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Glasgow Labour Party

The Sunday Times

Labour's wild west

But there were also signs of another agenda - and of a political opportunity for Blair. Clydeside is not only a Labour stronghold, it is also more than anywhere else in Britain the heartland of its traditional philosophy. Rooted in heavy industry and trade unionism, and with the birthplace of the party's first MP, Keir Hardie, just down the road in Lanarkshire, here is the United Kingdom's greatest socialist fortress, more important even than Liverpool or inner London. And just as Neil Kinnock, the former party leader, promoted a tough-guy image with the public through his duel with Militant Tendency in Liverpool during the 1980s, so Blair appears determined to enhance his authority by tackling old Labour in the west of Scotland.

With such ambitious game plans in mind behind the scenes, the votes-for-trips inquiry sparked by Gould's remarks, was upgraded to a wider review. At the City Chambers, a six-month investigation took place during which 37 councillors were grilled by officials, and on September 24 it was announced that at least five city leaders and four backbenchers would be suspended and possibly expelled. Their fate is to be determined at the end of this week by the party's four-person national constitutional committee, set up in 1988 for Kinnock's purposes.

Of these nine, the most high-profile on the Clydeside landscape is Pat Lally, the 71-year-old lord provost of Glasgow - a ceremonial post equivalent to an English lord mayor. Also on the list was his deputy provost, Alex Mosson, plus Gould's deputy leader, Gordon McDairmid, and the head of parks and recreation, James Mutter.

But there was also a suspension that surprised everybody: the apparent whistleblowing leader, Gould himself. On the September morning when disciplinary action was announced to the media, he was telephoned at his office by the party's Scottish head office, warning that in the afternoon the national executive in London would take action against him too. "It was a total shock," said one of his supporters, a councillor, who asked not to be named. "He was trying to sort out the mess at the City Chambers and he found himself out on his ear."

Taken at face value, it seemed a strange reward - and there was another peculiarity in the affair. After briefly examining the votes-for-trips allegations, officials, led by Jack McConnell, the party's Scottish general secretary, and Eileen Murfin, a national officer from London, embarked on a fishing expedition in an apparent bid to solicit more criticisms of the accused. And in a string of Scottish media exclusives, the public were regaled with stories in which councillors accused each other of a bizarre rag-bag of offences, from violence and threatening behaviour, to spreading malicious smears about opponents' sex lives, to non-payment of rent and of failing to operate within "accepted procedures". Gould was charged with poor leadership of the city's Labour group and was forced to stand down from his job.

With so many allegations being bandied around, officials said they were anxious for caution. "If anybody is found guilty of misconduct," McConnell declared, after presenting a report in October to the national executive, "the action will be firm and strong."

But with growing signs of tension throughout the UK between Blairites and traditional socialists in the party, many observers believe that the crackdown on Clydeside is motivated as much by a desire to assert control as by an interest in curbing any abuses. In short, that new Labour has embarked on rough justice, determined to destroy its foes.

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The Glasgow City Chambers building was constructed as a sumptuous citadel of power - power in which the people were not meant to share. It was completed in 1889, at the very peak of the British Empire, when a mighty congregation of capital and labour allowed the city's fathers to boast that they presided over "the industrial workshop of the world". The building was essentially a club for landlords, merchants and proprietors, who for the most part entered politics because it let them rub shoulders with the aristocracy and idle rich. In this, the most spectacular of Britain's municipal headquarters, a culture of remote paternalism was forged as durable as its 10m bricks.

The building commands the east side of George Square and was designed in the style of an Italian palace, with grandiose pinnacles and balustrades. Inside there are marble staircases, mosaic floors and glazed pottery walls and ceilings of such exquisite extravagance that by comparison Westminster is a railway station. There are great glass domes and chandeliers, rich carpets and finely-carved woodwork. The council leader and the lord provost enjoy offices that, fittingly, resemble the sanctuaries of Borgia princes.

