Dundee fights back

by Marion Spöring

Dundee is Scotland’s fourth largest city with a long history of technological innovation and industry, not just ‘Jam, Jute and Journalism’, but whaling, trading, jute processing, fruit farming, Timex, Michelin, the design and production of Comics, newspapers and computer games.  A city with a proud tradition of education with two internationally renowned universities, research Centres, and a thriving art and design scene with museums, galleries, theatres and cinemas. Dundee is a UNESCO City of Design and location of the V&A Design Museum in a landmark building on the river Tay, opened in 2018.


But there is another side to the ‘City of Discovery’, which is camouflaged by the promotion of, latterly, the V&A and the waterfront development.

A city which has:

  • the highest unemployment rate in Scotland in 2018 of 6.5%
  • 4% of children living in poverty (after housing costs, 2017) or 18% before housing costs
  • one of the biggest foodbanks in Scotland, open 5 days a week
  • the highest rate of drug related deaths in Europe per population.
  • high rates of homelessness
  • life expectancy is lower than in Scotland as a whole
  • 37% of households living in fuel poverty, the highest level across all Scottish cities
  • areas of high social deprivation – 28.6% of the population live in households in areas classed as the 15% most socially deprived in Scotland.
  • over 27% of pupils living in the most deprived areas, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), more than double the Scottish average
  • is one of the 9 ‘Challenge Authorities’ in Scotland, part of the Scottish government’s Attainment Challenge to ‘narrow the poverty-related attainment gap’.
  • and whose new V&A Dundee museum was built by the construction company BAM, which was involved in blacklisting of construction workers.

In addition to this already grim picture, a number of job losses have been announced which reduce the availability of jobs in the industrial sector even further: the closure of the Michelin factory by 2021 with a loss of 800 jobs, the closure of McGills construction company, a reduction in NHS Tayside employees by 1200, which equals 10% of the total workforce and the cuts imposed by SNP led Dundee City Council reducing further jobs in schools and other public services.

The SNP Dundee City Council majority councillors voted through cuts in provision of primary school teachers, support workers in schools and in school budgets. The price for school meals has also increased and, in addition, parents now have to pay £2 a day for the Breakfast Club. The Council Tax was increased by 3%, hitting all households, indiscriminately of income and thus affecting the poorest disproportionately. The budget for voluntary organisations, providing essential services, such as Barnardos and others was cut by 5%, at the same time Council workers’ terms and conditions are being attacked. Cultural providers in Dundee, other than the V&A, are suffering cut-backs, among them the Dundee REP and Scottish Dance Theatre, renowned for their community outreach work, the DCA (Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre), the Dundee Science Centre and the Dundee Heritage Trust.


There are, however, also positive signs of fightback by the trade unions, such as the social care workers who challenged an attempt to introduce split shifts which means a reduction in working hours and a loss on average of £4500 a year for a workforce of mainly women care workers. Because of strong union representation, management were sent back to come up with alternative proposals, but instead it threatened privatisation of services. This resulted in unions balloting for industrial action with an 80% turnout and more than 80% in favour of action. Consequently, the care workers won this dispute.

Unite and Unison have balloted Dundee City Council and Dundee Leisure and Culture workers in April because of proposals described by unions as a toolkit for job losses and cuts to pay and working conditions. Industrial action has now been agreed overwhelmingly with support of between 82% and 92% of the membership. The Council has voted to remove the commitment against compulsory redundancies, reduced pay protection for workers moving to lower grade jobs and changed the conditions for flexible retirement, all pushed through with the votes of the SNP councillors and the (independent) Lord Provost in February.

The promised influx of jobs because of increased tourism to Dundee has not been evident. In any case, most jobs in the service industry (hotels and restaurants) are low paid and part-time and therefore not providing a solid basis for family income.

The Scottish government has released additional funding for Dundee to close the poverty related attainment gap in education, however, there has been only a slow improvement (1% since 2011-12). The allocated funding will run out in 2021 and secondary pupil attainment remains the lowest of all 32 Scottish Local Authorities.

Furthermore, the Council is proposing to remove Principal Teachers and to replace them with Curriculum Area leaders, a move strongly opposed by the EIS (Educational Institute of Scotland) representing secondary school teachers.

Dundee is part of the Tay Cities deal, involving Dundee, Angus, Fife and Perth and Kinross councils which promises to develop the economy of these areas between 2019-2029. In fact, it turns out that the deal delivered falls short of the money and investment promised and that, for example, there is no provision to counteract the severe job losses in Dundee. In response to this, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard at the STUC in Dundee earlier this year called for devolution of employment law powers to the Scottish government in order to protect workers‘ rights and to create a new cabinet post responsible for labour.


The last Council By-election on 2nd May was in the North East ward of the City which is the third safest SNP Council ward in the country. It showed an increase of 11% in the Labour vote, following strong campaigning on local issues. Unfortunately, this was not enough to overturn an SNP majority in the city which voted overwhelmingly for Independence in the referendum in 2016. In fact, the SNP now gained the majority on the City Council. But this has to be seen against the backdrop of the Labour vote increasing in areas most hit by Council austerity policies and the SNP winning overall, but losing in poorer areas. The Tory vote, alongside the Greens and others, was comparatively small and the Lib Dems did not even contest the seat. In order to increase the Labour vote we need to learn the lessons of working together with the community on local campaigns and labour activists with trade union experience to lead this. Issues highlighted in the by-election campaign were: improvement of community based public services, better bus services, against the closure of the only GP practice in the ward and the rebuilding of the community pavilion in Mill O Mains as well as fly-tipping, job losses and cuts to public services. This campaigning will need to be continued beyond the election period if Labour is to make gains against the SNP.

Dundee has a longstanding history in the labour movement with strong campaigners, in particular women, fighting for better working and living conditions. The TIMEX dispute in 1993 which ultimately led to the closure of the factory after 47 years in Dundee was an attack on the trade unions, defending low paid, mainly women workers.

Currently, the Labour Party in Scotland has the opportunity to fight back as we have a committed socialist leader in Richard Leonard. However, the fight-back is even harder than in England as the Labour Party had slipped into third place behind the SNP and the Tories in Holyrood. The minority Green party is propping up the SNP government by always voting for nationalist budgets and is therefore jointly responsible for the austerity policies which Holyrood, not Westminster, is imposing on Scotland. Scotland’s new tax raising powers could have prevented severe cuts to Council budgets, but the government shied away from a more radical agenda such as that proposed by Labour in taxing the highest income earners.

The SNPs so-called ‘Growth Plan’ for Independence is in fact a plan imposing further austerity on Scotland. We need to unite to fight towards a socialist Scotland and not be distracted by nationalist and Brexit pre-occupations, with divisive ‘Indyref2’ or the so-called ‘people’s referendum’. The origin of inequality is not a regional or national question, it is class-based.

The two tales of Dundee describe polar narratives of a city, one that of an exciting city being transformed from industrial decline into an era of ‘creative industries’ based on speculative promises, and that of a local population struggling amidst declining services, ruptured communities and poverty.

Dundee’s current situation is one of smoke and mirrors – the nationalist agenda, delivering maybe for a few, but not the many, illustrates the urgent need for change to a socialist government which puts the needs of the people and community first.

The V&A museum in Dundee with the RSS Discovery. Photo by Rosser1954 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Labour candidate for North East ward Jim Malone with supporters