Is the SNP’s large and ungainly tail ‘fair gaming’ Labour activists in Glasgow East?

As it happens, in Scotland through the on-the-ground work of Phil Mac Giolla Bhain we’ll be keeping a close eye on two Scottish constituencies of Glasgow Central and Glasgow East.

More from Phil in the next few weeks, but suffice it to say these are two battleground seats in which the SNP are clearly battling hard to take over what has been a solidly Labour heartland for generations.

So interesting to note from Andrew Gilligan in the Daily Telegraph (no particular friend of the Labour Party) the extent to which ‘fair game’ campaigning has displaced run of the mill politics there. He cites a videoed incident from a few weeks ago:

Margaret Curran, the shadow Scottish secretary, is knocking on doors in her efforts to be re-elected as Labour MP for Glasgow East. But there’s an addition to the usual campaign scene: Mrs Curran is being “hunted” (their word) by a pair of aggressive Scottish National Party activists.

They’re following her around. They’re filming her. And as a woman voter opens her front door, and Mrs Curran tries to talk to her, the SNP duo are standing at the garden gate, shouting at them both.

“Will you be telling her the truth, Mrs Curran?” yells Piers Doughty-Brown.

“The bedroom tax! Why did you abstain from the bedroom tax!” screams Helen Tennant. “We’ve already leafleted these doors!”

One of the Labour campaign team asks Mr Doughty-Brown whether they have asked the voter’s permission to film her in her own home. “We’re in a public street – we don’t need permission,” he says.

Someone else asks them to stop shouting. “Are you a police officer?” asks Mr Doughty-Brown. “Then go away from me, and go away from me now.”

Now, on Northern Ireland’s grand, historic culture war scale, this is tame stuff. Our rougher end know how to prevent rival politicians from visiting whole are and how to stop them from walking down the High Street of their own constituencies.

David Trimble’s experience at the hands of loyalist paramilitaries arriving at the count centre in Banbridge in 2001 was only the last play in what had been a pretty dirty campaign by a set of people who apparently had nothing to do with the DUP.

For his part, Mr Doughty-Brown notes in response to Gilligan’s story:

To my mind, it’s a melancholy time if we’ve reached a political climate, where three minutes of discomfiture to a politician of questionable voracity outweighs the consequences of the blight their policies and lies bring to the people of Scotland i.e. the bedroom tax; austerity; anti-independence etc.

This appears to be a text he used previously in response to a rebuke for the videoing from the SNP candidate in Glasgow East, Natalie McGarry. She it was who slipped somewhat with a mention of Ms Curran being “fair target for community justice”.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 03.10.33As noted during the IndyRef the problem with this “trickle-up politics” is that the strength and flexibility of distributed activism also comes with poor control over whatever tactics these plausibly deniable activists choose to use.

The fear engendered by such tactics may have been one of the contributory factors in the mass turn out of No as well as Yes voter in the loss of that Referendum. But in this particular election, the stakes are much lower.

One piece of writing that Gilligan disapprovingly quotes in his Telegraph piece is by The National’s columnist Paul Kavanagh is reminiscent of a similarly excoriating journalism locally in Northern Ireland:

After 80 years of Labour domination you might just have expected that the East End would have received some of that jam that was always promised, that it might have benefited from some of the fat of the land that was creamed off.

Instead Shettleston Road is still populated by the same grey and hollow faces that were there when I was a child. The same grey faces that were there when my parents were children. They walk head down against the rain, bundled up against the cold, wrapped up in the never ending struggle to make it through the day.

Labour tells us this is how it has to be, this is how it’s always going to be and the best you can aspire to is escape, to leave the grey faces to their unending walk in the rain and the cold against the run down tenements of Shettleston Road.

The local Labour party is a hollowed out shell, empty like the lives that Labour has betrayed and left behind.  The charade of a people’s party without any people, playing musical chairs with opportunity, wheeching away support as it sings the Internationale.  It serves only to get the local MP re-elected.

