Election 2022: Fuel poverty takes centre stage for Paisley campaigner

Politics has always been deeply personal for Sandra Webster. A single mother-of-three who cares for two autistic sons, one with chronic renal failure and another with cerebral palsy, she cut her teeth in the long-running community-led campaign to save the children’s ward at the Royal Alexandria Hospital in Paisley. Just before the campaign started in earnest, she joined the Scottish Socialist Party and welcomed the support of its local activists. “We won a great victory – a bit of time,” she says. The closure of the ward was delayed, but eventually went ahead in 2018. What did she learn? “Public speaking, persuading people – but also knowing your enemies.”

Before moving to Paisley in her 20s, Webster lived in Dundee. She grew up in 1970s Dryburgh “in poverty”, despite both of her parents working. “My mum worked two jobs – she worked as a lollipop lady and she worked at the Timex,” she recalls. “I hated when I was going to school on the bus and she was there, and would come over! And my dad worked as a carpenter. There were just three of us and we still couldn’t afford things.” As a teenager, she joined the Labour Party and later travelled to Nicaragua with Dundee Trades Union Council to pick bananas as the left rallied in solidarity with the Sandinistas. Not long afterwards, she ended up in Paisley.

Though immersed in the labour and trade union movement from a young age – she grew up living next to Dundee’s Labour MP Ernie Ross, and her mother’s workplace was the site of intense industrial struggle from the early 1980s onwards – Webster increasingly found herself at odds with the Labour Party. In the early 2000s, when her daughter was four years old, she opposed local Labour councillors’ bid to introduce nursery fees for the first time. “They were bullies, they were awful,” she remembers. Eventually, as the independence referendum began to loom on the horizon, Webster joined the ranks of the SSP’s steadfast Renfrewshire branch and has been there ever since.

“I’m quite proud to have a council house in Glenburn,” she says. “Most of the houses here have been bought. I’ve got a beautiful view of the Gleniffer Braes and walking there really helps my mental health.” Like many of her neighbours, Webster has struggled with the rising cost of gas and electricity, which the SSP has put at the forefront of its local election campaign. “My gas went up from £25 to £75 a week,” she says. “People can theorise about this, but I actually live it and know what it’s like … all I can use is an electric heater and I worry about that bill when it comes in. I can’t afford £75 a week.”

Webster is also anxious about the impact of the current economic pressures on council services, having found local autism services for her sons already thinly stretched. “It’s really worrying, and it’ll again be women and children who are mostly affected by this,” she points out.

Though the SSP is small – running just eight candidates across Scotland – Webster is upbeat about the local campaign. “Even though I will get a terrible vote, this is just the beginning,” she promises. “We’ve got a really good team, a lot of young people as well. I’m hoping that we can do things again.” Beyond electoral politics and SSP campaigns, she has been helping people in the community with welfare issues including Personal Independence Payment (PIP) applications and intends to continue. “We’re on the right side of the fence.”

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