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Glasgow Labour Party

The Sunday Times

Labour's wild west

Labour's internal feud at Glasgow City Council sounds like one of those one-off situation, too embedded in personalities to be untangled. But, however the situations appear to superficially shape-shift, a similar story holds constant across Clydeside. Not only is Labour's dominance absolute throughout the region (the party won all of Glasgow's 10 parliamentary seats last May with majorities averaging 13,000 and made a clean sweep of the dozen in the surrounding conurbation) but everywhere you look you see the same tribal faction fights and parallels in the sleaze allegations.

In the old weaving town of Paisley, the claims of corruption were laid only after a quarrel developed between Tommy Graham MP, a former Rolls-Royce fitter, and the late Gordon McMaster MP, previously a gardener. In Monklands, accusations surfaced after hostilities broke out between councillors in the towns of Airdrie and Coatbridge. And in Govan, the Sarwar "electoral fraud" disaster was born out of a squabble for the party's nomination, when improprieties on all sides were alleged. And while these conflicts have superficial elements of, respectively, old-new Labour, Catholic-Protestant and Asian-white, these features obscure the common denominator: the bitter enmity of rival cliques.

Some people have wondered if there isn't something in the water supply to explain the geographic concentration. But those who have tried to probe below the surface point to wider forces at work. "There is a vacuum at the base of the Labour Party," John Foster, professor of applied social studies at Paisley University, said. "We have not only seen an end to any effective opposition in Scotland, but we've seen a withering away of powerful organisations, such as trade unions, tenants associations and community groups, that were once a check on politicians."

As such sticks of opposition have been broken, moreover, carrots have been on hand to incite personal jealousies for the spoils of political power. With Labour candidates near-certain to win elections, insidious networks have grown up within the party to share the more immediate rewards. In an area where jobs are scarce and skills often redundant, for instance, councillors get £6,000 basic pay (which for some is all they live on), plus £18,000 if they hold a committee chair - which around half of them do at any time. For many, the alternative to holding public office would be retirement or life on the dole.

Not surprisingly, incumbents have sometimes not wanted to expose their positions to challenge. Countless stories go round of party branches where membership lists have been said to be "closed" to new applications, while meetings are regularly inquorate. There have long been an unusually large number of husband-and-wife teams holding council and parliamentary seats. And union affiliations mysteriously rise and fall, corresponding to the various posts up for grabs. Dominant individuals, such as Gould and Lally, are mirrored in bare-knuckles everywhere.

In the face of the potential for naked cronyism, traditional disadvantages, such as lack of education, poor social skills and even low intelligence have not been regarded as critical obstacles to acquiring public office. For all the idealism stretching back to the legendary Hardie, because the party has also offered the chance of advancement, it is has also provoked the Clydeside equivalent to the Blairites' middle class opportunism.

"There's a story that people tell here about someone who wanted to be a candidate, and he was asked to outline his convictions," a former member of the party's Scottish executive joked with me. "He thought they meant his criminal record and asked how far back they wanted him to go."


The people of Clydeside are rightly known for their toughness. Two hundred years of the economy explains it. The workshop of the world was racked by boom and slump to a degree barely known elsewhere. When the order books filled, at the shipyards especially, even those families in the most overcrowded slums would celebrate comparative good fortune. But when business turned down, as in time it always did, their plight was incomparably cruel. The stereotyped view is that this cycle encouraged drinking, but it also bred a resilience in the face of adversity that became part of the region's soul.

The economy which rollercoastered in the Council Chambers' golden days produced strident class-based politics. In the face of appalling deprivation during slumps, the unions achieved an unparalleled bargaining power when the labour market tightened during booms. And though today the great shipyards, steelworks, mills and factories which once dominated Clydeside are long gone (with not even a book of memories in the Sauchiehall Street Waterstones) there are few who doubt that the footprints of heavy industry are left deeply embedded in the landscape.

"There is a continuing inheritance that comes through right from the early 1900s," Ian Donnachie, senior lecturer in history at the Open University and editor of Forward!, a textbook on Scottish Labour politics, said. "It's the tradition of the skilled working class employed in large enterprises, and this is what has really driven the socialist movement forward in this country."

Heavy industry and highly-regimented, factory-based jobs were the foundations of both trade unionism and socialism. But just as they were more powerfully forged in this part of Britain than anywhere else, so a chink in the armour of the Labour programme was found here before anywhere else needed to look. One reason for sustained capital investment on Clydeside was that, for all the formidable organisation of the workforce, it remained timelessly divided against itself. Feuds expressed in terms of religion, in particular, but also of nationality, shades of social class, Scottish regional origin, trade sector and level of skill, provided what many have noted as a fatal brittleness in the region's hard facade. For all its reputation as the foundry of the Left, the history of "Red Clyde" militancy included any number of self-inflicted wounds.

As the region today is reborn from a quarter century of industrial collapse and restructuring, some think that the new Labour leadership in London is emulating the strategy of the old bosses. They argue, in short, that (with varying motivations) Blair, Donald Dewar and Gordon Brown, the powerful chancellor and Scot, want to play the game of divide and rule. "New Labour?" Alex Mosson, Lally's deputy and a former shipyard worker, said in a newspaper interview last year, before being banned by party officials from any further comment. "There is nothing new about new Labour. It is only new capitalism dressed up."

Mosson's argument is familiar, but there is some evidence that it's not a Clyde's width far from relevant. Until party managers were jolted by Sarwar's appearance in court on December 17 to deny charges of electoral fraud, they appeared to do nothing to discourage the public sense that something was wrong in their ranks. If anything, officials appeared to stoke more rancour in the heartland of their Scottish support. Internal information has been leaked to the press; decisions of the national executive revealed before the executive has even sat down; and rumour-spawning investigations have been left to drag on until a full year has now elapsed.

It also seems clear that Blair has predetermined that the suspended councillors should be axed. Although the party's constitutional committee doesn't even meet to consider the allegations until this Friday, it was leaked three weeks ago that Lally - a party member for 47 years - is to be expelled for life, Mosson is to be suspended for five years and three others are to be suspended for three years. Gould is "expected" to be allowed to remain, although his case is said to be viewed "seriously".

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