Gordon Matheson on an emotional year for Glasgow

Written by Tom Freeman on 8 July 2015 in Inside Politics

A year on from the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Matheson describes his mixed emotions and how to win Glasgow back for Labour

"Louder than necessary” –  this was how one newspaper described Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Matheson’s speech during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games last July. Some other commentators were less kind. 

But given the enormity of Scotland’s biggest ever sporting event, the fact he was addressing a television audience of up to a billion people and was sharing a platform with a number of dancing teacakes, perhaps he could have been forgiven a few nerves.

Holyrood sits down with Matheson in the resplendent Glasgow City Chambers to reflect on the moment, and an eventful year since. “It has been an extraordinary privilege to have led my city at that time,” he says, pointing out there aren’t many who have spoken to such a big potential TV audience.


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"You referenced dancing teacakes, there was also the small matter of her majesty the Queen, Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prime Minister and heads of government from across the world who were in town as well, so it was a wonderful opportunity. I guess nothing quite prepares you for speaking, either for a stadium audience, which is a pretty rare thing to do, but then obviously a television audience with lights shining in on you and so on, it was quite something. Memorable. The whole period was just fantastic,” he says.

If Matheson’s warm up was the sight of cyclist Chris Hoy and Prince Imran of Malaysia struggling to open the baton which had spent months being carried round the world, what followed his speech was potentially even more awkward.

A statue of Wellington outside the Gallery of Modern Art, which Glaswegians have taken to adorning with a traffic cone, has been used as a symbol of the city, but in the months leading up to the Games, the council had announced they would be investing in a bigger plinth for the statue, presumably to dissuade drunks from scaling it. Matheson defended the decision at the time, but it was later reversed. Immediately after his speech in the ceremony, however, the traffic cone was celebrated in a sequence of the performance. If Matheson is embarrassed by the episode, it doesn’t show. 

“That’s Glasgow for you. The cone is a bit of a Glasgow institution, and we have a reputation for not taking ourselves too seriously. If you’re going to represent Glasgow, it’s going to be iconoclastic and fun. That’s what the opening ceremony was like. 

“We also redefined the Glasgow kiss of course, which was a very effective and subtle way of just demonstrating our value base.”

The inclusion of an all-male kiss in the ceremony was significant given homosexuality is illegal in all but 11 of the 53 Commonwealth countries. Matheson himself is the second openly gay council leader in the city in succession. 

“It was deliberately not preachy, but we made our point,” he says.

He admits he’s watched the ceremony back since. How did he rate his performance? “Let me put the question back to you. Can you remember any other speeches?”
I concede I can’t.

“There you are. If you were speaking to a billion people, would you want to make it memorable? It reflected the passion and pride I have in my city. My personality came across.”
If emotion spilled out into his speech, it wasn’t new for Matheson. Emotion, he says, drew him into the Labour Party. Raised in a family of Labour voters but not members, his first experience of the party was as a school-aged activist. 

“The first leaflet I delivered was in 1979, which wasn’t a particularly successful campaign for Labour. It ushered in 18 years of Tory rule. It ushered in Thatcher. I lived my formative years as a teenager and young adult under the Thatcher and Major Governments.”

It was the death of leader John Smith in 1994 which prompted Matheson to finally join the party. 

“You need emotion in politics, you need heart. What you believe in isn’t a calculation, it’s who you are. I guess my decision to join the Labour Party was in part an emotional response to the death of John Smith. It was, at its heart, a recognition of the point I was closer to the Labour family than perhaps I had realised, and it was time to come into the party. Time to join.”

One thing which didn’t make the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony was a proposed demolition of the well-known Red Road high flats. The idea to destroy the buildings on live television was described at the time as ‘bold and dramatic’ and a symbol of the city’s regeneration. A public outcry saw the idea shelved, however. 

“The question was whether they could be incorporated into the opening ceremony as a symbol of a city that makes bold decisions and always reinventing itself. The decision not to proceed was based on the reaction against that, and specifically, the sense it was insensitive, which was never the intention,” Matheson tells Holyrood.

