Labour in Scotland has a steep hill to climb, but candidate for Airdrie and Shotts HELEN McFARLANE believes the party’s policies on public services and jobs are winning people over
IT IS undeniable that the rightward drift of Labour during the Blair and Brown years alienated many of the party’s core working-class voters, perhaps most of all in Scotland.
The popularity of the SNP, the independence referendum and its aftermath have left people divided along constitutional lines, a problem for the left which is echoed across the UK too, following the EU referendum.
Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters and activists have a huge job ahead of them to reframe the debate in terms of anti-austerity politics, but there are a number of excellent left Labour candidates across Scotland prepared to take on this challenge.
I spoke to Helen McFarlane, a committed trade union activist and Corbyn supporter, who is contesting the Airdrie and Shotts seat for the Labour Party, a constituency on Scottish Labour’s target list to take from the SNP.
McFarlane has worked for the NHS for 30 years. She is a qualified speech and language therapist and has spent the last 10 years in education roles supporting allied health workers within the NHS.
She is currently seconded to work for the Scottish Health Council on a project called Our Voice, which aims to engage and empower patients and the public in having a greater say in their services in order to transform them to benefit the wider community.
She joined Unite’s predecessor union in 1987 when she began working in the NHS, and a year later became a shop steward, which she has been ever since. She has been involved in the women’s committee, and has represented NHS members on Unite’s NEC, its ruling body.
McFarlane is very supportive of Labour’s manifesto for this election. “It’s really inspired activists from the CLP, trade unionists and Communist Party members to pull together to campaign for Labour, it’s a manifesto that can win working people and ordinary people back to the Labour Party.
“Labour’s commitments to renationalise transport, build not just affordable homes but council homes and invest in public services is really going down well with people,” she says.
“It’s exciting seeing campaigns that unions have been championing so long included in this manifesto.”
McFarlane says a £10-an-hour minimum wage, plans to scrap zero-hours contracts, ending bogus self-employment and making sure everyone has decent rights at work from day one have really resonated with people on the doorstep.
“Jobs are a massive issue for local people,” she says, “because there are high rates of unemployment, particularly due to the devastation of heavy industry in the local area over the years.
“Many small businesses went to the wall during the economic downturn which has also only added to the problems of unemployment and lack of investment.”
If elected McFarlane wants to work alongside the minority Labour council administration to revitalise Airdrie town centre, which has really suffered with shop and business closures.
She says that by using Labour’s plans for a Scottish investment bank they could bring statutory services back into the town centre and “give confidence to companies to invest in the town centre so it’s a place that local people would want to come.”
The NHS is an important issue for voters in Airdrie and Shotts too. The local hospital, Monklands, has been threatened with closure and the current situation is that there are plans to rebuild it but no guarantees that it will be in the local area.
“Monklands hospital has already lost important services like orthopaedics, and it means people are forced to travel out of the area to access services,” McFarlane says.
“People are concerned about the threat to the hospital and community services, particularly mental health services, given that there is a strong correlation between unemployment and mental health.
“There are also high rates of carers and people with disabilities living in the area who will be affected if services are downgraded,” she says.
Travel isn’t easy in the area either, largely because of the privatisation and fragmentation of bus and rail services. The SNP failed to deliver a promise to build a train station for the community, and currently the train passes straight through.
“Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to run transport services in public hands is really important for tackling these issues and, as part of our campaign, we have been focusing on bus services, particularly services to the college and the hospital.”
The SNP has repeatedly failed to regulate the bus services in Scotland, and as a result they are expensive, and companies have opted to cancel many routes which are seen as less profitable. It is perhaps not a coincidence that one of the SNP’s biggest donors is billionaire Stagecoach founder and owner Brian Souter.
McFarlane says: “At the moment different bus companies operate across the area so you can’t just buy one ticket for a journey. You often have to buy one for each service you use, which is expensive.”
McFarlane also warns that the well-used and popular Faskine green belt area in the constituency is under threat from housing developers.
She says it is “a stunning area, used by running clubs and schools and it needs to be protected for the local community.”
Despite Labour’s positive policies it won’t be easy for them to overturn the SNP’s almost 9,000 majority. I ask McFarlane how the people have been responding to Labour’s campaign.
She tells me the response on the door has been good.
“There are lots of people who have traditionally been Labour and have never left us, as well as a number of people who have been tempted to vote SNP in recent years who are now telling me they’re coming back to Labour because the party is back on track.”
McFarlane has spoken to a long-term SNP supporter who says she’s “in a real dilemma” about who to vote for in this election “because she really rates Corbyn.”
“People can see that the SNP has had 10 years in charge with responsibility for the NHS and education and they’ve managed both badly. Colleges have been decimated by SNP cuts.”
As the distance between Labour and the Tories has narrowed in the polls, the Establishment and its powerful media allies have worked day and night trying to discredit Corbyn, his policies and his team. I ask McFarlane about this.
She says although he is “definitely a Marmite politician, his integrity is absolutely popular” and despite the media bias, “he’s been addressing thousands and thousands at rallies and people can see that he’s popular.
“If you want to judge whether someone’s a good leader one way of doing that is looking at how many followers they attract, and Jeremy Corbyn is now the leader of the biggest party of Europe, with another 50,000 joining the Labour Party in the days following the announcement of this snap election.”
She says although the media tries to paint Corbyn as a terrorist sympathiser, “people respect his absolute commitment to dialogue and peace as opposed to war as a method of dealing with conflict.”
As the general election and final campaigning draws near, McFarlane’s message to voters in North Lanarkshire is to urge people to come back to Labour “because Labour’s come back to you.”