to look at “innovative ways of responding to low pay, including a pilot of Universal Basic Income”, apparently at the wishes of John McDonnell. Matt smiles: “I’m delighted. I’ve been bending his ear about that for a couple of years.” Is he lobbying to have that pilot take place in Glasgow? “I’m lobbying, I’ve been lobbying, I will continue to lobby on that.” And what’s his pitch? “Given the structural problems we’ve had with inequalities and poverty over the years, I think we’ve got a great place to figure out whether this could transform lives. I have high hopes.”

The other policy interests held by this Labour candidate are linked to him being a bit of a red prince. Not a major one, like Stephen Kinnock – but it is important that the former postie is the son of Andy Kerr, deputy general secretary of the communications union CWU, because it informs his politics. It is also interesting to note that CWU, a relatively small left-wing affiliated union, has had a particularly significant impact on Labour’s latest manifesto. And Matt is most enthusiastic during our interview when talking about the value of the policies that the CWU has successfully campaigned for ahead of this election.

Aside from Royal Mail renationalisation, free and fast broadband for all is the big hitter. Although “it’s a big, scary financial commitment”, as Matt puts it, the pledge “could completely transform rural economies”. Of its potential impact in this seat, the candidate adds: “There’s areas even in Glasgow where there’s really poor connectivity, really poor take-up of broadband even as it stands, let alone full fibre. So there’s huge potential it could unlock in our economy. Sometimes you have to borrow money in order to make a few quid. If you explain things in those terms, people get it.”

Matt seems to have real vision for CWU. The broadband policy, he says, is “a demonstration – I’m very proud to say this – that my union has really got its act together politically. We’ve got a fantastic research department. Recent strike ballots were very well organised. That’s really helped us make an impact in the party. We are gaining influence all the time. And we represent industries that matter a lot to everyday people.” As he points out: “Everybody’s got a postie. There’s a huge potential there for our union to be involved in every community in the land, going beyond just the bread and butter of trade unionism, representing our workers as we do well, but actually getting active in communities. I think that’s our next step.”

Labour’s campaign in Glasgow South West is positive. The response I received on the doorstep was mixed, but the arguments weren’t difficult to make. A Labour promise resulted from a conversation I had in which the Brexit position needed clearly explaining, which was very easy. Others had already decided based on the issue of Scottish independence. What Matt is keen to dispel the idea that the SNP is “somehow a left-wing party – they’re nothing of the sort”, he argues firmly. “They waited a year to act on the Bedroom Tax because they said they didn’t want to let the Tories off the hook. There’s people in this constituency still carrying debt because of that year where nothing happened, which is an utter disgrace… Sooner or later, things have got to change.” The question is whether that change will come on December 12th, or if the residents of this tight marginal are willing to give the SNP another chance.

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