‘What is the point of voting?’ a man in beige salwar kameez yelled. ‘Whoever wins, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.’ He was halfway up the street when he turned to add: ‘And murderers keep on murdering.’ It was 2.45 p.m. on Friday, 7 June. Dozens of Jumu’ah worshippers – some in prayer hats and sandals, some in sweatshirts and jeans – were coming down the steps of the Madrasa Taleem ul Islam, a 19th-century sandstone villa turned synagogue turned Islamic centre in East Pollokshields on the southside of Glasgow. At the bottom, Chris Stephens, the SNP candidate for Glasgow South West, was waiting. He had two separate bundles of leaflets: one aimed at the general population, the other at Muslims. The all-purpose leaflet was about the cost of living crisis, pension inequality affecting women born in the 1950s, the infected blood scandal: issues Stephens had campaigned on. The Muslim leaflet was all about Gaza, immigration and Islamophobia. ‘For Labour and the Tories to refuse for so long to call for an immediate ceasefire is unforgivable,’ it said, while reminding voters that Stephens had called for the UK to stop arming Israel. Pollokshields ward has the highest concentration of Muslims in Scotland – 27.8 per cent. Many of those coming out of the madrasa shook Stephens’s hand and promised him their vote. But Umar Ali, an IT worker who had supported the SNP, was minded to switch to Labour. ‘Nicola was very good, but it’s different now,’ he said. ‘My parents’ generation stopped voting Labour over the Iraq War. But these things have their cycles.’

One of the 56 SNP MPs elected in the 2015 general election, when the narrowish failure of the independence referendum the year before and the excitement generated by the Yes campaign led to a huge increase in the SNP vote, Stephens knows all about voting cycles. For almost a hundred years, Glasgow was the heart of the Labour movement: almost all of the city had been represented by Labour MPs ever since 1922. But in the run-up to the 2015 election, every second window displayed a Saltire, and ‘I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me’ became the mantra of disaffected working-class voters. Stephens, who had contested the seat unsuccessfully in 2010, turned the 14,671 majority his Labour predecessor, Ian Davidson, had won in that election into a 9950 majority of his own, a swing of 35.2 per cent. There were similarly large swings in the other Glasgow constituencies. The SNP had transformed referendum defeat into general election triumph, and a permanent political realignment seemed to have taken place.

On 4 July, the realignment went the other way. In the 2019 election the SNP won 48 seats; now it has nine. It lost all six Glasgow constituencies to Labour. Polls had predicted significant losses for the SNP, but not to this extent. Much has changed, of course, in the seventeen months since Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as first minister. The independence movement has splintered; the party is mired in scandal. Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband and the SNP’s former chief executive, has been charged with embezzlement, while Sturgeon’s replacement as party leader, Humza Yousaf, had to resign after ill-advisedly cancelling the party’s co-operation agreement with the Scottish Greens. Yousaf and his replacement, John Swinney, sullied their reputations by defending the former health secretary Michael Matheson, who misled Holyrood’s presiding officer over £11,000 of roaming charges racked up on his iPad. The SNP’s centralising tendencies, lack of transparency and clumsy handling of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill (which would have allowed people to self-identify their legal sex but was blocked by the Tory government in Westminster) further alienated voters. Even more damaging was the creeping realisation that the SNP, like Labour before it, had failed to deliver on council tax reform, education or poverty.

The race in Glasgow South West seemed likely to be tight. Boundary changes meant Pollokshields was included in the constituency for the first time in this election. Pollok and Govan have a history of left-wing radicalism and Stephens, a trade unionist, hoped to profit from it. His Labour opponent was Zubir Ahmed, a transplant surgeon, who was selected to replace the constituency’s previous candidate, the Corbynite Matt Kerr. In 2017 Kerr came within sixty votes of deposing Stephens; as Stephens saw it, a more centrist opponent would ‘present a different challenge’ – that is, an easier one. Glasgow South West is the kind of place that felt the ‘Corbyn bounce’. Many local Labour activists are less than keen on Keir Starmer, frustrated by his caution, and angry about the purges the party has carried out in an ostentatious attempt to distance itself from his predecessor. ‘The problem any Labour candidate has here is that Labour’s economic position has tipped back to the right and its foreign policy position is back to the Blair years,’ Stephens said. He believed he could keep voters who might have been tempted by a candidate from the Labour left.

There were around twenty SNP activists outside Pollokshields Library. Stephens had decided to canvass in Kenmure Street, which in May 2021 was the scene of a mass protest when the Home Office attempted to deport two Sikh men at the beginning of Eid. A photograph of Stephens in the thick of it and wielding a megaphone was prominent in the Muslim leaflet. He swaggered a bit as we approached the spot where the enforcement van had been parked. ‘I remember the phone call telling me: “Get yourself down here,”’ he said. In the end, hundreds of people surrounded the van in which the two men were being held and prevented it from leaving; eventually the Home Office was forced to release them. ‘Did you know Kenmure Street made it onto a list of the Top 10 protests that made a difference?’ Stephens asked.

