Scottish Labour – the last great heavy industry

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This week saw two stories in the media involving Scottish Labour councillors, both involved allegations of corruption and inappropriate behaviour.

At the centre of each were council decisions, lucrative contracts, relationships and public cash.


This week saw two stories in the media involving Scottish Labour councillors, both involved allegations of corruption and inappropriate behaviour.

At the centre of each were council decisions, lucrative contracts, relationships and public cash.

The first story centred on links between East Kilbride councillor Jim Docherty and a local property developer.  Mr Docherty had been accused of failing to declare a relationship with the developer, of influencing planning applications on his friend’s behalf and of behaving in an aggressive and bullying manner at council meetings.

The story received considerable coverage on BBC Scotland (1) whose reporter Marc Daly had carried out some investigative journalism into the matter and thereafter sent a file containing new evidence to the Standards Commission.  The commission had previously cleared Mr Docherty of any wrongdoing (2).

The second story involved a Glasgow councillor who had been at the heart of the Stephen Purcell drugs and corruption scandal.  Ruth Black had already been questioned by police in April over allegations that she supplied drugs to Stephen Purcell’s inner circle, allegations she denied.  Ms Black was also said to have been unfairly awarded a contract to run a gay and lesbian drop in centre called ‘The Castro Club’.

The latest scandal to hit this Labour councillor involved financial irregularities that threaten to close the aforementioned club.  An audit at the club is reported to have uncovered non-payment of staff tax & national insurance, extensive mobile phone bills as well as bills from a gaming firm.  The Castro Club receives an annual grant of £50,000 from Labour run Glasgow council, a previous incarnation of this club, also run by Ms Black, had ended with the club closing leaving debts of £300,000.

The list of Scottish Labour politicians who are being investigated, charged or have faced claims of inappropriate behaviour is extensive.  We have the recent scandal involving SPT expenses, Ex MP Jim Devine’s fall from grace and of course there was the resignation of Labour MP David Marshall after he claimed £1/2 million in expenses.

In December last year Labour’s Holyrood leader Iain Gray was embroiled in a scandal when it emerged that East Lothian council had been routinely breaking the law for years by using taxpayer’s money in order to subsidise Labour fund raising events.  Some of the money raised had found its way into Mr Gray’s campaign funds.

There’s now hardly a month goes by without some Labour politician or council at the centre of similar unseemly stories involving the apparent mishandling of public cash.  Most never make it beyond the pages of the local rag, if they make it that far.  Even stories of huge national interest are rarely afforded the high profile and enduring coverage of less significant issues.

The decision by BBC Scotland to give one of these, now run of the mill stories, such widespread coverage is welcome, but this change of heart on the part of the state broadcaster, who has thus far shown a reluctance to pursue any alleged Scottish Labour party malfeasance, is puzzling.

Some cynics have suggested that there is something more to the Docherty story, that somehow Mr Docherty has been earmarked by jealous local colleagues or that he has upset the party hierarchy and that BBC Scotland have been given the ‘green light’ to bring the maverick councillor to heal.

Others have opined that there has been a change at the top of BBC Scotland management and that stories hitherto considered ‘off limits’ are now being covered.

Whatever the reason, few would argue that this investigative item was not in keeping with BBC Scotland’s recent track record.

There is another possibility of course, and that is the sheer number of such stories involving Scottish Labour that have begun to emerge in recent months have effectively forced the hand of Pacific Quay.

To appreciate what might be happening we must first take a look at the entity that is ‘Scottish Labour’.

Political anoraks already know that Scottish Labour does not exist, there is no such entity, the term is an invention of the Labour party and the Scottish media who created it in order to convince Scottish voters that there exists a separate autonomous body who decide policy for Scotland and who look after Scottish interests.  There is only one Labour party, the UK Labour party, and that is it.  The MSPs who sit at Holyrood have roughly the same authority and stature as a Scottish Labour councillor does – this is why Stephen Purcell had a higher profile than Holyrood leader Iain Gray.

