The Labour council in Glasgow has attraced public anger over its shambolic handling of the Commonwealth Games and the proposed opening ceremony involving the destruction of the Red Road forming social housing. James McGarrity of the Glasgow Marxists looks at this latest farce and examines the history of housing, jobs, and social deprivation in Glasgow.
On 2nd April it was announced that in lieu of fireworks, the centrepiece of the opening ceremony of this year’s Commonwealth Games would be the televised demolition of all but one of the remaining six Red Road high-rises in the north east of Glasgow. The proposed destruction of former social housing as a public spectacle to be broadcast across the world was initially interpreted by more than a few as some sort of sick April Fool’s joke come a day late.
Less than two weeks later, in the midst of an ongoing media furore and much public outrage, the plan was dropped over “safety concerns”. The organisers made some mumblings about how they feared that crazed protestors would want to scramble to save the crumbling towers at the moment of demolition, and therefore the event would be difficult to police.
Of course, the notion that public anger was simply a result of wishing to protect brutalist architecture rather than the idea’s crass insensitivity to residents past and present was ridiculous and reflects the myopic world lived in by Games’ organisers and Glasgow City Council. Instead their demolition will go ahead in a more low-key way at a different time of year as had originally been planned.
One of the towers will remain, and continue its role as a convenient storage unit for some of the city’s most neglected – primarily asylum seekers and refugees. Rosemary Goring, columnist for the Glasgow Herald, quite rightly posed the question of life beyond for those in the remaining block – “…one wonders how will they feel, to see their neighbouring blocks crumble, yet go home to the one that remains standing, like a solitary tooth in a gummy mouth.” (The Herald, 7th April 2014)
Suicide netting and barriers have been introduced to the towers since their conversion to this purpose years ago. In 2010, the Serykh family – mother, father and son – tore through these barriers and leapt to their deaths.
The whole farcical demolition episode encapsulates quite clearly the way in which the Games have been organised and the role that Labour, as the ruling party of Glasgow politics, has played – not just in the run up to these events, but indeed for the past few decades as a whole.
Since 2007, when Glasgow’s successful bid to be host city was announced, the council have repeatedly asserted the “legacy” of the games for the city. With the much heralded games venues (including the £113 million Emirates Arena) focused mainly in the city’s neglected east end, the associated spin-off development projects are anticipated to have a regenerative effect – in words, at least.
In practice, social housing stock and public amenities have been sold off to private developers, and the much feted “Games Village” in Dalmarnock – where male life expectancy currently stands at 58 years – was to play the role of affordable housing after the games. In fact a significant proportion of this stock is to be marketed toward “young professionals” and priced accordingly. An estimate by Neil Gray, a researcher in urban development at Glasgow University, put only 300 out of the 700 houses in the village as up for social rent after the games.
This is in an area where around 3,000 people are in social housing, much of which is in poor condition. Existing tenants in the area were cleared out of their homes with compulsory purchase orders from the council, their houses quickly demolished to make way for the village and games facilities.
Regeneration or degeneration?
The most high-profile case was that of grandmother Margaret Jaconelli, who was forcibly evicted by police from her home of 34 years. She resisted after being offered rented accommodation – which was outside of her meagre budget – followed by a pitiful £30,000 from the council to buy a flat elsewhere. Her statement in court summed up the anger, not just in her family, but among many in the community:
“…we’re being told that properties are being pulled down for regeneration, but it’s more like degeneration. Communities have disappeared and friendships have been lost by the council pulling down large parts of the east end so that it is now reminiscent of Beirut.”
The council’s approach to east end “regeneration” has also been coupled with local government cuts – amenities across the city such as the Accord Centre in Dalmarnock, a day centre for people with learning disabilities, have been closed down in the past few years to widespread protest and revulsion.
Corrupt council exposed
Similarly, the unashamedly corrupt nature of the Labour-run council has been flouted repeatedly. Council leader Steven Purcell resigned in March 2010, citing stress, but it quickly came to light that he had backroom dealings with gangland businessmen and had been a cocaine addict whilst in office. He quietly checked into a private rehab clinic and has since then sunk almost without a trace.
In 2012 it emerged that Ronnie Saez – head of Glasgow East Regeneration Agency (GERA), a charity set up to tackle poverty – had been given a severance package of £42,000 with an additional ‘top-up’ to his pension of £470,000, paid for through the council budget and the funds given to said charity. And no, I haven’t added several zeroes there.
