Revisiting Easterhouse, home of Iain Duncan Smith's 'epiphany'

As the Work and Pension's Secretary resigns after six years, we return to Glasgow's Easterhouse, where his professed mission to abolish poverty began.

Stuart Rodger
20 March 2016

By Brian Minkoff - London Pixels - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

It was the place that was said to have inspired Iain Duncan Smith's compassionate conservative epiphany, but after six years of the Tories at the helm, and after a historic referendum and an SNP landslide, where does this part of Scotland stand?

I – Unintended Consequences?

78-year-old Bob Holman is sitting reflectively in his chair. ''I've been living in deprived areas, working or living, for nearly 40 years on and off... I think this is the worst ever. The inequality is now greater than at any other time in my lifetime'', he says, inside the games room here at FARE – a family recreational facility in the centre of Easterhouse, Glasgow. Holman is a veteran anti-poverty campaigner. A kindly man, he sees his anti-poverty campaigning as an extension of his Christian principles. He helped to set up FARE in 1989, together with a group of people 'frustrated by the lack of amenities in their area'. Today it employs over fifty people, and stands in a shiny, colourful new building beside a playpark and low-rise tenements, built with the help of philanthropist and businessman, Duncan Bannatyne.

Easterhouse isn't any old Scottish scheme or Holman any old community activist. It was here where the most recent incarnation of British welfare reform began. In 2002, on a day much like today's – with the grey sky and the gentle, relentless spit of rain above – Holman helped to host a visit by then-leader of the Conservative Party and future Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. It became known as the ''Easterhouse epiphany''. For a long time, Tories could claim ignorance of the poverty that blights communities like Easterhouse, accustomed as they are to the salubrious environments of the Home Counties. They could claim ignorance no longer. ''I am happy to say Easterhouse has inspired my reforms'', IDS has said.

It was organised by Bob and IDS's mutual friend ''Tim'' – that being Tim Montgomerie, fellow Christian, former editor of ConservativeHome and former comment editor at the establishment's newspaper of record, The Times. From the pulpit of websites like ConservativeHome, welfare cuts are described ''effective'', and ''transformational''. But there is no evidence that Montgomerie or his ilk have ever sent any reporters to see the real-world results of the very policies they espouse.

Holman, however, is unequivocal about the consequences. He says of a local volunteer-run cafe at his local Baptist Church that ''we have some people who come because the food is free, the drinks are free. Some people come in early and go out late, so they don't have to turn the heating on, and that's something you didn't find ten, twenty years ago''. He argues that wage stagnation, the 1% welfare freeze and ''ridiculous'' sanctions are creating a system whereby people turn to private debt in desperation.

He points out that the benefits system now serves to trap people because of the absurd level of rules claimants are required to adhere to. ''There is a chap down the road who is affected by the bedroom tax, and he needs to go to the Jobcentre three times a week to apply for jobs. He wanted to come to camp [a Kids Camp run by FARE] as a volunteer, but he couldn't because he needs to be available for work. But it would have increased his skill levels to come to camp.'' All of it driven, he says, by the demonization of those on social security. He tells me that a few months ago a TV company phoned him and asked ''Could I introduce them to a family of shirkers who haven't worked for two generations? And I said no I can't – I don't know any!'' 

Holman has since had private confrontations with IDS about the impact of welfare reform, since he was, in his own words ''shocked by what he did'', despite initially being pleased to see him at the DWP. Holman recalls one visit to the House of Commons amidst a major student protest – ''I had a difficult job getting in'' Holman says – where he sat opposite IDS face-to-face. ''You're making things worse for the poor!'', Holman told IDS with exasperation. For legal reasons, IDS's stated responses cannot be printed. But he is said to have responded as evasively as Tories often do. I ask him (this was before he resigned) if he intends to speak to IDS again now. ''I don't think I could face him!'', he says, as he shuffles uncomfortably in his chair and with the most furious tone a gentle man like Holman seems capable of.