Scottish Labour does exist in one form though, but it is not simply a political entity.  Scottish Labour is an industry, it is Scotland’s last ‘heavy’ industry and it has evolved in order to serve two purposes.  Scottish Labour’s main function is to serve as a barrier to the advancement of Scottish independence, this can be seen in the political manoeuvres adopted by Iain Gray’s group at Holyrood where the SNP must be opposed at all costs – even if those costs are to the nation.

This industry also provides a career path for people whose talents can best be described as ‘limited’ and who might otherwise find themselves struggling if they had to hawk their mediocrity around more demanding private sector employers; these individuals scratch the back of the party who in return provide them with a livelihood, Lord Jack McConnell is as good an example as any.

This industry has been fed for decades by public cash, cash that has been taken from Scotland and sent to Westminster with most sent back for redistribution.  The redistribution has, until recently, been carried out by those Labour placemen who have reached the highest echelons of Scottish public life.

Public bodies, quangos, boards and councils were all provided with an ever increasing pot of money by those who distributed the cash.  Pork barrel politics reigned, so, to have any hope of making the most of mediocre talent or advancing your business interests one could do worse than to join or at least engage with Scottish Labour – a donation to the party did no harm.

Political commentator Gerry Hassan (3) touched on this public cash funded industry when he wrote:
“The first decade of devolution – Labour-Lib Dem dominated – was an age of distributing goodies and largesse to those with the loudest voices who knew how to work the system. Strangely enough this turned out to be the same groups who knew how to work the old system: the self-preservation society of middle class Scotland.

In many respects devolution continued the pattern of how Scotland was run before the Parliament: a managed system of rule by committees, experts and professionals which amounted to a kind of benign pre-democracy”

A great many people have had their middle class lifestyles sustained by this system and Scottish Labour’s influence has spread throughout Scottish civic society as a result.  One recent example of the tentacles of this industry and its wider influence was the revelation that editors from Scottish newspapers routinely met in secret with one time Labour high flyer Stephen Purcell.

However the trough is about to run dry and the financial mess left behind by Gordon Brown will have consequences for Scottish Labour that have yet to be fully realised.

The money that for decades has sustained lavish expenses, golden handshakes and lucrative contracts is about to disappear.  The age of austerity that is hitting every public body in Scotland will also hit Scottish Labour.  Scottish Labour cannot escape the cuts and, like any industry facing a loss in revenue, will have to shed ‘staff’.

This emerging scenario will not have gone unnoticed amongst the more self preserving members of the party.  As the yield from an ever decreasing harvest drops, those who rely on the Scottish Labour industry know it is now about survival of the fittest, or of the more ruthless.

One of the now forgotten supposed reasons for the sudden fall from grace of Stephen Purcell was that another Scottish Labour councillor was unhappy about being moved from a particularly lucrative public cash trough.  It was claimed at the time that this councillor had confronted Mr Purcell on the evening of the Labour party fundraising dinner in The Hilton and that he had threatened to expose the now disgraced council leader’s lifestyle; the rest is history.

There can be no doubt that those nearer the bottom of the Scottish Labour food chain will know that a famine is approaching and are changing to survival mode.  When people are desperate they often turn on one another and the type of individuals attempting to climb Scottish Labour’s greasy pole may be more prone to this ‘social cannibalism’ than most.

BBC Scotland’s sudden interest in Scottish Labour scandals may be transient, but it does at least indicate that there are some within the Scottish media who appreciate that something may be happening.

The Scottish Labour industry will seek to regain control of Holyrood next year; if successful they will once again control cash distribution.  However they can do nothing to prevent London’s savage cuts to the block grant and their euphoria will be short lived.

It’s going to get bloody as colleagues are prised from the trough and careers are ended; I suspect we have seen nothing yet.

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”  George Orwell – Animal Farm

Notes:
1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/10478359.stm
2. http://www.standardscommissionscotland.org.uk/investigations/south_lanarkshire/la_sl_991.html
3. http://www.gerryhassan.com/?p=1197#more-1197

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