The decision to respect the wishes of the community reflects a wider sense of people having ownership of the Games, which Matheson says was achieved “in spades”.

The people of Glasgow were involved “intimately” in every stage of the Games, he says, from bidding for them to the legacy aftermath. “These were Glasgow’s Games and my goodness, the people of Glasgow claimed them as their own.”

A sense of community control, then, informed the decision to leave the Red Road demolition out of the opening ceremony, but Glasgow’s relationship with regeneration has been rocky at times. Displacement of whole communities in the slum clearances in the 1950s and 60s happened on a grander scale in Glasgow than in other industrial post-empire cities like Manchester and Liverpool, and is one of the factors that has been investigated by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) as a possible contributor to the city’s excess mortality rates due to people’s lack of cohesion and control over their lives. Inequality has persisted in the city.

Now, with the Commonwealth Games’ legacy and £1.13bn investment through a city deal for the Clyde Valley, will the future be informed by Glasgwegians’ historical relationship with their communities? 

“Sure. Glasgow’s a sixth-century ecclesiastical settlement. We’ve been around a wee while. We have a palpable sense of civic identity and pride. And we have a very lively politics. As a Glaswegian, I am proud of it and very conscious of it,” says Matheson.

Drumchapel, one of the first housing estates to be established by the city’s first Labour administration in the 1950s, was where Matheson spent his early years in the early seventies. His father worked in the shipyards, but at that time, Drumchapel also still had large-scale employers like Goodyear rubber and Beattie’s biscuits. If the community had suffered from being displaced in the 1950s, Matheson wasn’t aware of it. 

“As a child, it’s just where you live. It’s where you go out to play football, kick the can and kerbie. My primary school was across the road from where I lived. I could literally wait until the bell rang and scamper to still join the back of the line. My church I attended had the same name as the school. That was where I was brought up.”

Regeneration is now monitored by research and learning project GoWell, which was founded by the GCPH to investigate the impact of investment. I ask Matheson if there’s apprehension about doing things right.

“I think we need to recognise the city has come some way, including our approach to things like housing and so on. It’s difficult to consider these issues or to criticise without recognising the context of the times as well. If you were living in heavily overcrowded conditions with an outside toilet, if you had any control over that situation, you would want to improve the lives of people there. I think we need to see this in context, but we always seek to learn and build on previous experiences.”

He describes Labour’s decision to transfer the city’s social housing stock to Glasgow Housing Association in 2003 as “the most significant thing that’s happened in terms of Glasgow housing in recent years”. The move was approved after a referendum of the tenants, he points out. 

“The key point here was this was the transfer of municipal housing to housing association, but also, critically, the redistribution of Glasgow’s housing debt to the UK Treasury. On the basis of that, there has been over a billion pounds of investment in social housing within the city, so that decision, a Labour decision, has been transformative, and the nature of the investment and timing of it has been directly influenced by tenants along the way.”

He says residents have steered investment decisions as well. “I’m exceptionally proud of that,” he says. “Well, tell me another city to have achieved that? By which I mean, anywhere in Europe. Tell me another city which can point to that degree of investment in social housing stock?”

Matheson calls the City Deal “a game changer” for the economy in the region. He also describes it as a significant step towards devolving power within Scotland. I ask him how realistic the statement is, given the SNP Government’s policy direction the other way, centralising police and other services.

“My general approach to that is it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. Since when has the city really waited on central government for big initiatives? Fresh water was brought to Glasgow by my forebears in the city council. Not by national parliaments. It’s that kind of municipal spirit which is reflected in the City Deal. Having said which, it’s also worth remembering that while the City-Deal process was driven by the city in partnership with our sister councils across Clyde Valley, we got to the point where we had the agreement of both the UK and Scottish Governments, and we achieved that on the eve of a referendum. It’s an extraordinary achievement.”

