Jim Mackechnie, CLPD regional organiser in Scotland and former Glasgow city councillor:
Glasgow scapegoated for Labour's failure in Scotland
As Autumn 2011 saw Scotland preparing for this year's local authority elections, Party officials masterminded a massive cull of Glasgow City's Labour councillors. Fifteen out of forty-seven sitting councillors were rejected for the panel of candidates. Another three were denied an interview as they had previously been placed under suspension - one for almost two years- for various alleged acts of misconduct. Some of those rejected had decades of service as elected members. The vast majority were highly respected in the communities they represented.
Over the last year Glasgow City Labour Party (LGC) had seen a substantial change in composition, with a significant number of new delegates being elected by their CLPs. Most had no experience of panel selection. It appears that Party officials and other senior figures took advantage of this to impose a clear-out of 'dead wood' and those who were 'not good enough'. This panic measure was prompted by the Scottish Parliamentary Election results in 2011 where the SNP won an absolute majority and Labour lost four constituency seats in Glasgow. Somehow the bizarre view was taken that Labour councillors - especially those in Glasgow - had been responsible for this defeat by 'not campaigning'. All the evidence, however, both from Party sources and independent commentators, shows that the backbone of campaigning teams is local councillors and their families.
After the 2011 election, the SNP started to claim that winning control of Glasgow City Council in 2012 would be 'a stepping stone to independence.' It was to be the litmus test of their growing success.
With the local council elections looming, the Party took the decision to interview all sitting Labour councillors. This is not normal procedure but is permitted under the rules but only with the agreement of the Scottish General Secretary and the NEC. Immediately prior to the commencement of the interviews, it was announced that Ken Clark, a former London organiser, had been appointed as 'Scottish Labour's Head of Local Government'. It is widely agreed that from that point in time, he ran the show. He sat in on most of the interviews (again permitted under the rules, but only by exception, and requiring the endorsement of the Scottish General Secretary) and was regularly consulted during the hearing of the subsequent appeals. It is not clear what special circumstances were laid before the Scottish General Secretary that persuaded him to invoke the rules to vary the normal assessment procedures.
Of Ken Clark, the Herald newspaper reported a Party source as saying ' If he's in on your interview its bad. They've been savage and in all my years in politics I've never known anything as brutal'. As the outcomes of the Panel interviews became apparent it was obvious that each councillor had been privately assessed on an individual basis prior to being interviewed. To this day nobody knows what the criteria were. Certainly the questioning at the interviews took an unusual track, downplaying council work and years of involvement with community groups, but probing about individual voter contact and campaigning. One interviewee likened it for going to a driving test for an ordinary car licence and being given the test for a HGV.
The axe appeared to be waved indiscriminately - left or right; male or female; old or young; Asian or white; senior councillor or backbencher - none was safe. One councillor complained that her letter of rejection was dated prior to her interview. Others discovered that interviewers had not even read their application forms. One councillor who scraped through was told her endorsement was dependent on her taking training to improve her communication skills. She had been Leader of the Council and served as President of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities! Those axed included members of the Executive Committee, two former City Treasurers and a former Head of the Licensing Board.
The outcome was that local Party members were denied an opportunity to re-select candidates who they felt were doing a good job. While the City Party could have tried to stand up to central Party control, they did not - probably due to the widespread inexperience in their ranks. A small number of delegates had past disagreements with particular councillors and appear to have been prepared to see a mass cull, rather than ward de-selection, as a means of eliminating the subject of their discontent. Additionally, training sessions for those on the interviewing panels were arranged and it would be naive to think that the desired outcomes were not firmly stressed during these meetings. If some of the delegates thought they were replacing sitting councillors with more radical and candidates, there is no evidence to substantiate this belief. Many of those subsequently newly elected will fit in well with the managerial ethos that dominates the Party.
The key role played by Ken Clark was manna from Heaven to the SNP who continually jibed that Glasgow Labour was run by London Labour. To many Labour Party members that appeared to have more than an element of truth. Perhaps because of this, one councillor was the victim of a backlash from ordinary Party members. Though approved for the Panel, the Group's Business Manager (Chief Whip) was de-selected by his local Party as they identified him (perhaps unfairly) as having played a key role in helping the cull.
On October 6th it was announced that Tom McCabe, former MSP and Finance Minister in the Scottish Executive, who had lost his seat in 2010, was to be appointed as Scottish Local Government Policy Advisor. He proceeded to interview all sitting councillors to 'see what he could do to help', and to attend all Labour Group meetings. It was widely believed that his actual job was to report directly back to John Smith House on the aftermath of the cull, and on any revengeful action that might be planned by rejected councillors. (On July 20th, it was announced that Tom McCabe had been appointed to a £50,000 a year job with Glasgow City Council as a 'politically neutral policy advisor'.)
The reaction of Glasgow MPs and MSPs was almost totally hostile to the cull. During this period the hustings for the elections of Leader and Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour were taking place and all the candidates who were questioned on the matter expressed their repugnance at what had happened. There is some evidence, however, that Shadow Ministers at Westminster were less dismayed, with one having allegedly opined, when told that almost one third of Glasgow's City councillors had been axed, that such an outcome 'was better than we had hoped'
The City Council Labour Group's majority was steadily reduced between October and the May elections. One rejected councillor crossed over to the SNP; six formed a new Group called Glasgow First which they subsequently registered as a political party; and one declared herself an 'independent'. Some attempted to pursue a legal challenge, but this proved either too difficult or too costly. By the time of the crucial Council Budget meeting on February 9th, Labour's majority was down from fifteen to two, and the Budget was passed amidst turmoil, adjournments and accusations of bullying and threats. By the day of the election, defections had left Glasgow City Council officially designated as 'no overall control'.
Those who supported the cull claimed it was entirely justified as Labour resumed its previous absolute majority on the Council, securing 44 of the 79 seats. (Glasgow First fielded candidates in every ward, but won only one seat.) However this ignores the fact that in neighbouring councils - North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire, Labour also won absolute majorities - without the necessity of a cull of sitting councillors. The Scottish electorate is getting increasingly sophisticated and takes into account the powers of the body that they are electing. In much of the west of Scotland it is clear that voters are not going to experiment with the nationalists in relation to local government, and still trust Labour to run their local Council.
The downside to this saga is that local party democracy has been seriously eroded and precedents set for much more central control in the selection of local government candidates. In Glasgow, a whole tranche of experienced and dedicated councillors has been lost, not because they lost the confidence of the electorate or their local Parties, but because of the well organised interference of paid officials of the Party.
(Editorial note: Jim was not a victim of the cull and did not contest the May elections).