FROM the kitchen window at the Clyde, Avon and Nethan foodbank in Larkhall you can just see the former primary school Elma attended as a child in this once industrial South Lanarkshire town. Now in her 70s, she’s seen so many changes.

For over four years she’s been a volunteer here and on this dreich post-election morning is making up food parcels full of essentials – pasta, tins of beans and soup, tea, coffee, cereal and toiletries – for those living at the sharp end in her hometown.

This week there will also be Christmas boxes to put together for families that staff from the surrounding schools have identified as in need of help. “Year-on-year it has increased,” she says of the numbers in need here.

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Back when she was a child, this area – part of the constituency of Lanark and Hamilton East – was known for its industry. Mining, weaving, steelworks and Labour-leaning politics went hand-in-hand. Until 2015 the area had been represented by Jimmy Hood, a National Union of Mineworkers official who took a prominent role in the miners’ strikes, for decades. But though it seemed the area’s loyalty to the union was secure, in 2015 the SNP’s Angela Crawley – who was returned for the third time as an MP last week – swept into office with a 10,000 majority.

Two years later she scraped in by just 266 votes. The constituency became the tightest three-way marginal in the country with Conservatives, Labour and the SNP all jockeying for the seat ahead of the polling stations opening last Thursday.

I had one woman in here with three young children ... crying because her money had been stopped before she even got a wage

This time Crawley was re-elected with a majority of 5187, one of 47 SNP MPs who turned the map yellow. To Elma – who wanted to use her first name only – the changes in political terms are stark. “It was staunch Labour in my youth,” she says. “It was all steelworks and mining. There’s a different population now.”

This is a town with pockets of deprivation and a high street that tells its own story of under-investment. The parts of the population she sees at this Trussell Trust food bank are often referred here due to welfare sanctions. “Universal Credit is a very blunt instrument,” she notes.

“I had one woman in here with three young children. She thought she was doing the right thing by getting a job and she ended up in here crying because her money had been stopped before she even got a wage. That really got to me.”

ALMOST 10 years of austerity policies, introduced by the Conservative-led coalition government with the LibDems back in 2010, have hit Scottish towns like this hard. The UK Government insists austerity is over and has promised an end to a freeze on welfare payments and investment in public services.

Since winning the election – largely due to the support of working-class constituencies in northern England – Boris Johnson has repeatedly talked of One Nation Conservatism and claimed his will be a People’s Government, committed to addressing class divides.

But many who work with the most vulnerable are desperately worried.

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In its Poverty in Scotland 2019 report, charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that poverty was rising “from an already unacceptably high level” to affect one in five Scots. Meanwhile, the Resolution Foundation has claimed that child poverty is at risk of rising to a record 60-year high under a new Conservative government, because its manifesto retains benefit cuts.

Poverty charities are vocal about the consequences if this government fails to follow a radically different path, and concerned that it will not.

“The General Election took place against a background of a rising tide of poverty, with more ​and more people struggling to keep their heads above water,” says director of the Poverty Alliance, Peter Kelly.

The General Election took place against a background of a rising tide of poverty, with more and more people struggling to keep their heads above water

“We need a social security system that unlocks people from poverty. We need a labour market that provides decent and secure work. ​And we need public services that are there for everyone. We simply cannot go on the way we are. The lives and life chances of millions of people across Scotland depend on the new Government charting a different course.”

Still getting her head around her win, Angela Crawley is also concerned. While it may have been a positive result in Scotland for her own party, the UK picture tells a different story. “I take comfort in the fact that the SNP’s message about the need for Scotland to have a strong voice in Westminster has got through,” she told the Sunday National. “But I’m heartbroken for the rest of the UK and for the that this will have on the most vulnerable people. The bulk of my casework is always around social issues – it’s connected with poverty and deprivation and welfare reforms.

The fact that another Tory government has been inflicted on people who did not vote for it is devastating. It’s my job to stand up and fight for them against a government with an appalling record. I hope the knowledge that I will do that is part of the reason for that 5000 majority.”

Ewan Gurr, the Dundee-based anti-poverty campaigner – formerly the network manager of the Trussell Trust – remembers helping to set up the foodbank in Larkhall. The challenges facing communities like this are all too evident, he says.

