On 4 May, Matheson was a happy man.
In the months running up to the council elections, commentators, columnists and just about everyone with an opinion, had written Labour off in Glasgow. In March, the party suffered a major blow when it lost its overall majority following a spate of resignations from disgruntled deselected candidates. From the outside, it looked like Labour’s 30-year control of Scotland’s largest city was coming to an end and the SNP, still giddy from their Holyrood victory, were rubbing their hands with glee.
Suddenly Glasgow became the most important battleground in Scotland. Many believed that following Labour’s dismal result at the Scottish Parliament election last year, if they lost control of Glasgow, they were finished.
However, the doubters were proved wrong. As the results trickled in throughout the day on 4 May, it quickly became clear that the SNP had not done what was predicted. By 5pm, Labour had secured a comfortable majority of 44 and elected all but one of the candidates they put forward. The atmosphere was jubilant but also clearly tinged with surprise. Not even Labour had predicted such a result.
For Matheson, councillor for Anderston/City ward, the election was by no means a sure thing.
He said: “The SNP believed they were going to sweep Labour from power. However, the people of Glasgow had other ideas. I became leader of the council two years’ ago in 2010, and in 2011 at the Scottish Parliament elections, Labour got a drubbing.
“In Glasgow we lost a number of constituencies and the SNP across the city got more votes than Labour. I, together with key colleagues, quickly formulated a strategy which we enacted over the year between the Scottish Parliament election and local government election. All that we did over that year was pointing towards the election in May of this year. It is very difficult for any party to secure an overall majority under this STV system which is why the overwhelming number of councils across Scotland are either minority controlled or coalitions but that is not the case in Glasgow.” Matheson said the message on the doorsteps was that Glasgow is doing well.
He added: “People thought that while there are issues we are still grappling with, we are heading in the right direction. We tapped into that as Labour by saying, ‘Glasgow is Scotland’s big success story but that didn’t happen by accident’. We also laid out a programme for taking the city forward. What I’ve said is the manifesto will stay on this coffee table [in the leader’s office] every day for the next five years and we will implement every dot and comma of it. We had a refreshed team, we had a strong record and we had a vision which reflected the ambitions and priorities of the people of Glasgow.” Speaking about the resignations at the start of the year, Matheson frankly admits that it caused him “grief”. However, he is convinced the party did the right thing and their plans were justified by the final results.
He said: “It was difficult but it was part ofthe strategy that I indicted we were developing between 2011 and May. In terms of the selection, it was led by local party activists, by Glasgow city Labour Party, the interviews were conducted by members. The process was developed and endorsed by local party activists. The process is one that everyone in the real world would recognise. We completed an application form, we got references, we went for a competence-based interview. We were all tested on issues of policy, on values, on our attitudes towards equalities – the range of areas you would expect a Labour politician to be tested on.
“We had the largest number of applicants ever, over 100 party members who applied to be councillors. It is challenging for any party to renew itself while in office but that was precisely what we did, it was the right thing to do. It was tough but it was correct and it has been vindicated. I hope to see a similar approach adopted by the party in selections at all levels of representation, including for MPs, MSPs and councillors.” When asked if he ever thought Labour would lose the election in Glasgow and fail to stay in power, Matheson said he remained “upbeat” but added that “the fact of the matter is, electoral politics is a risky business”. He continued: “There were no certainties. I think from an objective analysis, because of the process we went through, we definitely fought the best campaign. We had the record, we had the refreshed team,we had an exciting vision and we overlaid that with good organisation and hard work.
“I was expecting more from the SNP. I kept waiting on the SNP to up the gears and they failed to do so. The scale of the electoral success in Glasgow for Labour was not widely predicted. I was confident we would be the largest party and I always believed we could achieve the magic 40 which is enough to be in overall majority control but even I didn’t predict that we would elect 44 out of our 45 candidates with a plurality over the SNP of 17. That is a remarkable achievement.” Looking forward, Matheson has already been meeting with heads of department to work out how the council will take forward the manifesto for the city.
He said: “One of the big advantages of having such an ambitious and clear manifesto is that it becomes the corporate plan for the council and by extension, the department’s plans flow from it too. It is a very well structured planand highlights that Glasgow under Labour is a political administration. The politicians are in charge, the power we have comes from the clear democratic mandate we’ve been given and our council officers are the best in the business and they excel when they’re given clear political leadership and that is precisely what I and my team are providing, based on the manifesto.
“The sustainable and low carbon agenda is a big thread running through our programme. The next five years are going to be very exciting in that regard. One of the phrases that was used during the campaign was ‘turning green, red’. What I meant by that was, for example, using the revenue from wind turbines which are just about to be erected in Cathkin Braes on council land, to fund £100 payments to every 80 year old in the city to help them with their fuel bills.
“This new administration will lead Glasgow through the Commonwealth Games. We are currently working alongside the Scottish Government and the British Olympic Association to develop a detailed bid for Glasgow to host the youth Olympics in 2018 which is on the scale of the Commonwealth Games. Glasgow is as exciting as ever and the next five years are going to be wonderful.”