He says he has been at a meeting of the Clyde Valley cabinet that morning to agree timescales for the 20 infrastructure projects funded by the deal, which aims to attract £3.3bn private sector investment, create 29,000 full-time jobs and 15,000 construction jobs. The deal is a vehicle for delivering a Commonwealth Games legacy which has already seen 6,000 jobs and apprenticeships established, he says. The 700 homes which made up the Athletes’ Village in the East End are “only the first phase”, he claims.

“This is precisely about creating opportunities. It shows you, bluntly, what can be achieved when cities and city regions are empowered.”

But beyond a large budget, what does that empowerment actually look like? New powers for cities has been high on the political agenda of the unionist parties in recent months.

“If it’s good enough for Holyrood, it’s good enough for Glasgow. Do we actually believe in sharing power, in tackling an overbearing Whitehall, or are we simply in the business of transferring powers from a centralising Westminster to a centralising, nation-building Holyrood? One parliament to another? It’s not devolution. Not the kind of devolution I support, never has been. I’ve been a supporter of devolution from the get-go. I campaigned for Yes Yes as part of Scotland Forward, way before the Scottish Parliament was established. It was never in pursuit of a centralising nation-building vision for Scotland. It was about getting power to where it can have best effect. 

“Increasingly across the world there is a recognition that cities are the powerhouses of the economy. The national economy will benefit to the extent cities are empowered to drive the economy. I don’t take any pleasure in pointing out England is ahead of the game on us on that. There’s a lot of discussion, a devolution bill going through Westminster just now, about devolving significant areas of additional power over things like skills and economic development and housing, transport, police and so on.”

He points to the fact Glasgow became the first non-English city to join the Core Cities group, which represent the councils of England’s eight largest city economies outside London. 
“They had to change the rules to become a UK organisation to include Glasgow because our case was so compelling. The agenda that is being pursued in England, to some extent, it’s seen that the equivalent to devolution to Holyrood is devolution to English city regions. It isn’t. The equivalent of devolution to cities and city regions in England is devolution to cities and city regions in Scotland, on precisely the same basis, for precisely the same reasons.”

A potential obstacle to this vision, however, is the Conservative Government at Westminster, which seems content to shore up its votes in England. Has David Cameron thrown in the towel in Scotland?

“I don’t think that’s particularly germane to this discussion, to be honest. I will cooperate with any government if it’s in Glasgow’s interest. It’s maybe just worth noting in passing that the City Deal was principally negotiated between Glasgow and the UK Government. At that point it was a coalition government; £500 million of that money comes from the UK Treasury. The key point is the Scottish Government then subsequently agreed to become partners in that deal.

“I claim credit for delivering that. At the heart of it is an economic case which is compelling, but the politics had to be managed too. And it worked. My approach worked. The reason that is important to me is the 29,000 jobs, the life chances, the choices people will have as a result of it. Also, the ability to demonstrate clearly what can be achieved when both Whitehall and Holyrood let go.

“It wasn’t done to us. It was designed by us and earned by us.”

Matheson not only claims the credit for the deal, but he predicts it will have further ramifications throughout Scotland.  

“I am working with colleagues in a supportive way across Scotland so there are city deals throughout the country. I want all of Scotland’s city regions to benefit from what Glasgow is benefiting from. I want that to become an attitude and blueprint for the maturing of devolution within this country,” he says.

Other council leaders would be entitled to raise an eyebrow at this claim, after Glasgow joined three other Labour-controlled local authorities in quitting the collective bargaining of council umbrella body COSLA in the spring to form a new Scottish Local Government Partnership (SLGP). I ask Matheson for the latest developments. “What I will say is it isn’t an issue that has come up on any door,” he says. 

COSLA, meanwhile, has found itself sparring with government over teacher numbers and details of the new Education Bill. Where is the SLGP in all of this?
“The partnership is well established. We have clear governance. We met last week with the Scottish Government, with the trade unions, for example. We remain deeply committed to national collective bargaining. There we are,” he says.