Another case was the sale in 2011 of 1400 council-owned properties to an arms-length organisation, which were then mortgaged to the tune of £120 million. This privatisation in all but name was accompanied by 2,600 council employees being made redundant. There were even recent proposals to change parks’ legislation which would require gatherings of 20 or larger to have permission from the directorate (useful for blocking demonstrations), and drinking alcohol requiring permission also. Given the prominence of these activities in our lives, Glaswegians were not happy with the proposals.
These are but a few cases of recent activity by the council; to detail all the cronyist misdemeanours would unfortunately occupy an article several times larger than this one. How exactly did Labour, the party with a semi-mythical Red Clydeside past, sink so low? You could almost hear Jimmy Maxton birling in his grave had he not been cremated.
This brings us back to where we began, with Red Road. The flats themselves and their impending destruction are something of an analogy for the failure of Labour’s reformism to firstly tackle the iniquities of capitalism, and then challenge the catastrophic effects of deindustrialisation in the west of Scotland, as with elsewhere in Britain.
The tallest buildings of their kind in Europe when they were opened in 1966, the flats epitomised the optimism of the age. Their opening was hailed as a triumph and sign of the future by Secretary of State for Scotland Willie Ross, the High Priest of Scottish Labourism – a man whose vision for Labour in Scotland was as a vehicle to procure as much capital spending from Westminster as possible.
These were the glory days of ‘labourism’, seeking to harness the power of the-then booming capitalist economy toward the ends of solving the huge disparities of wealth across Britain. The Labour-dominated Glasgow Corporation had in the inter-war years built thousands of affordable new houses in the city. Many of these were homes with a back garden and modern facilities, a departure from the dingy old slums and a huge improvement for the working class.
Since the 1940s the Corporation had been enthusiastic proponents of an even more radical alteration of the city’s landscape, seeing it as the means to break free of the dirty old industries and a reputation as home to some of the worst slums, overcrowding and gang violence in Europe. They saw the way out in the futuristic concept of “streets in the sky” – sleek flyover motorways as the arteries of the changing economy and housing in ultramodern tower blocks that reached toward the clouds.
The most radical proposal was the Bruce Report, published in 1945, which essentially proposed that the old city be progressively flattened – and not just the slum areas – over a 50 year period and be completely rebuilt from scratch. Whilst not completely carried out, many of the aims of this were realised over the course of the 1960s. Working class neighbourhoods designated as “Comprehensive Development Areas”, such as Anderston and Townhead, were comprehensively flattened in less than a decade to make way for the towering M8 motorway and the new much-anticipated high-rise flats. These slum clearances were part of a massive programme of house-building across Britain in the post war period.
Alientating slums in the sky
Yet the short sightedness of these “streets in the sky” was soon realised. The break-up and mass reshuffle of long-established working class communities to different corners of the city (and country) was alienating in itself, and even the proposed high-rise solution to the dungeon-like Victorian slums was an exercise in isolation.
In his rectorial address to Glasgow University in 1972, UCS shop steward Jimmy Reid addressed the issue of alienation and encapsulated it perfectly: “when you think of some of the high flats around us, it can hardly be an accident that they are as near as one could get to an architectural representation of a filing cabinet.” A convenient filing cabinet for the working class – much vaunted by the chattering classes as the cornerstone of cities of the future, cities that would transcend class society but that in practice provided a conduit for an intensification of the misery of the most downtrodden.
The initial optimism faded as it became apparent that, in spite of their modernism, this was not the catch all solution it had been made out to be. Practical considerations such as a lack of community amenities close at hand and the problems of living far from the from the ground – with only a lift or 20-plus flights of stairs as your means of movement – had been overlooked in the enthusiastic rapture of the planning stage. Lifts for instance frequently broke down and for many, particularly women, the vulnerability of travelling alone in these small rickety boxes with no easy escape was intimidating.
The low-cost construction of these flats also became apparent and within years the concrete facades became a depressing, stained grey block after a mix of pollution and wet weather. The Red Road Flats themselves were declared ‘unfit for habitation’ in 1980, not even 15 years after they were opened. Across Britain, the high rises that had been billed as the community homes of the future have become alienating slums in the sky.