The protest wasn’t led by the SNP, but it played in some way into Yes supporters’ conception of themselves as more progressive and outward-looking than their unionist counterparts. It brought an echo of the time during the pandemic when Sturgeon seemed unassailable, and SNP supporters still believed in the party’s capacity to deliver the country from Westminster. When the activists talked to one man on Kenmure Street, the word ‘Nicola’ leapt out from a torrent of Punjabi. I asked someone what he had said. ‘He wanted to know if we were “Team Nicola”,’ she replied.

Shops selling Asian sweetmeats, jewellery and sequined salwar kameez in lime green, yellow, teal and peach abound in the area. But with its high-ceilinged tenement flats, it attracts white bohemian types too. Morag Ramsay, a French and Spanish teacher, ushered me into her kitchen. There was a poster from a Cuban movie about Che Guevara on her kitchen wall. ‘I bought it on a street in Havana,’ she said. Ramsay, who is 59, had voted SNP all her life, and expected to do so again this time. ‘I can’t say I like everything the SNP stand for. But at the same time, I don’t think the party is selling its achievements well enough.’ She cited the Scottish Child Payment (£26.70 a week to every child whose parents are in receipt of particular benefits), the baby box (which includes baby clothes, a blanket, toys, a thermometer and so on) and the fact that the Scottish government settled with junior doctors before they took strike action.

Stephens wanted to tell me about his work with the charity Feeding Britain. As chair of its Scottish arm, Good Food Scotland, his mission was ‘to eradicate food poverty’. Feeding Britain runs community shops which form a bridge between food banks and supermarkets. Members pay a fee of £1 a month, then buy their groceries at a discount. Feeding Britain has two shops in Glasgow South West, with two more in the pipeline, and a mobile van. They are lifelines, but they are also a product of political failure. ‘They’re a sign the social security system, immigration system and economy are broken,’ he said.

A few days earlier, I had attended a Labour press call at another discount food outlet, the Govan Pantry. The pantry is in the Pearce Institute, a crow-gabled sandstone building topped by a silver galleon. It was built in memory of Sir William Pearce, who owned Fairfield’s shipyard, one of the biggest yards on the Clyde, in the late 19th century and was given to Govan by his widow. On the wall inside it says: ‘This is a house of friendship. This is a house of service. For families. For lonely folk. For the people of Govan. For the strangers of the world. Welcome.’ It provided a gymnasium, a library, laundry facilities, cookery classes, a women’s and a men’s club. In the Govan Pantry Ahmed and Sarwar filled their shopping baskets with cans of soup and sweetcorn taken from colour-coded shelves, as photographers shouted instructions at them. Across from the Pearce Institute is a statue of the man himself. A hundred metres away is a much more recent statue, of Mary Barbour, organiser of the 1915 rent strikes which succeeded in forcing the government to bring in rent controls – she is small but mighty, and has a string of followers in her wake. Govan’s motto is ‘nihil sine labore’: nothing without labour. For a long time this was true in both senses of the word. But Govan was also the scene of the SNP’s first serious incursion into Glasgow politics: the by-election victories of Margo MacDonald in 1973 and her husband, Jim Sillars, in 1988.

I wandered down Govan Road, past several community support projects and smart new blocks of housing association flats which are supposed to drive regeneration – together with a bridge due to open in the autumn that will link Govan to Partick in the more affluent West End. The ornate Fairfield offices designed by Honeyman and Keppie (the young Charles Rennie Mackintosh worked there at the time) now house a shipbuilding museum, but construction continues next door at BAE Systems, where Type 26 frigates are being built for the Royal Navy. The yard has become a rallying point for protesters who claim BAE Systems produces arms for Israel. ‘So long as there is warmongering, there will be work,’ one local said to me.

Harjinder Kaur told me that in the forty years since she emigrated from India, Glasgow had got ‘dirtier, the roads are worse, education standards have dropped’. Sturgeon had inspired her to vote SNP. ‘Nicola was the first politician I had ever connected with,’ she said. ‘The way she spoke, she was strong: a warrior woman. I don’t feel that connection any more.’ If ‘hope’ was the buzzword in 2015, today it’s ‘scunnered’. Even those who support independence seem too tired to talk about it, or perhaps are just resigned to it not happening any time soon. ‘Each party picks up the last one’s shit and no one can clean it up,’ one former SNP voter told me. The woman, who did not want to be named, said she might vote Labour this time. ‘I doubt it, but just maybe, there’s a chance of change.’