Meanwhile, the City Deal could also have resonance with wider Scottish politics and the constitutional argument, he believes. 
“While the question of independence will continue to divide us, growing the economy and creating opportunities is an area where there is common purpose. City devolution actually works and is the means by which we will grow the economy and tackle inequality. There is not a bigger idea afoot. Nowhere. There is not a bigger idea for how we will grow the economy and tackle inequality than city devolution,” he says.

But although the City Deal was announced on the eve of the independence referendum, it didn’t sway the vote in Glasgow, which voted Yes, much to Matheson’s dismay. After the high of the Commonwealth Games, the result must have been difficult. 
“Yeah. The Commonwealth Games united the country, and the referendum divided the country.”

And for someone who talks with such passion about the record of Labour in leading Glasgow, the General Election result must have been a similar scale of a blow, with the party losing every single one of its MPs in the city. It is onto this stage Matheson decides to enter the Labour leadership contest for the post of deputy leader, a post which grants an automatic position at the top of the regional list for next year’s election to the Scottish Parliament. Asked if he intends to stand for Holyrood, he answers simply “yes”.

But how can Labour win his city back?
“I’ve never dodged a battle in my life. I’m under no illusions as to the challenge Labour faces. There are an awful lot of people who had previously voted Labour who are disappointed and I actually think there’s a lot of hurt as well. People say things like ‘we just want our party back’. They want a reason to vote Labour again. But there are also an awful lot of other people who are angry with us. So I’m under no illusions of the challenge we face to win back support across the country.”

But this sense of loss and hurt at Labour is well documented, and a number of figures in the party have articulated theories as to what caused it. 

“My basic approach is the electorate is not wrong. Let’s start from that premise. We need, as a party, to change. We are a party of change. We’re nothing if we’re not a movement for progressive change. I think a lot of this came to a head around the referendum time when we were seen as being on the opposite side of change. That’s been very difficult. I recognise the pain and the anger and confusion that was caused when we were active members of the Better Together campaign, for example. I can understand that.”

Wasn’t the central Labour message of the referendum about changing Scotland from within the Union though? “Sure, but it also didn’t get through to a lot of people who were traditionally Labour voters. That wasn’t what they saw. They saw us as a party which was, from their perspective, standing against change.

“The challenge for us is to have a positive vision and story for Scotland, and to convince people Labour can deliver for them. It’s kind of ironic in a sense given we’re the party of devolution. It was Labour delivered the Scottish Parliament. We have significantly lost our way in that debate.”

I point out there were a number of high-profile figures within Labour who were not so keen on devolution. “Well, yeah, but overwhelmingly, Labour is the party which profoundly believes in the Scottish Parliament. Bluntly, it’s the party which delivered it. We said we would do it, and we did. Our challenge now is to have an ambitious and confident and inspiring vision for Scotland, based on our values and which is able to convince people we’re interested in what’s important to them, rather than ourselves.”

As for the deputy leadership, Matheson thinks his emotions are his strength. 
“I bring passion to the debate, no one who knows me think I’m other than passionate about what I believe in,” he laughs.
“I’ve got heart. I also have a record of success. We’ve spoken about the City Deal. We’ve spoken about the Commonwealth Games. Those are remarkable achievements. I also led Labour to victory in 2012 here in Glasgow, at a time when I don’t think there was a single commentator who thought we were going to win that election. Confident predictions were being made we were going to be swept from power. Instead, I today lead a stable majority administration.”

He says Labour has been delivering on its 100 manifesto pledges of the 2012 council election. “I don’t know another council which reports annually on their manifesto. I regard that as a contract with the people, so I need to report on it.”
The living wage was one such pledge. “We were the first council in Scotland to introduce the living wage. I just recently wrote to every business in the city encouraging them to pay it. There are more Glasgow living wage employers than there are in the rest of Scotland.”

It is clear Matheson is bullish about his – and Labour’s – record in Glasgow. “There’s an enormously progressive social and economic record here in Glasgow. 
“Put it another way – Glasgow is Scotland’s big success story. It’s been where it’s at for a long time and it will continue to be.” 

 

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