Also accompanying IDS on his fabled tour of Easterhouse was Rosemary Dixon, chief executive of FARE. Sitting in her office, she tells me about the project and her views on the causes and consequences of poverty in the area. She played a key role in the initial set up of FARE [Family Action for Rogerfield and Easterhouse] in 1997, which focussed initially on family support work and after-school clubs. She is driven, she says, ''to make a difference''. And although her devotion and pride in the project is obvious, there is a slight air of sadness about her outlook. ''The work we were doing with young people, supporting them, encouraging them, to aspire to a job and a career... we found that we were raising people's aspirations and then there wasn't anything out there for them.''

And initially, she was sympathetic to IDS. ''In the early days when I met him I had absolutely no doubt that he was genuine. Genuine in his concern for the lives of the people of the community and how their lives had been impacted as a result of previous government policies, from all parties.... When he came here at first, he stood up and apologized for what the Thatcher years did to Scotland. [But] the media picked up on who David McLetchie [Scottish Tory leader] was going to vote for in Pop Idol''.

But like Holman, she has since had private confrontations with him. One of the many stories she told him was about one man she knew who had been the sole carer for his severely disabled daughter for around fourteen years. ''The daughter died very suddenly one weekend. In a short time he went from being the sole, devoted carer to his daughter to being a berieved parent, having lost his disabled daughter, but also in terms of benefits was no longer a carer, was now a jobseeker... and also hit by the bedroom tax because now he had a spare bedroom... He's moved...but it still meant having to leave and all the memories''. And like Holman, she expressed anger at the demonization of social security recipients, telling IDS that one elderly user of the centre had been ''abused for being a benefits scrounger based on the fact he walks with a stick''.

Rosemary agrees that ''no-one should be parked on benefits'', but points out ''work needs to exist''. Rosemary is clear that the problems are structural, and not the moral failings of the people who live here. ''So instead of putting money into private sector housing development, put it into social housing development. You're still creating employment, you're still providing a solution to the bedroom tax'', she says, offering up a joined-up solution that seems to elude Cameron and Osborne.

Sitting right at the heart of Easterhouse is the Shandwick Centre, a small 70s-style shopping centre containing a few supermarkets, a post office, the credit shops Bob Holman told me about, and a few greasy spoon cafes. Straddling the shopping centre on the second floor is the Easterhouse Jobcentre and the Citizens Advice Bureau. Ironic, I think, to see these two offices sit almost opposite each other, as if they were two different sides in gang warfare. One office to create the wreckage; the other to pick up the pieces.

Outside the Jobcentre I meet Elizabeth, 48. When I first encountered her she looked shaken, and had sweat dripping down her forehead – in the middle of December. And yes, she was smoking. ''I do it more when I get stressed'', she says. Over a coffee we discuss her experience of the jobcentre. ''It's horrible. You're looked on as a sponger... and I've worked all my life'', she says, telling me she's worked in everything from hospital laundry to work as a sewing machinest.

She recently left her job in social care to look after her nephews properly, who have just been taken out of care, saying she wasn't able to match up the demands of her job with her parenting responsibilities. ''I'm on basic benefits, and have to pay bedroom tax and council tax...''. She has also been sanctioned for a month for failing to tell them about a sickness-absence. I ask her if she has consulted the Citizen's Advice Bureau. ''I won't have the bus fare tomorrow, because I had to come here today''. She's trying desperately to get back into work, but says the low wages are a problem. ''They expect you to work for a pittance''. Telling me about the pressure of buying clothes for the kids and other bills, she begins to cry, adding that she is on 50mg of anti-depressants to deal with the pressure. I ask her how she'd cope without the medication. ''I wouldn't be here'', she says.

Elizabeth's story demonstrates two wider truths about what's wrong with welfare reform. The first is that it is fundamentally anti-feminist in nature: a huge amount of caring work is done by women in our society, but goes unrecognised and unpaid. Welfare reform makes that imbalance worse. The second is that it crashes head on with the messy realities of human life and human emotion. In the real world, where relationships break down, families go through the motions, and people find themselves lost and confused, holding down a job can give way. Elizabeth wasn't lazy or lacking in moral fibre – she just desperately wanted to be there for her nephews, who she loves.