The grandest spaces are most often deserted, like an upper class Victorian villa. But every six weeks a sporadic bell-clanging suggests some frenetic activity within. This is a signal that a council session is in progress and that a division is taking place. Red-collared flunkies throw open heavy doors, and members who have wandered off to attend to other matters scurry in to cast their votes. The chief executive rises, surveys a semicircle of mahogany pews (where typically around 80 councillors sit under the enthroned lord provost's gaze) and declares the motion to be "carried by a large majority".

But here is a snag for the people they represent: all the bell-clanging and vote-casting is a farce. Such is Labour's stranglehold on the city that of the 83 members returned in the last elections - 1995 - 77 were from the ruling party. A paltry three were Conservatives, while the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and Militant Labour all struggled to win one each. So, there may be the appearance of some kind of democracy in action, but the sessions are merely rubber-stamping in public what has been decided in private by Labour. The chief executive makes the same large majority declaration whatever the business in hand.

There are, moreover, no real differences of philosophy among members of the ruling group. At last month's meeting, when a nationalist motion was proposed attacking the government's education policies and, particularly, the introduction of tuition fees, the majority mostly gossiped throughout the proceedings, read newspapers or shuffled in their pews. A noncommittal "delete all and insert" amendment was then mechanically carried, squashing the criticisms like a fly on the windscreen with, as ever, "a large majority".

Their Victorian forebears would have been no more laid-back, and not surprisingly, the opposition is miffed. "The Labour local election manifesto indicated that they would have open, democratic government," John Young, leader of the tiny Conservative group told me. "Now, I have been a councillor here for 33 years and this is the least open and the least democratic government that I have ever seen. All of the major decisions take place behind closed doors. If you're talking about school closures, or things like that, no parents, no teachers, no children ever hear what sort of arguments are put up, one way or another."

The council chamber is the dreariest theatre. All the action takes place backstage. As Gould demonstrated when he stormed from the Labour group, an internecine battle rages behind the common philosophy as vicious as in any town hall. Without any need to win arguments with political opponents, the ruling party has split into warring factions, whose clashes dominate council affairs. "Verbal evidence," officials have reported to their national executive, "was consistent in describing an almost total absence of good working relationships within the Labour group and of fierce factionalism which has become accepted as part of the normal situation."

Gould presently leads of one of these fierce factions, which is about two dozen councillors strong. Like most of his colleagues who assemble in the chamber, he flaunts the kind of working class credentials which are still a boon to Scottish politicians. Having grown up in the Springburn neighbourhood of the city, he became a railwayman and then a trade union official. Before joining the city council, rose to lead the now-abolished Strathclyde regional authority, whose drab, functional administrative offices were less than a mile from the sumptuous City Chambers.

The other faction, perhaps half as big again, is led by Lally, the ageing lord provost. He, too, has impressive origins, having grown up in a single room and kitchen in the legendary (and long-demolished) Gorbals slums. He once worked in a drapers, but in 1967 was elected to what was then the Glasgow Corporation. His admirers regard him as the grand old man of West of Scotland politics, and after clearing himself of wrongdoing following a bribes-for-housing scandal in the 1970s, he has earnt himself the nickname "Lazarus".

Gould sees himself as an old-style right-winger, while Lally's supporters call themselves "Tribunites". But what came into the open with the votes-for-trips outburst was not a division rooted in ideology. Both men are traditional tax-and-spend socialists, with no love for prime minister Blair. When the council leader stormed from the group after being defeated over the cuts package, it was not because he, or anyone else of any consequence, suggested they shouldn't go ahead. The point at issue was merely the question of whether the authority's employees should forgo a 2.5% wage rise to avoid redundancy.

Mere matters of politics are the small beer of dispute here. Tribalism, pure and simple, drives conflict. Gould and 17 councillors used to serve on the giant Strathclyde regional authority, once Europe's biggest local government body. Another 37, meanwhile used to sit with Lally as Glasgow district councillors. On April Fools Day 1996, the region and district were fused in a new entity - the Glasgow City Council - and, straightaway, a feud broke out. Cut to its core, Scotland's biggest city's politics is shaped less by uncertainties on the socialist road than by crude personal rivalries and hatred.

*****

Glasgow Labour Party
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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