Scottish Labour has done little over the last decade to win back its left-leaning voters. Now it's finally waking up. Photo: Getty
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Scottish Labour is finally waking up to its class problem

After years of complacency, Scottish Labour finally seems to be waking up to its class problem. But it could be too little too late.

Most people think Labour’s hegemony in Scotland ended in May 2007, when the SNP won control of the Holyrood parliament for the first time. But the breaking point actually came four years earlier. At the 2003 election, Labour lost roughly 250,000 constituency and 225,000 list votes, the single biggest fall in its vote share at any point over the devolutionary era. Significantly, it wasn’t the nationalists who benefited from the slump in Labour support (they also lost votes that year). It was the smaller, more radical parties, principally the Greens and the SSP, who were able to capitalise on widespread public opposition to, among other things, the Scottish Executive’s backing for the war in Iraq.

Yet, despite the subsequent collapse of the SSP and the ongoing failure of the Greens to make any meaningful progress, Labour has done very little over the last decade to win these left-leaning voters back. Instead, it has executed a botched volte face over universal benefits, wasted countless hours trying to savage Alex Salmond’s political reputation, and repositioned itself as the dominant voice of Scottish unionism (at the expense, inevitably, of its traditional status as the dominant voice of Scottish home rule).  

The results, from a Labour perspective, have not been good. Last week, a new Survation poll gave the SNP a massive 18 point lead over Labour in terms of first-past-the-post voting intentions and an equally massive 15 point lead in terms of regional voting intentions. More worrying still, at the 2011 election, Labour trailed the nationalists by 14 per cent among Scots who identified themselves as working class and by 19 per cent among Scots who qualified as working class according to official criteria. The SNP was also the party of choice for public sector workers, trade unionists and even Catholics, all of whom Labour would once have considered part of its natural constituency.

And it’s not just at the electoral level that Scottish Labour’s base has bled away. Everyone now acknowledges that support for independence among low income Scots is substantially higher than it is among other income groups. Although one recent Ipsos MORI poll showed enthusiasm for independence in deprived neighbourhoods had declined slightly, other surveys indicate that it remains disproportionately high. Large parts of working class Scotland, in other words, have simply lost faith in the UK.

After years of complacency, however, Scottish Labour finally seems to be waking up to its class problem. The re-emergence of Gordon Brown in the last few months represents the most conspicuous attempt yet by the party to reclaim its former heartlands, while Johann Lamont has laid out plans to raise taxes on high earners using the new financial powers she says Holyrood will gain after a No vote. (Incidentally, Labour also seems to have drafted John Reid in to help seize back the left-of-centre ground from the nationalists, which must rank as the single silliest decision of the referendum debate so far.)  

But is all this too little too late? Yes activists have been knocking on doors in poor communities for the best part of two years, with the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) leading the charge. Since February, RIC has held a series of mass canvassing sessions in a number of key Glasgow constituencies, including Castlemilk, Easterhouse and Pollok, the results of which should cause Labour some concern. Of the 2100 prospective voters RIC spoke to, 42 per cent said they intended to vote Yes, 41 per cent said they were Undecided and 17 per cent said they intended to vote No. This Sunday, RIC will roll-out its canvassing programme across the country, staging more than 30 separate events Scotland-wide.

The SNP has also stepped-up its efforts to win the working class vote. Following Alex Salmond’s claim last week that independence would “reindustrialise” Scotland, John Swinney told the Herald yesterday that a future SNP government would end the “UK austerity agenda” by borrowing billions to fund new spending projects. This is a hugely significant announcement. It establishes clear red water between the SNP – whose “preference” is now for an annual 3 per cent increase in (post-independence) public expenditure – and Labour, which remains anchored to the coalition’s spending plans. Nationalists are entitled to question how long Brown’s “redistributive union” can survive within the Tories’ fiscal straightjacket.

Labour‘s attempts to craft a plausible narrative for centre left unionism faces another – and in some respects more pressing – challenge: Better Together. Almost everything Better Together says is designed to appeal to “Middle Scotland”. Its core message – that the UK protects Scotland’s home owners, pensioners and businesses from the “risks” of separation – is resolutely (and depressingly) conservative. When Better Together talks about “economic uncertainty”, it means fluctuating oil revenues and increased borrowing costs. When the Yes campaign talks about “economic uncertainty”, it means poorly-paid and insecure work. If Labour is serious about getting what used to be its base back on side before September, it needs to start sounding more like the latter and much less like the former. 

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.

Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.

Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.