Helping the likes of Elizabeth less than twenty metres away is the Citizens Advice Bureau. ''I frequently have advisors come in to get the hankies or to get a cup of water. Quite often clients are in tears. Quite often advisors are close to tears as well when they come out the room'', says Joan McLure, deputy manager. She says it's not unknown for clients to come in with a bag of unopened envelopes, unable to face it all. She is clear about the real causes – the flawed work capability assessment, sanctions, and even work itself: ''There is a massive problem of in-work poverty, sometimes worse than people solely on benefits''.

Everywhere I go in Easterhouse, I put to people the argument made by commentators on the right, that people here are trapped by something called ''welfarism'', and that they need the stick of sanctions to incentivise employment. ''I think it's outrageous, it's certainly not our experience and it's way off the mark! If you want to incentivise work then make jobs available and ensure everyone is given a living wage'', says Joan. Talking to the manager of the CAB, Loretta Gaffney, it becomes clear that the difference is ideological. Loretta complains about the promotion of a victim-blaming culture. ''Quite frankly... people on a low income know how to budget... One of my concerns is that millions and millions of pounds is being put into financial capability – which is almost a way of saying 'it's your fault, you're not budgeting properly'”.

But over the past few years there have been the stirrings of rebellion in Easterhouse. Meet Liam McLaughlan – a popular, articulate 19-year-old socialist activist who became prominent during the independence referendum and after appearing on the BBC's Question Time. Sitting in a greasy spoon cafe he recalls his public appearances on the flagship BBC show, telling me that comedian Kevin Bridges subsequently got in contact, and with whom he has since played football and developed a small friendship. It was Liam who first stood up at a pro-independence conference to call for Iain Duncan Smith to return to Easterhouse – a call which went down a storm.

Liam has grown up in Easterhouse, and is honest about the fact that the poverty hugely concerns and angers him. ''When you read... that there's foodbanks popping all over the place. Is that what Cameron means by a big society? Charity stepping in to replace the state? I know folk who have been through it. I know folk who have been sanctioned...The amount of psychological pressure that that puts on people, for me is the big thing... It's really really hard to watch.''As Liam talks about 'psychological pressure', I think of Elizabeth, with the sweat dripping down her forehead.

He goes on, saying ''I actually agree with the idea that work is the best way out of poverty.... but the way to get people into employment isn't to force them into accepting under-employment and precarious work with zero trade union rights. [You do it] by creating sustainable, long-term secure jobs with good conditions and pay. That's the difference between the left and the right''. As a 19-year-old he knows a lot of people doing apprenticeships. ''I actually think they're a really good thing, but the level of pay is disgustingly low... People are so grateful to get something, because they know, especially now, that the welfare system is so demonizing... so frowned on now. So any job they get, they jump on it.''

Liam's comments tap into what is arguably the real agenda behind welfare reform. Perhaps these are not unintended consequences after all, but purposefully designed to undermine the bargaining power of labour against capital. A threadbare welfare state means a labour force lacking in confidence to challenge exploitative pay and conditions. As Prof Edward Royce puts it in his book, Poverty and Power, ''In this manner, welfare reform, by increasing the supply of cheap labour and reducing workers' already limited bargaining power, hurts the economic prospects of the working poor''. In other words, Easterhouse is a battlefield of a class war. And like all wars, it goes under the guise of paternalistic intervention.

II – Eastern Promise

A six-foot-tall bronze statue is standing at the side of a shopping mall atrium, next to a Chinese restaurant and a MegaSports shop. It is a statue of a blacksmith at his anvil, with a small dog by his side. Here at the Forge Shopping Centre in Glasgow's east end stands their tribute to the Forge's industrial past. Beneath the ground where the shopping centre now sits was one of the beacons of Glasgow's economic heritage: the great Forge Steelworks. It is not merely a symbol of the Forge's economic history, but of Glasgow's economic history, signifying the city's metamorphosis from a gritty city that produced, to a trendy metropolis which consumes, making a transition from industrial capitalism to consumer capitalism.

It is clear from everyone I interviewed that it is impossible to understand modern poverty in Easterhouse without setting it within the context of Glasgow's economic history and de-industrialization. ''There are no major employers left in the area. Glasgow City Council would be one of the biggest employers. There are no big employers, like heavy industry... that's part of the problem'', Rosemary Dixon explained. Places like the Templeton carpet factory have become bars and restaurants. The shipping cranes have long given way to TV studios. The Wells cigarette factories have moved elsewhere.