As an indy-supporting, left-of-centre Brexiteer, he found this election was fraught. “On one hand I welcome the fact that Brexit will be delivered,” he says. “On the other hand I’m never going to get the type of deal that I would want.

“In Scotland the SNP have done everything it can to mitigate against austerity. But it can only do so much. I am very nervous about what the next five years will mean. There is going to be no rollback on Universal Credit, or on the Welfare Reform Act of 2012.”

Larkhall has a really strong community and there are lots of people here who want to make things better for others

Just across the road from the foodbank, Nancy Barr, local resident and chair of the Larkhall Lighthouse, agrees that having a strong voice in Westminster is part of the reason for people switching their allegiances. But she also thinks that the answer lies in helping people fight back for themselves.

She and Terry Paterson, the organisation’s secretary, helped set up this community signposting and support hub with a Christian ethos over two years ago. They got funding to convert the old public toilets and credit union, which had lain empty for years, and now pay a peppercorn rent to the council. Here, the welcome is warm and regulars chat over a tea and coffee in the bright main space, decorated for Christmas.

Both women are keen to stress the positives of what’s happening here – the community events, the growing project, the Gala re-instated by local women recently, who also got a Christmas market going.

“Larkhall has a really strong community and there are lots of people here who want to make things better for others,” says Barr. “We have a really bad reputation for sectarianism and that’s not who we are. Folk want to make things different – they have a heart for it.”

But they are also up against it. “There are lots of people who are struggling,” she says. The long years of austerity have stripped the heart out of statutory services, leaving a gap which they are trying to help fill. “We see people in here who are traumatised from things that have happened to them in their childhood,” she explains. “And the cushion, that helping hand to move on to something else, is just not there anymore.

“In this tiny project we feel we can help them – we can listen, we can signpost them. If people are in dire straits we can connect them with the food bank.” There have been occasions when they have made use of their church networks to phone around until they found someone a bed for the night.

They too have experienced the political response. “My dad was a miner and so he always voted Labour,” says Barr. “I remember when Winnie Ewing was standing and I was just leaving school and my father was furious when I said: ‘I might have to vote SNP, this sounds new and exciting’. He was horrified. That was the mindset – Labour were for the working class. But now people are saying: ‘That doesn’t fit with our needs anymore.’”

So locals want to have a greater say in their own destiny? “Absolutely,” says Paterson. But she sees this happening at a local level too. Recently the Lighthouse did a survey about how people wanted to regenerate their town and got over 1200 responses. It shows people want to have a say, says Paterson, and that they have lots to offer as long as someone is willing to listen.

This government has presided over many years of austerity

REV Richard Frazer, convener of the Kirk’s Church and Society Council agrees the need to really listen to disenfranchised communities is key. He claims this General Election has been “one of the most challenging of modern times” with the issue of Brexit dividing the country. In January he warned leaving the EU without a deal would be “reckless”.

“This Government has presided over many years of austerity,” he says. “It is now talking about change. But what we think is needed is for it to listen to the people living in poverty, who are using food banks, who are struggling with the issue of in-work poverty. Our plea would be to speak to the people in these communities and work towards a fairer and more just society. The government is talking about a one-nation society. We would ask that they do not forget the people left behind repeatedly.”

The need for society to come together is great, he believes, and will need sustained effort. “We believe that the polarisation of the country over the last few years will not be readily healed and many people throughout the UK will feel that their voice has not been heard,” he adds.

“The patterns of voting we have seen across the country reflect the reality that many people feel let down and frustrated that a country of such wealth as ours still has poverty and many struggle to make ends meet.

“With the country so closely split, and the people of Scotland having voted so very differently, much remains unresolved. It will require considerable grace, generosity and humility on the part of the government to bring the nation together.”

Back at the Lighthouse, Barr and Paterson acknowledge the difficulties that lie ahead. But they claim change happens when people decide to accept what they can’t change but agree to work together regardless, to change what they can. “There has to be a coming together of people that can make the changes, who can look at what is good for everyone,” says Paterson.

Barr nods. “I suppose I’m a pragmatist,” she says. “We went and we voted, we’ve done all we could. And now we have to deal with what’s happened, however challenging.” What else can they do?