From flawed visionaries to reformists without reforms
The fact is that reshaping a city’s landscape does not overcome the inherent problems with the capitalist system. This has been borne out painfully in Glasgow as with elsewhere since the Second World War. The long, protracted decline of Clydeside shipbuilding and engineering from the 1950s on was never properly answered by successive governments.
Had the Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s brought the yards and factories into public ownership and not relied on encouraging multinationals to set up and exploit cheap Scottish labour – instead putting forward a planned transformation of the economy under socialism – then perhaps the story would have been very different.
The high concentration of heavy industry in Glasgow, which in the 19th century had made it a very wealthy city (on the back of a hyper-exploited working class) also made the collapse of those industries all the more cataclysmic. For instance in 1971, before the recessions of that decade, more than 10% of the city’s population were unemployed – nearly four times the UK average. By the 1980s, the damage had largely been done – so much for ‘neo-liberal ideology’ being to blame.
It is in this that we can see the transformation of Labour councils in the city from the flawed visionaries of the 1960s to that of a particularly cynical governing party. The scale of the economic crisis since then has been so deep that it has been reformism with no reforms to offer, and instead Labour has been forced into pursuing a variety of counter-reforms instead.
Glasgow City Council’s main solution as a way out of this impasse has been to develop the largest retail and banking sector outside of London. This is not particularly viable, especially when you consider the low-paid, low-skilled and precarious nature of service sector work and the fact that a city with such high levels of deprivation and unemployment cannot sustain an economy built on shopping.
This has been borne out since the beginning of the global recession. As Socialist Appeal outlined in an article back in February on the uneven economic ‘recovery’ in the UK, [‘The “recovery”: prosperity for the few; decline for the many’, Socialist Appeal 11th Feb 2014] the increase in private sector jobs in Edinburgh and Aberdeen between 2010 and 2012 has been 11% and 3.7%, whereas Glasgow, the poor neighbour, has seen a 2.1% decrease as well as a 4.1% drop in public sector jobs.
Hand in hand with this have been the attempts of the council at ‘gentrification’. Seeing the ‘success’ of gentrification in London and other cities – i.e. the social cleansing of working class areas by the ever-advancing hordes of ‘young professionals’ – the council have encouraged similar developments in Glasgow in an attempt to regenerate some areas of the city. Since the 1980s the eastern area of the city centre around Glasgow Cross has been rebranded as “Merchant City” and transformed from boarded-up warehouses into a trendy locale.
With this success story, similar developments have taken place in the old dock areas of Partick and Finnieston, where large “luxury” flats have been built for the upwardly mobile – most of which are probably smaller inside than the old neighbouring tenements, but which are sufficiently glass-fronted enough to attract interest.
The iniquities of capitalism
Gentrification is no answer to the iniquities of capitalism. It presents no solution for the working class as a whole and much less to those in areas where the cost of living skyrockets, forcing them out. But even from the council’s point of view, Glasgow does not have the economic basis for a mass rolling out of gentrification. The stagnant local economy would say as much.
Off the back of the Commonwealth Games there have been attempts to attract yuppies to the east end, billing Dalmarnock and the Calton (average male life expectancy 53.9 years, the lowest in the UK) as ‘the new West End’. The absurdity of this billing shows a vision that has reached its logical conclusion.
The fact is that since the late 1970s Labour in Glasgow has been completely without vision. The pronounced failure of reformism has led them to this current malaise. Nor is there any solution presented by the pro-capitalist SNP and the left groups that have tail-ended the nationalists over the course of the independence campaign.
The powerful echo of Marxism
In the 1980s, the ideas of the Marxists in the Labour Party – organised around the Militant newspaper – found a large and powerful echo in Glasgow, taking revolutionary politics to those that had been sent off to the housing estates on the fringes of the city and forgotten about by various generations of politicians.
The Marxists fought for socialism in the local Labour Party branches, in spite of massive opposition from the party’s right wing, and led the struggle against the Poll Tax off the back of this work (the first Anti-Poll Tax Union in the UK was set up in Maryhill, in the north west of the city).
This example should prove sufficient inspiration that building the forces of Marxism in the working class can and will be done. The situation both locally and globally demands it. The only solution for the working class of Glasgow – and the questions of jobs, housing and health – is in socialism. This is what we must fight for, both here and internationally.