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Ayr by-election special report

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Issue 1687

Ayr by-election special report

Tory policies the root of Labour crisis

By Hassan Mahamdallie

“I VOTED Labour to get the Tories out in 1997. But Labour haven’t done anything they said they would. I won’t vote Labour again.” So said Ann, a voter in Ayr, talking last Saturday in the run-up to the Scottish parliamentary by-election.

Many Labour voters in Scotland are up in arms at New Labour’s Tory policies. There is a real possibility that Labour will lose the Ayr seat. The 16 March poll could see the Tories win their first by-election in Scotland since 1967. Labour could even limp in third behind the Scottish National Party (SNP). Ayr used to be a Tory seat. But anger against the Tory government saw Labour take the seat in the 1997 general election.

Labour then won last May’s Scottish parliamentary elections, beating the Tories with a wafer-thin majority of 25 votes. The Labour MSP, Ian Welsh, then quit, forcing a by-election. Last Saturday Labour had a clutch of MPs and MSPs out in the town. Tony Blair was set to visit, but with Labour’s campaign in “disarray” he has now cancelled the plan.

The Daily Record claims Labour’s crisis is to do with the row over Section 28. The Record, which is normally Labour supporting, has led the bigoted campaign to keep the anti-gay law. It has tried to make the Ayr by-election into a referendum on Section 28. Labour first minister, Donald Dewar, is blaming Labour’s problems on millionaire Brian Souter for buying up the billboards in town to spread pro-Section-28 propaganda.

Souter is effectively backing the Tories, the only party that wants Section 28 to stay. But despite the efforts of Souter, the Record and the Tories, Section 28 is not high up the list for ordinary people in Ayr. Last Saturday a small and bedraggled group of Keep the Clause supporters wandered through the streets of Ayr. They gained little attention and some hostility.

Labour’s real problem is that working class support is deserting the party because it is not delivering on issues like health, education and a decent minimum wage. The row over the soaring cost of the new parliament building at Holyrood in Edinburgh, now set at 230 million, feeds into ordinary people’s conviction that Labour’s priorities are all wrong.

The Tories are trying to turn the Holyrood row to their advantage, saying the 230 million could buy “the outright abolition of student fees, 2,000 extra police, 2,000 nurses, 2,000 teachers, and road upgrades”. It would be no surprise if working class people punished Labour in the polls. Labour’s refrain, “You must vote Labour or you’ll let the Tories in”, cuts no ice with people who feel utterly betrayed.

Twenty four year old shop worker Steven Nutt told Socialist Worker, “I’m not voting Labour again. I am so disillusioned with Tony Blair. When you see Labour politicians on TV you just see them as carrying on the Tory legacy.”

Steven has no truck with Souter’s campaign: “Section 28 should be scrapped. It’s the old Tory guard and the bigots that are the problem, not gay people.”

Activists leaving

A survey conducted by researchers at Strathclyde University showed Labour’s vote among its “traditional voters” plummeted 16 percent between the 1997 general election and last May’s Scottish election. Bob Thompson, a former chairman and treasurer of the party in Scotland, also told the Scotsman, “There is no doubt the party is facing a crisis in membership. The big problem is that a lot of people who are leaving are activists.” Another poll, carried out for the Scotsman by ICM, found 91 percent of people in Scotland believe little or nothing has been achieved by last year’s devolution.

The real problems

LABOUR’S CANDIDATE, Rita Millar, is a former teacher and local councillor. Millar is running a defensive campaign and defending unpopular policies. New Labour’s privatisation of air traffic control is a hot issue, with Prestwick airport in the constituency. Millar has nothing to say about issues that matter to ordinary people. North Ayr is the area where many poor families live. Their houses are run down and overcrowded. In some pockets of the constituency unemployment runs at 25 percent.

It is possible Labour voters will switch to the SNP. But its candidate is Jim Mathers, a millionaire computer businessman. The Scottish Socialist Party is running a popular local candidate, bakery worker James Stewart. James told Socialist Worker, “We held a public meeting in the town hall that got 80 people to it. People are not talking to me about Section 28. They’re talking about the minimum wage, housing and warrant sales.” Socialist Worker urges a vote for the SSP.

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