It would be difficult to find anyone who embodies the story of Easterhouse more than Cathy McCormack. Cathy is physically slight, but seems to have the spiritual resilience of steel. Over tea and biscuits in her kitchen, she tells me that Easterhouse was built as an overspill ''township'' to accommodate the people living in the overcrowded slums of the Gorbals. Cathy was conceived in the Gorbals but born in Easterhouse, so is a child of Easterhouse in the purest sense. At the time, it seemed like the promised land. ''Families like ours were promised a paradise compared with the houses in the Gorbals'', she writes in her remarkable book, The Wee Yellow Butterfly.

The problem was that Easterhouse was thrown up in haste. ''When they built Easterhouse they never built any infrastructure... there was nae school, nae chapels, nae nothing, wasn't any shops''. The housing stock was also extremely poor. ''My ma called them pneumonia houses''. As a result, she developed bronchitis when she was around two. On employment, she says her dad worked at the Albion Motor car factory, but it has long since closed down. When she was growing up, she says ''There was only one family I knew who weren't working. Gone from one extreme to the other. At that time there was plenty of work for everyone''.

As an adult with kids of her own, she struggled enormously with the damp, cold housing. ''When I was suffering from depression I asked my doctor if he could give me a prescription for a warm, dry home but all he could offer me was anti-depressants'', she writes. ''The children were getting thrush on their tongues''. She had had enough, and decided to do something about it – and threw herself into the Easthall Residents' Association. Initially, they were met with bureaucratic and political intransigence. ''When you've got officials coming round and saying... you're boiling too many kettles, breathing too deeply, you start to question your own sanity''.

But after a few years of demonstrating, community conferences, press releases and letter writing, they were eventually listened to. A huge, medical study was carried out into the damp housing. ''It was incited by the tenant's group'', Cathy writes. ''After that, no local authority could deny there was a direct causal link between cold, damp houses and ill-health. It created a precedent.'' Cathy developed a talent for embarrassing power. No wonder she writes that ''I wasn't liked by politicians''.

Through her connections and interest in public health, Cathy has had opportunities to travel abroad. One of her first trips was to Nicaragua. In her book, she talks of how ''structural adjustment programmes'' had been imposed on countries like Nicaragua through conditions on loans, resulting in health privatization. ''I will never forget the kids with swollen bellies that were full of worms that only a penny would cure''. Through a coalition of NGOs, she even travelled to the UN earth summit in 1994 to discuss the housing issue. In her book, there is a picture of her in front of the UN building in New York City, bearing her handbag.

Cathy has come to call this economic onslaught the ''war without bullets''. ''First of all I was made to go on the giro, then all the messages we were getting on TV were nothing to do with reality, then all the divide and conquer stuff. And I thought, do you know something? There's a war going on here. It's social, economic, psychological war.... Some of the language that was getting used, and I thought – safe disposal... What I call the war without bullets''.

But while poverty has continued to worsen, on two major fronts – housing and gangs – significant progress has been made over the past fifteen years. Rosemary Dixon tells me this place is ''unrecognizable'' from how it used to be, thanks to money poured into housing regeneration. And on gangs, there has been a transformation from the No Mean City reputation. ''They targeted a lot of the root causes of it'', Liam McLaughlan says. ''They built lots of youth groups. There was something called Operation Phoenix, they did lots of inter-community events. They took people from different areas on weekend residential trips, supervised by police and community workers. You had inter-scheme football weeks... Break down barriers.''

It is for these reasons that it should be stated emphatically Easterhouse is not the ''hellhole'' that some journalists have described it as. The slights and smears about Easterhouse get under Liam's skin. ''What annoys me is when people say 'oh it must be rough up there'. When you're applying for jobs, you think – should I put down Easterhouse? I shouldn't have to do that. There's people who are really successful in Easterhouse. It's a traditional working class community where you've got a real mix of circumstances. By and large people don't have much money here... but there's a lot of community activism that other places don't have''.