If the polls are right, this election should see the SNP rout Labour in the way Kavannagh foretells. In the effort to upset Labour’s monocultural dominance of working class Scotland, the SNP is apparently sweeping aside the niceties to one side.

And it’s not all at constituency level. A couple of weeks ago the Irish Times Britain correspondent Mark Hennessy noted of public debate in Scotland both during at after the IndyRef that:

..the biggest problem faced by the BBC’s local operations in Scotland was low self-confidence, believing it was always going to be open to attack in a debate that had become increasingly partisan. In Scotland today, one must choose.

Salmond’s central problem during the campaign centred on his inability to ease middle-ground Scots’ fears about the economic risks attached to independence. The currency question was not answered.

Economic questions have strengthened in the face of the near-collapse in the price of oil, badly holing the prospectus the SNP put before Scots. The oil revenues, if prices stay steady at new levels, of an independent Scotland would be just one-fifth of those predicted.

None of this has made any difference in a Scotland where – leaving aside partisan points raised by dyed-in-the-wool unionists – anyone who tries to raise questions of substance is automatically accused of “talking Scotland down”.

Certainly Glasgow East hasn’t prospered under its long often jealously guarded loyalty to Labour. It has a significantly lower life expectancy, and considerably higher rates of worklessness than the Scottish average. West of Scotland’s appalling public health record is a problem calling out for an answer.

Yet detailed discussion of any of these problems or more importantly any possible means of addressing them have been conspicuous by their absence in the debate so far. That likely arises from nationalism’s basic argument with the legitimacy of the UK institutions, which whilst parked are still very much alive in the hearts and minds of their support.

Gilligan concludes:

Labour people know they will have a bad night on May 7. But they are not sure it will be quite as bad as the polls are predicting. In politics, a less bad defeat than predicted might be spinnable as a sort of victory.

Against all that, of course, is the understandable triumphalism of the SNP, and the irremediable nastiness of some of the activist base.

“Politics is now like a religion in Scotland,” says Muriel Gray, the Scottish writer. “It used to be debateable and enthralling. Now it is tribal, identity politics, for us or against us. Tragic.”

Labour’s (and all unionist parties)  political weakness is that the SNP have  framed the public debate in Scotland around a conversation Labour simply doesn’t want (and never wanted) to have.

It is not in fact a unionist party in any sense that we would recognise in NI. And it is very a poor candidate to become one.

Rather, as Hugo Rifkind rather skillfully tells it UK Labour is what’s left over after everyone else has abandoned SS Great Britain:

…this is where English Labour unionism comes from; a fear of being utterly up the spout without the Celtic fringe on hand to make up the numbers. I wish it were more than that, but I fear it is not.

Find me a Labour unionist who would still be one if Scotland voted Tory, and I’ll find you a person in Scotland who still finds that Tories/pandas joke funny. That is to say, I won’t, and nor will you.

Which is a step up from English Conservative unionism, because that suddenly seems to be nothing at all. Yes, your English Tory will talk the unionist talk, but press him on it — I am belatedly realising — and you will discover that the only Union they’re really interested in is one that has no impact upon them whatsoever.

Remember all those decades when there was a Tory PM and almost no Scottish Tory MPs? Remember the way they’d shrug and explain that this was just how a Union works, and that the reverse could as easily be true? Call me a mug, but I actually thought they meant it.

They don’t want a partner, these people, but a pet. Indeed, they don’t even want a pet but maybe a Tamagotchi. One you can turn off and leave in a drawer. Which is why, secretly, the Tories are rooting for the SNP and the SNP are rooting for the Tories.

Because, unlike with Labour, the SNP and the Conservatives really do have the same big aim: to bring about a time, as soon as possible, where Scotland and England leave each other the hell alone.

Suddenly caught behind the lines in what they once thought impregnably Labour territory, it’s now all ‘Unionists, haud yer wheest’, and the devil take the hindmost. Glasgow East is likely to be the crucible for a tough, generational and dirty fight.

Stand by for our on-the-ground reporting from Phil in the last few weeks of the campaign…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty