A rich seam of nationalism

Labour felt compelled to fight what at the last election was its 26th safest seat in Britain as thou

The light cast on Glasgow East by journalists during the by-election campaign was often been unflattering. 'The hardest, poorest place in Britain,' claimed AA Gill in The Sunday Times. A 'hell-hole of a constituency', wrote Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph. The constituency, 'doesn't need an MP - it requires a miracle worker', argued Derek McGovern in the Daily Mirror.

Unsurprisingly these sentiments met a critical response from the constituency's voters. Not everywhere in Glasgow East is rundown and depressed, they have countered. There is a sense of community spirit and neighbourliness. The constituency should not be tarred with the one stereotypical brush.

Indeed even in Glasgow East the property owning democracy is alive and kicking. For every person living in social housing there is another who owns their own home. Nearly half of households have a car. Trouble is, by comparison with the rest of Scotland, let alone the UK, such folk are unusually few and far between.

In contrast the constituency lies close to the top of the league on all the indicators of social deprivation. Only just over half of Glasgow East's population claims to be in good health, the second lowest proportion of any UK constituency. In parts male life expectancy is lower than in the Gaza Strip or Bangladesh. Only around half those of working age are in employment. Not everyone in the constituency is part of 'left behind Britain', but far too many are.

It was this backdrop that gave the by-election particular resonance. This surely is the kind of place that, even at the toughest of times, should believe Labour is the only party with the mission and zeal to improve the life of its residents? Indeed even in Labour's annus horribilis of 1983, as well on the occasion of the party's defeat in last year's Scottish Parliament elections, over half of those who voted remained loyal to the party.

Yet Labour has felt compelled to fight what at the last election was its 26th safest seat in Britain as though it were a marginal. The challenge was never from the Conservatives, who even in Mrs Thatcher's heyday could not muster as much as a fifth of the vote in the area, but from the Scottish National Party, keen to repeat their feat in Glasgow Govan in both 1973 and 1988 of giving Labour a bloody nose in one of its heartlands.

And they won. Even though Glasgow East is not the same as Govan. Little more than a fifth of Govan's population is Catholic, while the constituency is home to Scotland's largest ethnic minority population. In contrast, nearly everyone in Glasgow East is both Scottish born and white, while one in three are Catholic.

But the days when the SNP found it particularly difficult to win the votes of Catholics are long since over. According to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey Catholics were just as likely as Protestants to vote for the nationalists in last year's Scottish Parliament election.

Meanwhile, one feature of Glasgow East makes it potentially fertile territory for the SNP. At the last census no less than 96 per cent chose to say they were Scottish rather than British, more than in any Scottish constituency.

The task of the SNP has been to try to exploit that sense of national identity - to persuade enough voters to send a protest note to Westminster wrapped in the saltire rather than maintain loyalty to their class.

Unless the popularity of the Brown government is restored, Labour must worry the nationalists will be to mine this seam throughout Scotland in 2010 - leaving the party fighting for its life many a seat that has hitherto seemed invulnerable.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University