But while some things have improved measurably in Glasgow over the past decade or so, medical researchers have recently noticed what has become a fabled mystery in social epidemiology: the ''Glasgow Effect''. Once you factor in for levels of deprivation and other indices of poverty, Glasgow still has a lower life expectancy and higher levels of chronic illness than would be expected.

Meeting with Sir Harry Burns, Professor of Global Public Health at Strathclyde University, he argues economic history still plays a major role. He makes it clear that he detests the term Glasgow Effect. ''[The term] gives people a sense of fatalism... My argument is that Glasgow got austerity forty years before anyone else... What's happened in Glasgow is what will happen in Greece and other countries experiencing significant austerity.''

For him, not just de-industrialization but the way it was dealt with are causal factors. ''When people have lived in fairly cohesive communities, and have jobs that gave them a sense of purpose and meaning in life. When both of those were removed... that seemed to be the beginning of the problems''. Sir Harry cites research from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, exploring the impact of deindustrialization elsewhere in Europe, from the Saxony coalfields to Flanders in Belgium. ''They all experienced this, but yet they preserved more health... and the big difference was the type of social protection. In the Ruhr, when the steelworks closed down, the German government expanded car factories''.

Sir Harry explains that he's not that political, he is a scientist, and his positions are determined by the data. But he is forthcoming with his views on the sanctioning regime. He says he feels ''somewhere on the spectrum between being heartbroken and seething angry. You feel both at the same time....''. On sanctions, he says it echoes the writing of Joseph Townsend, 18th century vicar, and his Dissertation on the Poor Laws. ''It is only hunger which will goad the poor to labour'', Townsend wrote.

Though not being much of a politician, Sir Harry recalls with admiration the late Jimmy Reid – who was rector of Glasgow University while Sir Harry studied medicine there in the early 1970s. Burns was in the hall as Reid made his famous speech – Alienation – which went down such a storm it was reprinted in The New York Times a couple of months later. ''It's such a beautifully crafted thing... Right on the nail. He understood what was happening in society at that time. He spotted it before anyone else. It was a no brainer you elect him Rector after his performance with the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.''

One can't escape noticing that Sir Harry's views echo those of Jimmy Reid. ''The market fundamentalist approach is a total con. If you look at what Adam Smith wrote... This notion of human solidarity was something Smith understood.'' Sir Harry talks of the need for ''inclusive growth. Invest in the economy and invest in the capacity of young people... to innovate and contribute, and grow the economy as a result of that. Make sure the benefits of that growth level up and don't go to the 1%...At the moment people who have capital can amplify that capital.'' As he says this, one can't help but recall the words from Alienation, which Reid defined as the ''cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control''. Sentiments even more true today than they were then.

III – Rise and Fall

Easterhouse voted Yes in the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014. While a nation held its breath and stood on the precipice of history, Liam was at the count, looking closely at the boxes from areas he had been pounding the streets of for months. ''Easterhouse voted Yes by a margin of three or four thousand. It was a confident, easy victory for Yes''.

People are in little doubt why. Sir Harry points out that life expectancy correlated strongly with the proportion of Yes votes – with areas with low life expectancy voting Yes in higher numbers, such as in Glasgow and Dundee. ''That's hope over fear. Life expectancy is a proxy for social dislocation. People who felt dislocated and alienated voted for a change, as opposed to those who were happy with the status quo. People wanted to be more in control of their lives''.

It is arguable that it was in Easterhouse where the referendum went bang. Together with the Radical Independence Campaign, Liam helped to co-ordinate the first of many ''mass canvasses'' which triggered the whirlwind of grassroots activity from spring through the summer of 2014. Radical Independence (or RIC, for short), was set up as an umbrella group to make the left-wing case for independence. ''It's time to build a Scotland for the millions, not for the millionaires'', was one of its slogans. ''It's time the housing schemes of Scotland, not the playing fields of Eton, decided this country's future'', was another.

Full disclosure, the author of this article was part of that campaign. Over the course of the referendum, under the banner of Yes flowed an unprecedented tidal wave of democratic activity: the hosting of conferences, comedy nights, coffee mornings and so on, all from a multifaceted array of groups such as National Collective, Women for Independence, Common Weal, Business for Scotland, Green Yes. It was not a campaign – it was a movement. Even the centre-right unionist Alex Massie called it a ''vigorous political carnival''. Who could choose the staid duopoly of Westminster over the promise of this vibrant, twenty-first century democracy?

