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George Square Go

DESPITE the rain sliding down its cold grey walls of late, there's a fever raging inside Glasgow's City Chambers at the moment, as councillors, candidates and staff obsess about the outcome of the most significant election in a generation.

Alex Salmond hits the campaign trail
Alex Salmond hits the campaign trail

Will Labour hang on? Will the SNP take over? What does it mean for the independence referendum? For Glasgow? Alex Salmond? Johann Lamont? For me?

The only things the parties agree on is that it will be exceptionally close, and that turnout, which could drop as low as 25%, will be critical.

This is not like previous local elections. Labour, in power here since the 1970s, are facing their first genuine threat from the Nationalists. At the last local election, in 2007, the SNP underestimated their support and fielded too few candidates to put Labour on the ropes.

But this time, after taking the most votes in the city at the Holyrood election, the SNP are out in force, running 43 candidates in 21 wards. They need 40 winners for an absolute majority.

Labour, meanwhile, have been going backwards. Since the start of this year, they have lost their majority in the Chambers through an ugly bout of infighting.

A botched attempt to reinvigorate its candidate list saw almost half the 47 sitting councillors told they were unfit to stand for the party. The result was an almighty split.

One deselected councillor moved to the SNP, one became an independent, but six went the whole hog and formed a party, Glasgow First, which is opposing Labour across the city.

Friends and family of the deselected Labour councillors have also stopped campaigning for the party, badly affecting manpower.

As a result, Labour hopes are riding on rookie candidates who lack street-fighting savvy and decent local organisation to back them up.

Indeed, so parlous is Labour's state that senior figures admit that council leader Gordon Matheson may not get re-elected, as the Greens and SNP could well edge him out of his Anderston/City ward.

Even if he does win, Matheson's own group is waiting to knife him and install a new Labour leader, probably Paul Rooney or Stephen Curran.

Small wonder the atmosphere in George Square has been likened to the last days of Rome.

Although Glasgow is only one council among 32, its population and its past allegiances mean its importance to this election and beyond is huge.

Given the similar pledges in the Labour and SNP manifestos – council tax freeze, more jobs, better childcare, school and road improvements – there's no great ideological debate here.

Instead, this is about the wider political weather and Scotland's constitutional future.

If Labour lose on their "home turf", it will confirm a long-term pattern of decline and expose their recent internal reforms as a sham.

It will also set the tone for the two year run-up to the independence referendum, offering a huge boost to SNP prospects and morale.

But if Labour hold on, despite all their problems, it will be excruciating for the SNP, who have thrown the kitchen sink at Glasgow knowing it could be a springboard to independence.

Failure to win after so much effort will raise doubts about their chances in 2014 and, given his difficulty over Rupert Murdoch, lead to questions about Alex Salmond's shelf life.

Despite the voting system making predictions tricky, the broad expectation is for Labour and the SNP to get between 35 and 40 councillors, squeezing the other parties to the brink of extinction.

The Greens, who currently have five councillors, would do well to return two, while the LibDems, who have six, could easily be wiped out.

Doing the maths for his party, but grimacing heroically, is Alex Dingwall, who entered the Chambers in 2007 as an SNP councillor, and then, in what must be one of the world's worst career moves, swapped Salmond's party for that of Nick Clegg.

"The Glasgow campaign is being presented as a titanic struggle between Labour and the SNP, but it's not at all," he insists bravely.

"This is about a city with a £2 billion budget where councillors run services like education and social work. Whatever people think about the Coalition, they know LibDem councillors work hard."

Surprisingly, it's the Tories, virtually a lost tribe in Glasgow, who are the most chipper.

With only one councillor among 79, they stand to make the biggest gains relative to their size.

In a hung council, they could even end up with some power for the first time since the 1970s.

Wolfing a panini in a cafe in his Pollokshields ward, Councillor David Meikle happily admits there won't be a Tory revolution any time soon.

But by focusing on three target wards – his own, Newlands/Auldburn and Partick West – there could be intriguing possibilities.

"The best outcome would be to get two or three elected and for there to be a hung council and we hold the balance of power," he says.

If his dream comes true, Meikle would consider working with either Labour or the SNP, though the Nationalists would be his first port of call given Labour's aggressive way of exercising power in the city.

"I believe Glasgow really needs change. Labour have been in power for 30 years and it's right that another party should be given a chance.

"The SNP would be the party I would be inclined to go to first to see what their plan was."

It's a fascinating admission.

If other parties feel the same, it means the SNP could yet form the administration even if they're not the largest party, because Labour has alienated potential coalition partners.

It shows the gradient of Labour's uphill fight.

Chapping doors in his Garscadden/ Scotstounhill ward, Paul Rooney must wish that all voters were like Alexis Thomson, 71, and Betty Sangster, 78.

"He's a people man," gushes Thomson, who hails Rooney like a long-lost son after he helped with a communal building problem. "He fought for me for over a year."

Rolling her eyes, Betty adds: "As for Alex Salmond, I can't stand the man. A total turn-off. He's so arrogant and pompous. I shudder to think what would happen if it [the council] changes. It's only Labour that's done anything for us."

But, of course, all voters aren't like that.

Rooney, a former procurator fiscal tipped as Glasgow Labour's next leader, knows it will be a tight contest, but he reckons that the SNP borrowed a lot of votes in 2011, and many of those will return to Labour, and the current stink over Salmond and Murdoch can only add to the tide.

He said: "I recognise the SNP did well last year, but I'm also picking up their vote is softening. A lot of voters will come back to Labour at this election. I anticipate we will be the biggest party.

"This election is not about independence. In this city, it's about jobs, anti-social behaviour, the condition of the roads, and Labour councillors have a track record of delivering. This city has been transformed and voters know that."

AFEW streets away, the SNP's Graeme Hendry, who like Rooney is seen as his group's next leader, is admiring the colourful walls of a primary school after attending a parent council meeting.

Next to him a poster reminds pupils of "The Golden Rules" in both class and life: Be honest, listen to people, work hard, be kind and helpful.

Sound advice, especially for politicians. But according to Hendry, Labour has ignored it for years.

He says that instead of offering decent treatment to all, the council, particularly through its network of community groups, social enterprises and other local quangos, has become an unhealthy club, excluding those without a Labour contact while steering grants and sinecures to a favoured few.

"People are looking for a fresh start," he says. "They're concerned about the way the council has been run. They want to see an era of openness and transparency. If we win this election we can turn the culture around for future generations."

However he plays down the chance of an outright SNP victory, and lays the ground for a coalition instead.

"We understand the importance of collegiality and working together better than the Labour Party.

"We've had our difference with the opposition parties but we're prepared to listen to them. We have not bullied them. We have not picked on them. We're not scared of working with them."

Dr Nina Baker, the Green councillor for Anderson/City, whose re-election could well mean defeat for Matheson, says a coalition is what the city needs.

She thinks the result will be so tight both Labour and the SNP could be in a position to assemble a coalition – if they can find willing partners.

"I think that would be a good thing. The days of guys – and it is guys – shouting across the council chamber at each other are over. Working together as grown ups is the way forward."

Glasgow's testosterone-stewed political culture is certainly overdue a cold bath.

But don't expect a change to start next week.

With so much at stake for Labour and the SNP, the result will be used as a battlecry by whoever wins all the way to 2014.

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