The Glasgow North East by-election, triggered by the resignation of the sitting Labour MP and House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin, will take place on 12 November.
There will be three contests in this election.
• To win the election (Labour is the favourite against the SNP).
• Between the “candidates of the left” and the BNP.
• And rivalry between the left candidates.
Michael Martin stepped down at the height of last summer’s scandal over MPs’ expenses, after facing sustained attack for his failure to be critical of MPs who had milked the Commons expenses system and after trying to prevent the publication of information about MPs’ expenses.
Martin’s hostility to openness about expenses may have been for personal reasons. Between 2004 and 2008 Martin’s wife claimed over £4,000 for taxi fares for shopping, and £50,000 for air travel. Air miles collected by Martin from his flights on official business were used to help cover the costs of holiday flights for family relatives.
As Speaker of the House of Commons, Martin lived free-of-charge in Speaker’s House. In 2008 £148,000 was spent on furniture for the accommodation, £191,000 on air-conditioning, £13,000 on art, and £291,000 on “restoration and refurbishment”. At the same time Martin claimed £17,000 a year for his home in Glasgow, and a further £7,500 a year in costs for using his Glasgow home as an office.
Martin was paid £137,579 a year as Speaker. But, despite losing his job, he is unlikely to face hard times: he will receive half his salary as a pension until he dies. This is on top of the £122 a day living allowance and £51 a day secretarial allowance he now enjoys following his “elevation” to the Lords as Lord Martin of Springburn.
Springburn is the old name for the Glasgow North East constituency. The lavish lifestyle enjoyed by Lord Martin stands in stark contrast to the poverty of many of his former constituents.
The constituency has the highest level of child poverty in Scotland, and the fourth highest level in Britain. 52% of its population have no educational or vocational qualifications, the worst rate in the whole of Britain. Over a quarter of its working-age population are on benefits because of long-term illness. 30% of adults in the constituency are classed as economically inactive.
Compared with other constituencies in Scotland, smoking rates, deaths from cancer, crime rates, income levels, life expectancy, and levels of alcohol and drug abuse are generally worse, and often substantially so.
Martin stood down as Speaker in June. Labour has delayed holding a by-election until November because they were afraid that a snap by-election — held at a time of ongoing outrage about MPs’ expenses — would have cost them the seat.
In the contest to win the seat Labour remains the favourite. In this year’s Euro-elections Labour outpolled the SNP in the constituency, albeit by only 2,000 votes. And Labour machine politics still functions, just about, in the constituency.
The SNP, in Glasgow at least, has probably lost support in recent months after announcing cuts in government spending on Glasgow — especially its decision to axe the Glasgow Airport Rail Link. Labour is also portraying the SNP as soft on crime — because of its decision to release Abdul Al-Megrahi!
The candidates of the left, in the broad sense of the word, who are standing against the BNP, are The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity Scotland.
The BNP claims that it has enjoyed a surge in membership in Scotland in recent months, and that it will be contesting 23 Westminster constituencies in Scotland next year. It present itself as a “radical” alternative to the “establishment parties”, and one committed to the interests of ordinary “ethnic Britons” (i.e. whites).
In the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections the BNP, in Scotland as a whole, did better than the SSP but not as well as Solidarity. In this year’s Euro-elections the BNP did better than both the SSP and No2EU (which was backed by Solidarity and stood Sheridan as a candidate).
The third contest is between the SSP and Solidarity Scotland.
In June of this year Solidarity Scotland made a public appeal to the SSP to hold off from deciding to stand a candidate given that, at the time, a group of trade union officials were attempting to promote agreement to a single candidate of the left.
The Socialist Workers Party, which still maintains a paper attachment to Solidarity Scotland, even went so far as approaching a member of the SSP to suggest that he be the “unity candidate”.
The proposal from Solidarity Scotland was rejected by the SSP, which went on to select its own candidate for the by-election. The (potential) trade union initiative promptly collapsed, as there could be no “left unity” candidate if the SSP was standing a candidate.
And Solidarity Scotland went on to stand Tommy Sheridan (again) — if the SSP was going to stand a candidate, then so too was Solidarity Scotland!
Just to underline its position on the question of “left unity”, even in terms of supporting a single candidate in by-elections, the SSP issued a statement at the end of June amounting to “don’t call us — we’ll call you”:
“The SSP was founded on the principle of left unity in Scotland. We continue to have that as our goal. In 2006 a split from the SSP fractured that unity. Once all of the legal obstacles have been cleared from our path we intend to initiate a full, open and democratic discussion around left unity in Scotland and the role that the SSP can play in achieving it.”
In the midst of the electioneering cacophony of the main parties, socialists should attempt to gain a hearing for basic class-struggle politics and a working-class alternative to the policies of capitalist austerity and Scottish populism.