For Liam, it was about ''raised expectations''. Elaborating, he says, ''The idea that we are mad nationalists doesn't stack up. The immediate question is not about national identity. It wasn't about 'I'm British. I'm Scottish'.... We shifted the independence debate to class, equality, trade union rights, minimum wage – really transforming the idea and pushing the idea that another Scotland was possible. People would ask what is independence going to do for me? We'd say well for a start we'd never have another Tory government''.

While it provoked a surge in democratic engagement, Liam admits to finding activism hard at times. ''You're trying to juggle activism – which is all unpaid – with trying to keep yourself afloat, while also trying to learn, dealing with family life, juggling all that can be quite difficult. I think that's what keeps a lot of working class folk out of politics.... I saw that Jeremy Corbyn will support working class candidates with grants, that's a great idea''.

The aftermath of the referendum has seen the dramatic fall of the Labour party's support in Scotland. Liam says ''The Labour party was on the wrong side of history.'' Cathy McCormack says she was furious with Labour's echoing of Tory rhetoric. ''I used to remember my ma saying 'When you grow up you must vote for the Labour party because they represent the working person.'... I was shocked at the Labour politicians using the language of the Tory government... The steam used to come out my ears listening to them... No wonder they were wiped out of Scotland. People waking up and realising they are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem.... It was Bill Clinton who was the father of these welfare reforms... And who followed after him? Tony Blair''. 

Looking up the parliamentary record of Margaret Curran, Easterhouse's previous Labour MP, it almost seems like she has been given a bad press. Reading her contributions in the House of Commons, she has an impressive record of tackling Tory MPs on everything from zero-hours contracts to foodbanks. Does she really deserve to be labelled as a ''Red Tory'', I ask Liam. ''She has done a lot for the east end. There's no two ways about that... She doesn't deserve the abuse she gets on social media.''

The people of Easterhouse – along with the majority of Scotland – have since elected SNP representatives in what commentators have called a 'political earthquake'. Glasgow East is now represented by former Women for Independence campaigner, Natalie McGarry. During the referendum, McGarry made much of the impact of austerity and welfare reform on women. Since becoming an MP, she has championed the cause of disabled people and fought the cuts to the ESA (the payment given to disabled people for basic living costs). The bedroom tax has de facto been abolished in Scotland under the SNP. Joan McLure from Citizen's Advice told me: ''The Scottish government have issued funding to local councils who have been issuing... Housing Payments to all claimants who are experiencing a shortfall.'' (At the time of writing, Natalie McGarry is currently under investigation for the unexplained loss of £30,000 of Women for Indy finances).

Liam, though, has moved on to a new electoral formation in Scotland. It will be called RISE – Respect, Independence, Socialism, and Environmentalism. Branding itself as ''Scotland's Left Alliance'', it seeks to follow in the footsteps of the Spanish Podemos and Greek Syriza, and put forth an anti-austerity, pro-independence electoral challenge. One of its founding members, Cat Boyd, wrote in Scottish newspaper The National: ''Let’s be honest – the SNP are going to win the [2016] election. The real choice facing our movement is, what sort of diversity do we want? We could have the diversity of a monolithic SNP bloc against a big unionist bloc. Or we could have a diverse, evolving coalition of Yes parties that seeks to win over the remaining unionist forces to independence.''

But in the meantime, it looks like the misery of welfare reform is set to continue. Finishing up my interview with Rosemary Dixon, I asked her what has shocked her most. ''What's shocking is that given the human stories that people are aware of, that the reforms seem to trundle on regardless.... they seem to be trundling on... like an unstoppable tank'', she says to me, as the rain patters against the window pane – using a metaphor of war.

* * *

Back in Cathy McCormack's kitchen, she recalls more about her time in Nicaragua. ''People in Nicaragua believe that only where there are a plague of butterflies, peace will come''. She says with sadness that she never sees butterflies in Easterhouse now. ''I've hardly seen a butterfly, and this place used to be full of butterflies... and I find that scary''. Will peace ever come to Easterhouse?

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