The Land of Wild West Labour:
The Steven Purcell and Strathclyde Passenger Scandals in Context
The Scotsman, March 11th 2010
Glasgow as a city has always been a bit on an enigma from ‘second city of the Empire’ to ‘second city of shopping’. Its politics have been shaped by the allure of ‘Red Clydeside’, while driven by the reality of a city of pragmatism, deals and doing business.
As long ago as 1953, ‘The Times’ said in an editorial, ‘Nowadays, the ‘Red Clyde’ is no more than pink’, and that has been the prevailing motto of the last few decades, explicitly so in the decades from ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ onward as the city consciously tried to rebrand and promote itself.
The resignation of Steven Purcell as Glasgow council leader has been a tragic one personally, but also one with a wider political dimension which has yet to fully unfold. This touches on the unacceptable face of Labour patronage which still prevails in parts of Scotland, and rules Glasgow and much of the West of Scotland in particular.
Purcell if we go back just over a week, was a fresh, relatively young, popular face, hailed by Tony Blair and other Labour big-wigs, as a moderniser and a coming talent.
What this now raises isn’t so much the judgement of the Labour hierarchy, but the standards they were using to make such claims about Glasgow public life, alongside the meaning of such used and abused terms as ‘moderniser’.
Purcell took Glasgow forward on number of fronts: focusing on the economy, cultural regeneration and cleaning up the city centre, alongside branding and tourism. In other words, continuity since Michael Kelly unveiled ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ all those years ago.
The term ‘moderniser’ came of age in the era of New Labour and became so over-used it became vacuous and empty: modernisation was what a Labour Government did. In Scotland, it always had an incongruity at its heart, whereby people like Purcell and Frank McAveety before him, arrived full of hope and promises, before they realised their was a certain way of doing things.
That way entails attempting to use the old-fashioned political party, fixes, deals and patronage for supposed enlightened ends. This does not work, as in the process their ends (and ultimately the people in question) become captured and corrupted.
The Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) scandal throws light on some of this as a host of West of Scotland Labour movers have had to resign over excessive transport costs globetrotting around the world at our expense.
SPT is a successful public service – the biggest railway network outside of London, and managing the third oldest subway system in the world (after London and Budapest). Ron Culley, its former Chief Executive, had to resign because of his role in the jet set expenses.
Culley was seen as close to Purcell and by some as his ‘mentor’. Whatever the truth Culley is the sort of figure who prospers in Glasgow Labour: a networker, imfluencer and power broker reducing politics to deals. This is politics as tribalism, that automatic assumption that you are ‘Labour’, and a very, male, testosterone culture.
Culley was a serial quangocrat, previously head of Scottish Enterprise Glasgow and Govan Works, and a failed Labour candidate in Govan and elsewhere. This is a man who knew how Glasgow worked and how to make it work.
This brings us to the Labour Party, and the nature of it in Glasgow and the West of Scotland. There have long been many different Labour Party cultures across Scotland, in places like Dundee, Edinburgh and the Highlands, but for a long time, the West of Scotland culture has been the dominant one.
This Labour Party, even though it is no longer in power in the Scottish Parliament or running most of local government, is still a party shaped by patronage, preferment and clientism, and the more so in the West of Scotland and Glasgow, where it has long been used to getting its own way without democracy or scrutiny.
This has resulted in a weak, hollowed out Labour Party, which has exerted much of its power indirectly, rather than directly. It has done this through a Byzantine network of councillors, quangocrats, lawyers, property developers, nightclub owners, and other unusual supporters of a supposed ‘progressive politics’.
This has meant that Labour has become a party of patronage first and its professed values a distant second, rather like other dominant parties the world over: the wonderful titled Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico, or the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Such parties blur the boundaries between party and state, seeing the state as part of their own fiefdom, in a way that is recognisable in Scottish politics.
This whole show is kept on the road by a mixture of loyalty, a sense of fidelity to the old values of the party which people still pay lip service to, but more importantly, a payroll vote of the public sector, from the council through the extended state. Many commentators have predicted the demise of Scottish Labour for years, and been mystified by its continuation, oblivious to the key groups it has incorporated and given a share in the system’s benefits.
As importantly, is what all of this has done to Glasgow and the West of Scotland. Across the whole city and wider region it has created large swathes of life under the control of the party, from the public and voluntary sectors, to social enterprise, business organisations, and parts of further and higher education.
One of the stories of devolution was always going to be that it aided and encouraged processes which undermined the traditional ways Labour ran Scotland. The party is excluded from official power across most of the country, and yet underneath the radar its old ways and hold still continue.
A degree of effort and imagination is needed to challenge and break up this way of things. What is required is something like an independent initiative such as a Commission on Transforming the Public Sector. This could, perhaps under the auspices of a respected institution such as ‘The Scotsman’ look at what we do with the state on a number of levels.
This would address the coming crisis of public spending and how we deal with intelligence with cuts, examine the wider culture and attitudes, and finally, have as part of its remit, a mandate to look at the problems and practices of the Labour state and make suggestions for how we slowly dismantle it.
As Andrew Rawnsley has said of the New Labour era, this is ‘the end of the party’. We should make sure the Steven Purcell and Strathclyde Passenger scandals give us the opportunity to say the same in Scotland.