‘I’ve found that – despite the bitterness between the SNP and Labour – for voters, the journey between the parties isn’t a difficult one,’ the Labour MSP Paul Sweeney told me. ‘You get a lot of people on the doors swithering, to the extent that one piece of literature or a breaking story could change their view.’ The question was whether Ahmed, the party’s candidate in Glasgow South West, was someone who could nudge switherers in his direction. Ahmed’s father arrived in the UK in 1963, having hitched a lift from hippies travelling back from Pakistan. By the 1970s, he had settled in Govanhill. After working as a bus driver he drove a black cab. He is, his son says, still driving it at the age of 85. Zubir, the oldest child, won a scholarship to Hutchesons’ Grammar School (the Scottish Labour Party leader, Anas Sarwar, went there too; so did Yousaf). In 1996, when Ahmed was still at school, his aunt fell ill; a CT scan revealed a brain tumour, and she died five months later. ‘I sat with her in the A&E for sixteen hours, my dad and I taking shifts,’ Ahmed told me, ‘and thought: “This is not right.” It also piqued my interest in medicine. I remember the doctor giving my uncle the diagnosis and prognosis. And I remember the night she died thinking: “That’s exactly how the doctor said it would be.” I was amazed he could be so empathetic and so detailed about what would happen.’ Soon after, he joined the Labour Party. ‘Without the support of our Labour MP, my mum wouldn’t have got into this country. And then later, when my grandmother was unwell, it was the Labour Party that helped us access social care.’

I asked him about SNP claims that Labour will privatise the NHS. ‘I think sometimes people conflate private providers inside the NHS and privatisation,’ he said. ‘Privatisation, for me, is when you can’t get your treatment free at the point of care and that’s what’s happening in Scotland now. Waiting lists mean 45 per cent of joint replacements are being done in the private sector. That’s not the NHS commissioning the private sector to do it: that’s your mum or mine tipping out their life savings because they see it as the only way to relieve their pain.’ Ahmed, who does not carry out private surgery, said that Labour’s plans to crack down on non-dom tax loopholes would allow for an extra 160,000 appointments a year in Scotland.

I asked whether Gaza was a tricky issue for him. ‘I am a registered volunteer surgeon for Medical Aid for Palestinians, so Gaza is personal for me,’ he said. ‘But the Muslim community shouldn’t be thought of as a homogenous block. Having said that, there is a sentiment there. Some people are still supportive of Labour and me, others are against us, but that’s not only about Gaza, it’s because the SNP has been very successful in cultivating the Asian vote.’ He said that across all classes – ‘if you still believe in class’ – the prevailing theme was a worry about public services, and a desire for the area to be an economic powerhouse.

Everything went smoothly until we came to Labour’s plan to remove the VAT exemption on private school fees. ‘It’s hard to argue against it if it generates the revenue it’s meant to and then that revenue is spent back in the state school sector,’ he said. But when I asked where his own sons, aged nine and six, were being educated, he became defensive. ‘They go to a private school,’ he said. ‘That’s a choice my wife and I have made, just as Anas’s children go to the same school.’ I pointed out that Sarwar had been heavily criticised for this. ‘I think you can have faith in the [state system] without grandstanding about it,’ he replied.

I went to Roughmussel, where I noticed that Ahmed had been canvassing. Outside their two-storey, semi-detached house, John and Irene Mailer were preparing for a trip to the dump. Lifelong Tories, they had lost patience with the party over Boris Johnson’s ‘buffoonery’, but remained concerned about immigration: Irene worried that, further down the line, indigenous Scots will be the minority. Ahmed had knocked on their door twice. ‘He seemed like a lovely young man,’ Irene said. ‘I felt as though he listened.’ She had promised him her vote.

The Green candidate, John Hamelink, had no chance of winning. The last time the party fielded a candidate here, in 2015, he polled 507 votes. But the Greens have been a significant presence in Scottish politics thanks to the Bute House Agreement, the co-operation deal they signed with the SNP in August 2021, which allowed the minority SNP government to burnish its environmental credentials in advance of COP26 in Glasgow and to bolster its progressive image. But many in the SNP were unhappy about the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which the Bute House Agreement committed it to introducing. Some MSPs left; a handful, including Ash Regan, who stood for the SNP leadership against Yousaf, defected to Alex Salmond’s new party, Alba, which recast itself as a champion of women’s rights. Outside the madrasa, Umar Ali had come back to tell me the Bute House Agreement was another reason he was voting Labour. ‘From what I’ve heard, the SNP were doing things they didn’t want to, but they had to because of the coalition,’ he said. What kind of things? ‘I’d rather not say, but I think you know.’

