Life Under Labour: Better or Worse?


This piece was published in The Big Issue in April 2010. 

Visitors to Edinburgh might be familiar with the splendid views of Arthur’s Seat from the Scottish Parliament. On the north side of the hill, cosy pubs and shops are cosseted by the UNESCO-protected stone of the Old Town. Nature, gentility and costly turn-of-the-millennium architecture are all on hand at Holyrood.

On the other side of Arthur’s Seat – a ten minute bus ride away – lies an altogether different world. The huge housing estate of Craigmillar remains uncelebrated in picture postcards and unseen by foreign dignitaries. The area was ranked fourth highest in Scotland’s 2006 multiple deprivation index.

Less abstract evidence of decay is not hard to come by. Walking along Niddrie Mains Road (on the day Gordon Brown calls the general election), a dead black cat lies upturned on a patch of grass across from the police station, the fat, furry body beginning to rot.

A small row of shops – newsagents, off licences, a bookies and a branch of Greggs – provides some kind of central hub, but Craigmillar is full of windy, derelict spaces following several waves of council housing demolition. Susan Carr, who runs the Craigmillar Neighbourhood Alliance at the end of an avenue of Scandinavian-looking mixed-tenure flats, shows me black and white photographs of just how grim things once were.

She explains how an ongoing regeneration project has stalled due to the downturn, but remains keen to talk about how much has already changed for the better. “Given we’re only 10 minutes from parliament, in one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, the level of deprivation does seem outrageous,” she says.

“But people here are sick of the reputation for poverty. In the mid-90s people made jokes about it being like Beirut. Perception itself was a very big problem. If they could, people voted with their feet and left. But new families are coming into the area now, and some people are coming back. I can see a huge difference in the last 10 years.”

Carr’s colleague Norrie Davis, a lifelong Craigmillar man, says they are all “living in hope” that a new secondary school and library will be completed and that half-finished homes will be sold. “Everything’s slowed down because of the recession, but we’re fortunate enough to see real progress being made,” says Davis, who sits on the board of the urban regeneration company set up by the city council under its previous Labour administration.

“The aim is to have a healthy mix of rented, owned and council stock. Where I live you really can’t tell from door to door whether they’re tenants or home owners. We’ve come a long way, and there’s no one here who would tell you they’re a deprived person.”

The remaining two blocks of high rise flats on the Niddrie estate are now flanked by smart little Barrett-like houses, with fluorescent plastic climbing frames and children’s toys in most of the gardens. Smashed glass, broken Buckfast bottles and a huge dent in the wall all show a joyriding adventure gone wrong at the entrance to the towers, but residents insist there is a sense of renewal.

Kirsty McLaron, 33, says “things have quietened down an awful lot, apart from one of two troublemakers”, but she doesn’t give Labour any of the credit. “They haven’t done anything for this area at all. I don’t really care if the Tory boy gets in – it can’t be any worse than Labour.”

One of her neighbours, 63-year-old Peter Kane, concurs. “The area’s got a hell of a lot better. A hell of a lot. I remember the days when you couldn’t even walk about safely in the daytime.” He praises the “excellent” new community health centre up the road and likes the look of much of the area’s new housing, but won’t put any of the improvement down to Labour politicians in London or Edinburgh.

“The thing that sickened me was the MPs’ expenses,” he tuts. “They’ve been screwing us at every opportunity, and I don’t see any reason to vote for Labour now.”

Reluctant to be seen as the party of the poor, the New Labour government has been unwilling to talk about redistribution of wealth or addressing inequality, as if members of the precious centre ground might break out in hives at the very idea.

Yet there are some brave souls who suggest there are real achievements worth defending with greater vigour.

Child tax credits, working tax credits and help with childcare costs, alongside ‘new deal’ employment programmes designed to coax hundreds of thousands back into work, have helped lift 1.7 million children out of “absolute poverty”, according to this year’s exhaustive study by academics at New York’s Columbia University.Professor Jane Waldfogel believes the British Government’s “war on poverty” has even eclipsed efforts by its European neighbours. A recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows how Labour used a progressive tax and benefit system to redistribute wealth and boost the incomes of low-paid families.

Edinburgh Labour’s Westminster incumbents and candidates still cite social justice as one of the fundamental reasons they entered party politics. This is the city of Jekyll and Hyde after all, where anyone vaguely of the left must worry about wealth piling up next door to poverty.

