Political geeks of a certain vintage are still nostalgic for that Portillo moment when, at 3.10am on 2 May 1997, Tory cabinet minister Michael Portillo lost his safe Enfield Southgate seat to a shocked Stephen Twigg. A ripple of applause ran through Britain as the result was read out, turning to screams of delight as people realised the moment signified an end to 18 years of Tory rule and the dawn of New Labour.
There is little prospect of a similar earth-shaking tremor coursing through Scotland next week when the votes are counted in the Holyrood elections. The SNP will be the largest party and their Waitrose wing, the Scottish Greens, will get enough seats to justify their status as the Nationalists’ little helpers. But could Nicola Sturgeon be facing humiliation in her own Glasgow Southside constituency?
Could Labour’s young leader Anas Sarwar overcome Sturgeon’s 9,593 majority and cause the biggest electoral sensation in Scottish politics since Margo MacDonald won the Glasgow Govan by-election for the SNP in 1973? That was a seat which had been held by the Labour party since 1918, apart from a short hiatus in 1950 when the old Unionist Party won it for one term.
Sturgeon lose her seat? Unlikely, I hear you chorus. Her victory is predestined, write most Scottish commentators. But a comrade in East Pollokshields, who has lived in the heart of the constituency for 20-odd years, thinks something is afoot. ‘I don’t think he will win; it’s a hell of a majority to overcome,” he says of Sarwar’s prospects. ‘But I think he can run her very close, close enough to shake her confidence as she goes into a new parliament and weaken her position within her own party.’
Glasgow Southside is Scotland’s most diverse constituency. It feels more like a typical London borough than a Scottish community, with people from across the world calling it home. Crumbling tenements sit within spitting distance of carefully restored Victorian mansions. Public intellectuals shopping for freshly made sourdough rub shoulders with single mothers searching for cut-price fruit and veg. There are Roma, Poles, Lithuanians, Nigerians, Somalis, Iraqis, and Syrians. And second-generation Asian Scots whose families left countries like Pakistan in search of a better life. Anas Sarwar’s parents, Perveen and Mohammad, were both born in Punjab.
Labour puritans and so-called progressives in civil society deride Sarwar’s privileged upbringing as if it was something of which he should be ashamed. His father, the former MP for Glasgow Central, built up a successful wholesale business before entering politics, but he came to the UK with nothing. George Galloway often recalls their initial encounter: ‘The first time I met Mohammad Sarwar, he was a travelling salesman going from shop to shop with a board of eggs carried on his head.’
‘People round here love the Sarwar family story,’ says my East Pollokshields tour guide. ‘It’s what every new immigrant dreams of, building a great future for their children and grandchildren. The Sarwars are a Scottish success story. I’ve known Anas since he was a schoolboy. This is his home. It was where he was brought up, and where he brings up his own children. That’s a very powerful message locally. He’s one of us. He’s a Southsider.’
But is a G41 post code enough to unseat Sturgeon? There is much talk locally of lifelong Conservative voters switching their vote to Labour, but even if every one of them was to defect, Sarwar would still be well short of victory. The Tories came third in 2016, with just over 3,000 votes. Labour was second with 5,694 to Sturgeon’s 15,287. Sarwar will need to win over thousands of SNP voters if he is to pull off the victory of a generation.
His decision to stand against her, when his position on the regional list already guarantees him a parliamentary seat, shows a level of chutzpah of which Sturgeon can only dream. Sarwar’s genuine warmth and easy charm contrasts starkly with her more buttoned-up style. As the campaign drags on, the pressure of dealing with the double whammy of a global pandemic and Alex Salmond is beginning to show. Sturgeon looks and sounds angry and exhausted, while Sarwar is gleefully dancing his way through the last stretch of the campaign.
Scottish Labour has made the seat one of its key targets, primarily because their new leader is standing there, but politics still has the capacity to surprise. As Glasgow communities reel from the threat of swingeing cuts to their libraries, community centres and sports facilities by the SNP-controlled city council, and Sturgeon stumbles over the prospect of a hard border between Scotland and England, who knows what 6 May will bring?
‘She will hang on,’ predicts my co-conspirator in East Pollokshields. ‘But her support is soft, much softer than folk outside think. People feel let down by her, particularly those living in the less well-off areas. Those folk lucky enough to live in Strathbungo, with its artisan coffee shops and wonderful houses, will save her, but only just.
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