On a rainy afternoon, I met Hamelink and his fellow canvassers in Linthouse, at the west end of Govan. The streets looked uncared for. There were broken fences, and some of the gardens were full of junk. It didn’t seem to be the Greens’ natural territory. But, as Hamelink padlocked his electric bike to a fence, he reminded me this ward had elected a Green councillor, and said he had learned never to prejudge. He was right. Most of those who answered their doors were interested in what he had to say on jobs, transport and green energy, though it felt like he would struggle to turn goodwill into votes.

Glasgow South West’s only hustings took place on 21 June. A lot had happened in the intervening days. The Tories were embroiled in a gambling scandal. Labour was refusing to commit to scrapping the two-child benefits cap. The SNP was insisting that it would treat victory in a majority of Scottish seats as a licence to begin independence negotiations with Westminster. Nigel Farage’s televisual ubiquity was luring disenchanted Tories to Reform. Though no one had clapped eyes on the party’s Glasgow South West candidate, Morag McRae, there was speculation she might keep her deposit.

McRae didn’t show up; neither did the Conservative or Lib Dem candidates. Stephens, Ahmed and Hamelink were joined by the Alba candidate, Tony Osy. At points, the hustings felt like a game of hard times Top Trumps. Asked what they would do to hold absentee landlords to account, Ahmed began: ‘As someone who has lived in both a housing association and privately rented property …’ Stephens raised the stakes with a story of trying to force an absentee landlord to fix a leaking roof during lockdown. Then Hamelink talked about living in a block full of party flats and drug-dealing. Stephens’s nine years as MP gave him an advantage, but he couldn’t adequately answer a question on Operation Branchform (the police inquiry into the SNP’s finances) any more than Ahmed could counter criticism of the two-child benefits cap, or Hamelink criticism of the Scottish Greens’ position on gender recognition reform.

On election night I was at Glasgow’s Emirates Arena, where the counts for the city’s six constituencies were being held. The shrieks of Labour supporters when the exit polls were announced set the mood. As the ballot boxes were tipped out and the sorting began, I sat with Stephens’s wife, Aileen Colleran. She used to be a Labour councillor, but has since left the party. Today was their fifteenth wedding anniversary. Colleran remembered watching from the Emirates balcony when Stephens was elected to Parliament in 2015. ‘From the February onwards, I had started to realise that “Oh my God, he is actually going to get in this time.” And then, on the night, it was one win after another. It was something else; it was epic.’

I watched Stephens stalking the line of counters, trying to work out who was ahead in various parts of the constituency. His assistant darted back and forth delivering updates. ‘Most of the ballots so far are tight, but we’re slightly ahead from what I’ve seen,’ he told Colleran. Yet as Labour victories elsewhere in the country – Rutherglen, Falkirk, East Renfrewshire – filtered through, the mood in the SNP ranks grew sour. There was no nostalgia for Sturgeon here. ‘The damage was already done, and not by us,’ the outgoing SNP MP for Glasgow North West, Carol Monaghan, said as she passed. On social media, I saw that Sturgeon appeared to be blaming Swinney for failing to establish a ‘USP’ for the party. In the Emirates, SNP anger was stoked by the sight of her on a big screen, sitting on an ITV panel alongside George Osborne and Ed Balls. There was no sound, so the focus was on her facial expressions. ‘Look at her, laughing,’ one activist said. ‘Why is it that the people who make the mess go on without a care, while the rest of us have to pick up the pieces?’

By 2 a.m. it was clear that every Glasgow constituency had fallen to Labour bar Glasgow South West, where the count seemed to be closer. There was much talk about Stephens’s personal standing and speculation that the vote in Pollokshields might have tipped the balance in his favour. But by 3 a.m. even Stephens appeared to have accepted that this was wishful thinking. In the end, Ahmed won 15,552 votes, turning Stephens’s 4900 majority into a 3285 majority of his own. Hamelink polled a respectable 2727 votes.

‘There is a national tide against us and having been elected on a national tide for us I have to accept those results,’ Stephens said. ‘As far as I am concerned, we need to reform the party and rebuild.’ Does that seem possible? ‘I remember, in 2010, losing Glasgow South West by 14,000 votes yet, in 2011, we came back and I nearly won the seat in Holyrood.’ A few feet away, Colleran told me that her bridesmaid, Katrina Murray, had become the Labour MP for Cumbernauld and Kirkintilloch.

I asked her to what extent the night had been a mirror image of 2015’s Labour wipeout. ‘It’s almost identical,’ she said. ‘Everybody here wearing a red rosette and celebrating should enjoy it while they can because it comes around, and the wheels fall off, and one day they will have to be gracious losers too.’

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