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Glasgow Labour Party

The Sunday Times

Labour's wild west

But, even with the stoking, the delays and the prejudgment, the basis for the charges of sleaze at the City Chambers have, oddly, shrunk to nothing over the year. Council records show that, despite Gould's outburst, all foreign trips had been properly approved, and that compared with overseas excursions by members of parliament, any "junkets" were hardly excessive. In the ten months before the row, a total of 12 councillors had been on a total of 19 foreign trips to 15 different destinations. Most, however, involved the lord provost, who spent 36 days in the Far East, 15 in North America and seven in Europe, promoting the city in his ceremonial capacity - in other words, doing his job.

The accuser, Gould, meanwhile, had spent 11 days abroad, making his allegations of apparent junketing by other councillors seem wrong, if not downright a reckless. And on October 28, opposition councillors, from all parties - Conservative to Militant - rallied to exonerate the suspended members, proposing a motion that the beleaguered Labour leaders should keep their prized chairmanships of committees.

With the junkets allegation missing its mark, party officials then came up with more intangible charges of misconduct. In a secret internal report leaked from Keir Hardie House, Gould was said to have "failed to offer appropriate leadership to the group" - shock, horror - while his deputy, McDairmid was alleged to have "sought to undermine the group leadership."

Lally meanwhile was accused of having "failed to maintain the standards required of a public representative of the party", but there was no real hint of what that was. The only substantive criticism of the lord provost was contained in a 100-page letter sent to the defendants during Christmas week in which he was said to have authorised the use of too many cars in a trip to the Edinburgh Tattoo. Nineteen councillors, officers and business leaders took four vehicles (including a stretch limo) to champion Glasgow at the rival city's big event, at a cost of £450, including a dinner, drivers' overtime and parking.

There are no allegations of criminality against either man. No investigation has been launched by the Glasgow district auditor. And barely a person in the City Chambers would argue that any misconduct was more than stupidity. But, after a two-day hearing this week, the constitutional committee is expected to issue a statement next month that evidence of misconduct has been proved. "It's no more than a formality," said one senior city council employee. "This is scary stuff."


Whatever the strengths and weakness of the charges, every sign points to the covert execution of Blair's new Labour agenda. For all the squabbling between Gould and Lally, the City Chambers sits not only in the socialist heartlands, but some say is potentially the citadel of power for the most potent town hall movement in Britain. Sources, ranging from the Conservative opposition to council staff, say the concealed issue is not really misconduct in Scotland, but a desire in London to take control.

"Labour's official investigators made their trip north on a quite specific mission," argued Bill Robertson, a local newspaper journalist who has sat through meetings at the Council Chambers for 15 years. "It was to create sufficient casualties to destabilise the ruling clique and demolish the biggest power base of old Labour in Scotland. With Glasgow sorted out, the hearts and minds of party activists elsewhere will quickly fall into line."

It's a cynically bleak scenario, but the apparent weakness of the disciplinary charges again finds parallel on Clydeside. In Monklands, a second inquiry into the religious sectarianism issue reached an inconclusive result. In Paisley, no evidence of criminal activity or infiltration has been found. The MP Graham was quickly cleared of any role in McMaster's suicide. And, just as with the purge of Militant in the 1980s, inquiries have more and more focused on hearsay, rumour and suspected "associations".

Meanwhile, the public spotlight on the issues is encouraged - devastating the accused, guilty or not. Suspension has cost senior councillors their "special responsibility" allowances, which are sometimes their families' only incomes. Glasgow's former deputy leader, McDairmid, has been gone sick from work and has cancelled surgeries because, friends say, he's ill. Joan Graham, the MP's wife, has had a heart attack. And many of the accused say that neighbours now revile them because of how the word "sleaze" sticks.

To date, there has been reluctance to defend the individuals, but this may be starting to change. "As somebody who is identified with old Labour in terms of policy attitudes, I strongly resent efforts to attach indefensible behaviour to long-standing members of the party," said Maria Fyfe, MP for Glasgow, Maryhill, who was one of 47 who voted against the government in last month's row over lone parent benefits. "They should at least get on with their inquiries and form conclusions one way or the other."

Whether more of old Labour - particularly in England - will rally to the councillors' aid now appears to depend on how the constitutional committee fulfils its brief this week. It's unlikely to snub Blair, but there are growing signs that it may provoke a backlash if it strike's unfairly at the party's traditionalists. The defeat last autumn of Peter Mandelson by Ken Livingstone for a place on the national executive (in a postal ballot dominated by new members), as well as the anger over the government's scrapping of free higher education, and the benefits revolt, are all signs that abruptly dumping the party's heritage goes against the membership's grain.

Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, has been encouraged that, so far, the apparent scandals have edged the party further down the modernising road. Evidence from selection meetings suggests that the disgrace of councillors and MPs is benefiting the same kind of educated, middle class Blairites who have seized key positions elsewhere. A pro-leadership group called the Network has scored impressive victories on the party's Scottish executive and in selections for parliamentary seats. And after McMaster's suicide, Brown, the chancellor, effortlessly parachuted one of his protégés into Paisley South: the 30-year-old solicitor, Douglas Alexander.

But despite these successes, the Blairite strategy is fraught with political risk. Much of Labour's Scottish bedrock is what is some call the "numpty vote" - people who back it for vague historical reasons, or out of tribal class hatred for Tories. With old Labour tainted by sleaze allegations and new Labour increasingly seen as the heirs to Thatcherism, many observers expect the party's Scottish ascendancy may slip further in the direction of the nationalists.

"Suspending individuals is one thing, but proving that the underlying problems that led to the suspensions have been dealt with is another matter," Michael Russell, the Scottish National Party's chief executive argued. "They are in a cleft stick now. There is a public perception of corruption in old Labour's one-party state, and no sense that there is anything reassuring about new Labour."

He has reason for optimism in the face of past experience. After the Monklands affair, Helen Liddell, a former aide to the late publisher Robert Maxwell and now a Treasury minister, almost lost Smith's safe seat to the nationalists, while in the Paisley South by-election which installed Alexander, 10,000 Labour voters stayed home. In Glasgow, two Labour councillors have in recent months defected to the SNP; Govan is seen as a prime nationalist target if Sarwar should give up the seat; and such has been the damage inflicted on Graham that even his 8,000 majority in West Renfrewshire is seen as potentially vulnerable.

These developments - plus opinion polls pointing to a 15% drift to the SNP in upcoming Scottish parliamentary elections - may herald an reinvigorated democracy. But some observers think that the sleaze sagas are a warning for the rest of Britain. The most important corruption in the west of Scotland has not been criminality or votes-for-trips, but a lack of active democracy existing in apparently democratic institutions. With colossal majorities in legislative chambers, a lack of debate on crucial issues, the perks of office jealously shared among cronies, and behind-the-scenes feuding between cliques, some now ask whether they see on Clydeside the Labour government's eventual fate.

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