JK Rowling has written about the shock of first moving to a council estate in the city and finding “violence, crime and addiction were part of everyday life in that part of Edinburgh…yet barely 10 minutes away was a different world, a world of cashmere and cream teas”.

Sheila Gilmore, Labour’s candidate for Edinburgh East, a seat with a Labour majority of 6,000 which encompasses Craigmillar alongside more well-to- do districts near the coast, describes herself as a “dyed-in-the-bone” Labour activist.

“One of the questions we will always be faced with is: what are you doing for those with the least?” says the former Edinburgh city councillor. “Those who gained most from tax and benefits policies have been people at the lower end, which is how it should be. I think we do need to keep making the case.”

Today Gilmore is out knocking on doors in Prestonfield – a pleasant little mixed suburb of renovated council houses and mortgaged bungalows which some in Craigmillar cite as an ideal community.

John Purvis, a retired postie, is pleased to see her. “You have to stick with the people who look after you,” he explains with a football analogy. “I don’t support every Hearts player or manager, but you keep supporting the team. I might not agree with every policy, but I know where Labour’s priorities are.”

On the other side of the railway line lies the Edinburgh South constituency, where some of Scotland’s highest earners reside in turreted mansions behind electronic gates. With a majority of only 400 hundred, Labour candidate Ian Murray has a fight on his hands. Murray, currently a councillor, has been putting in long hours campaigning since former frontbencher Nigel Griffiths MP announced a few months ago he was standing down.

Prior to Thatcher’s final spell in office, the area was solidly Conservative. This time the Tories have put up Neil Hudson, a popular local vet untainted by the expenses shame hanging over those seen as professional politicians. And yet, as the cliché has it, the Tories have yet to seal the deal (neither have the LibDems, who ran Griffiths closest in 2005).

Asking potential voters for their thoughts one sunny afternoon on Morningside Road – the unhurriedly beating heart of genteel Edinburgh – reveals an even mix of support for the three main parties. One man in a tweed jacket says his ballot box priority will be “to get Labour out… they’ve wasted so much money”.

One kindly old lady tells me it’s impolite to talk about voting intentions, but says her mother and father were “working-class Tories” throughout their lives. “Let’s just say I’ll not be voting for the present government,” she adds.

Murray insists that “there’s nowhere that’s a no-go area for us”. He drives me around Southhouse and Burdiehouse, formerly rundown council housing estates only a few miles from Morningside, where two cars now sit in the driveways of private and shared equity semis, and where council houses have been renovated with double-glazing and fitted kitchens. I take a walk around later in the evening, and everyone answering their door seems to be sticking with Labour.

“I’m quite happy with what they’ve done for families,” says Michelle Jenkinson, a 46-year-old care home worker with two kids. “My mum voted for Thatcher once, and she always regretted it.”

Murray admits support has not always been so straightforward elsewhere in the constituency. “I hate to sound cynical, but people are only grateful about these things after you mention them,” says Murray. “You say to pensioners, ‘What would you do without winter fuel payment or your free bus pass?’ You say to families, ‘What would you do without tax credits?’” What does he say on the tidy doorsteps of Morningside, to voters more concerned with the top-heavy deficit than social imbalances?

“I say the money has gone where it needed to go. People might ask where the money’s gone… Well, it’s gone on getting the best educational attainment results in a generation, it’s gone on getting the NHS out of intensive care, it’s gone on police numbers. We’re probably the worst party at telling people what we’ve done,” he concedes. “We’re too busy trying to get on and do other things.”

Trying to assess whether life in Britain’s cities is any more equitable after 13 years of Labour depends on how much you expected Brown, Blair and government ministers to counteract larger, near overwhelming economic trends.

The earnings gap in the UK has been stretching for the last 30 years. Those with enough money were able to soar far and away on the collective fantasy of the property ladder. Labour pulled a significant chunk of the poorest somewhere nearer the middle, but were only too happy to allow those at the top to become stinking and unsustainably rich.

For the time being, an all-encompassing cynicism, stirred by a relentlessly negative media, sneers at good ideas and intentions. But Labour only has itself to blame for being too scared to tell a convincing story about some of its greatest successes, failing to entirely convince the great aspiring majority that efforts to share the wealth might create a more stable and sane society.

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