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Glasgow Labour Party

The Sunday Times

Labour's wild west

It is high noon for old Labour. Tony Blair has sent a posse to drive out its die-hard socialists, and this week the fate of leading party members is to be decided. But is new Labour just looking for a lynching?

INVESTIGATION by BRIAN DEER.

 

The Sunday Times Magazine, January 25 1998.

A year ago next week, Bob Gould, who was then leader of the Glasgow City Council, gathered up his agenda and minutes, kicked back his chair and stormed out of a heated meeting of the local authority's Labour group. He was 61 years old, with a shock of white hair. His normal manner was subdued and easygoing. He possessed a style polished over 26 years as a Scottish political fixer. But as he slammed the door of the committee room behind him, he momentarily lost his cool. "I resign," he blazed to friends in hot pursuit. "I'm not taking any more of this crap."

It was the kind of emotional flare-up you might easily witness in any town hall in Britain. Gould's ruling caucus of Labour councillors had been debating an £80m package of spending cuts, and his own proposals had just been thrown out by 64 votes to 3. After retiring to his office, on the second floor of Glasgow's magnificent City Chambers building, he recovered his demeanour and announced to reporters that he hadn't quit after all. And the following day he explained more calmly that he had merely been feeling frustrated. To win his colleagues' support, he added offhandedly, it helped to promise them foreign trips.

Bang, bang. The ricochet resounded, to the delight of opposition parties. In the fraught run-up to the May general election, the casual hint of bribery in the region was a bloodying bullet in Labour's foot. On February 5, under the headline "Give us a trip and we'll vote for you," the Evening Times, Glasgow, led a frenzied media alarm over the party's ethics with a devastating quote from Gould. "Surely someone wouldn't back you simply because you agreed to send them on a trip for a couple of days," he said. "But that's what we're faced with."

On its own, the outrage that followed this assertion might quickly have run its course. The Labour Party has controlled Glasgow almost uninterrupted since 1933, and the city's people have long got used to strange stories about local politicians. Much as boxing was once a route out of poverty in London's East End, in the west of Scotland politics has commonly been a road to a better way of life than mere work. When it later came out, for instance, that the chairman of the parks and recreation committee had travelled to Hong Kong at their expense, and that the housing chairman had spent ten days in Istanbul, nobody was in the least bit fazed.

But Gould's "votes-for-junkets" revelation followed two other Labour scandals on Clydeside, and was about to be joined by two more. By the end of the summer, party managers were dealing with an astonishing accumulation of allegations in and around Glasgow, including religious sectarianism, nepotism, links to drug dealing and organised crime, ballot-rigging, bribing a rival parliamentary candidate, and whispering campaigns that preceded the suicide of the MP for Paisley South. Never in recent history have so many claims of "sleaze" stacked up in one geographic location.

At first sight they seemed like a potential embarrassment to the Labour Party's image as a whole. After John Major's Conservative government left office dogged by allegations of "sleaze", Blair's administration has been struggling to appear as being above the fray of impropriety. But as the months have passed, some observers have wondered whether the scandals that Gould flagged might not be viewed in Downing Street as an opportunity to accomplish other goals. If anywhere could be described as the wild frontier of "old Labour" socialism, it is here towards the western end of Scotland's urbanised central belt. And just as Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, stamped his authority on the party in the 1980s by confronting Militant Tendency socialists in Liverpool, so they say that Blair may feel that a showdown on Clydeside could help his longterm project.

*****

The scandal which set the template for the furore sparked by Gould occurred in Monklands District Council, a now-abolished authority, on Glasgow's eastern fringe. In June 1994, a parliamentary by-election caused by the death of the Labour leader, John Smith, became embroiled in claims that the mostly-Catholic council leaders favoured spending in areas where their religion predominated and shunned those which were largely Protestant. An independent inquiry, one year later, also found that the local authority employed almost 70 relatives of councillors.

Meanwhile, by Glasgow airport, to the city's west, another bomb went off. In November 1995, the party's national executive in London stepped in to block the deselection of Irene Adams, aged 50, the MP for Paisley North, after she had alleged that her local constituency organisation had been infiltrated by drug dealers and gangsters. She claimed that a community body on a housing estate, involving councillors, was a "front" for corruption, and that scores of bogus membership applications had been submitted by her opponents.

Both the Monklands and Paisley rows were simmering unresolved when Gould made his votes-for-trips claim. And then - even as party officials probed the Glasgow leader's allegations - two more scandals burst into the open, involving Clydeside members of parliament. First, the general election poll in the Govan constituency, on the river's south bank, was allegedly rigged with non-existent "ghost electors", with the victorious Labour nominee, cash-and-carry millionaire Mohammed Sarwar, 46, admitting handing £5,000 (which he said was a loan) to a rival Asian candidate. Then in June, after the MP for Paisley South, Gordon McMaster, killed himself in his garage, the neighbouring member, West Renfrewshire's Tommy Graham, 53, was accused of running a "smear campaign" that drove his Commons colleague to his death.

No surprise: Labour's high command has been swift and decisive in response. Under the supervision of Donald Dewar, now Scottish Secretary and expected to become a devolved Scotland's first minister next year, the reaction from London was heavy. In Monklands, the entire ruling group of 15 councillors was suspended and barred for two years from holding party office. In Paisley, constituency bodies were shut down, two councillors linked with the community body suspended and numerous activists had their membership renewals "deferred". Finally, last summer, the parliamentary whip was withdrawn from Sarwar and Graham.

In the run up to the general election on May 1 and the devolution poll on September 11, this take-no-prisoners show of strength from London was at first interpreted as straightforward damage-limitation. With so many bizarre goings-on in the same place at the same time, there was a risk of a public perception emerging that Tony Blair's Labour was no freer from sleaze than John Major's Conservatives were.

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This report is copyright, Brian Deer. No portion of this article on Scottish politics and the Glasgow Labour Party may be copied, retransmitted, reposted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express permission of the author. Responses, information and other feedback are appreciated