“We’ve got realistic ambitions to be the largest party,” leader of the Labour group on Glasgow City Council Malcolm Cunning tells me when we meet in the City Chambers, the grand building where the council is headquartered. Achieving a majority “may be a bit of a big ask”, he adds. “But I think being the biggest party is a reasonable ambition and one that we are working very hard towards.”
Scottish councils are elected every five years in all-out elections. Labour lost control of the council at the last set of local elections back in 2017 after holding it for nearly 40 years. The party lost ten seats, achieving 31 compared to 39 for the SNP. The balance on the council has shifted slightly over the course of the term: Labour now holds 29 seats and the SNP 35.
Frank McAveety, a previous Labour group leader and council leader before 2017 – says: “We hit a low point in 2017. But I think we’re making some recovery.” He is standing for re-election in Shettleston ward, which he argues is a key seat for Labour: “If Labour’s going to make any recovery in Glasgow, this is one of the seats it has to make a recovery in.”
I join McAveety and fellow Labour candidate in Shettleston Jill Pidgeon on an evening canvassing session in the Carmyle area of the ward. Pidgeon, who is standing for the first time, says they are seeing a “mixture of frustration and fear” on the doorstep about the direction in which Glasgow is going. “People seem to recognise that Labour are not the people who are responsible for how things are at the moment and are coming back to us and seeing us as a change – positive change.”
She tells me people in her ward are “fed up” with the state of the city: “The lack of investment and the lack of options for people. And they see a really rapid decline in the city centre in the last five years and in services.” McAveety agrees, saying he has picked up on a “general frustration” that Glasgow has “stalled”. He attributes this in part to the ongoing discussion about Scottish independence – “the referendum – or the ‘never-end-um’ as we call it in Scotland” – which has left Scottish politics somewhat on pause. “Actual basic service delivery has not been the number one priority,” he stresses.
“The current administration have, in five years, made a mess of the city, and they’ve been tremendously cloth-eared about it,” Cunning tells me. We chat in his impressive office in the City Chambers, which McAveety informs me is nicer than the one assigned to the leader of the council, having held both during his career. Cunning argues that the SNP-led council has been “dismissive of people’s genuine concerns”, downplaying criticism of the state of Glasgow with comments like “the place just needs a gussy up”. “That actually annoyed people. It infuriated people,” he tells me.
“We’ve even had SNP members say that the state of Glasgow is disgraceful, and something needs to change,” Cunning adds. Though he does not expect these SNP members to end up voting Labour, he stresses that there is a “Glasgow effect”: “People think Glasgow is a mess – the rubbish issue, potholes, the state of the Glasgow economy – and they are blaming the local Glasgow leadership. They are holding them accountable, and as a result of that, are open to a Labour alternative.”
McAveety highlights that the council has seen 13 successive years of budget cuts: “If the Tories had been doing that to Glasgow, Glaswegians would have been very critical.” McAveety first served as council leader prior to devolution, before being elected as MSP for Glasgow Shettleston in the first election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. After losing his seat to the SNP in 2011, he was re-elected to Glasgow City Council the following year.
“Even when Labour was running the Scottish government, the Labour councillors stuck up for the city first,” he tells me. “What I find mostly depressing is to watch how the SNP councillors put the Scottish government first.” He recalls the “private battles” he had with some of his former colleagues when he was a Scottish government minister: “Surely, that’s what local government’s about? You argue for your patch.”
One man we speak to during the canvassing session tells us he is generally a Conservative voter but would vote Labour to remove the SNP. Asked about the reception to the Conservatives on the doorstep, Cunning says: “There are a lot of disillusioned Tories.” He acknowledges that “confusing messages” from the national leadership on the independence question allowed the Tories to make gains at the 2017 local elections as the “best protectors of the union”, but he thinks the party’s position on the issue is “far clearer” now. “I’d have thought a significant amount of what had been slippage to the Conservatives from us – and it happened in places like Shettleston in a big way and in my own ward in a big way – an awful lot of that is coming back. And there’s Tories willing to vote tactically for us.”
Cunning thinks independence will be less of a focus for voters in Glasgow at this election, with more of an emphasis placed on the quality of services. “They may still maintain some level of support for independence and/or level of support for a second referendum. But I think for the first time in ages that – for the vast majority of the electorate – is not going to be the clinching issue of how they vote.”
McAveety offers a different viewpoint, arguing that “everything” in Scotland is getting “shoe-horned” into the independence debate. “I’m personally tired of the politics of the city being defined by the national question when it should be about – this is the biggest city in Scotland,” he says. “We are a significant post-industrial city that dominates Scotland. And we are the economic powerhouse.”
Reflecting on Glasgow’s current trajectory, Pidgeon tells me: “Once you get into that spiral of decline, if you don’t pull out of it quickly, then it’s really, really difficult to get out of it. And I think that’s why there has to be a change now.” McAveety puts it simply: “We’re fighting for the future of the city.”