A very nasty smell in Labour's backyard

McMaster's suicide was more than the tragedy of one man, it lifted the lid on a saga of gossip and in-fighting
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"This isn't politics, it's an abomination." The lament of a Labour activist caught in the Byzantine faction fighting in Paisley has a resonance throughout the west of Scotland where, despite a succession of minor purges and expulsions, the party has been sullied by allegations of cronyism, petty corruption and rumoured links with organised crime.

Jack McConnell, general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, yesterday said strict checks would be used to ensure candidates for an Edinburgh parliament were of the highest calibre. It will be the first time Labour has had a panel of candidates and the list will be carefully scrutinised by the leadership in London.

However, this assurance that the "Glasgow jimmies" won't dominate the new parliament begs the question as to how their ilk are to be rooted out across a noxious band of municipal skullduggery from North Lanarkshire, through Glasgow to Paisley in the west.

Chief whip Nick Brown believes he can come to a speedy conclusion on what drove Gordon McMaster to suicide. But if Tony Blair is ever to introduce his own brand of politics to the west of Scotland, he must try and get to the bottom of what fuels the problems in Paisley, and also discipline the Labour group on Glasgow City Council if necessary.

At the end of next month the National Executive Committee will pass judgement on the Glasgow "junkets for votes" scandal. Labour councillors, who hold 76 of the 83 seats on the city council, were allegedly demanding foreign trips and other perks in exchange for their support. Flights to places such as Bangkok, Rome and New York cost the public purse pounds 200,000 last year.

Leadership sources have promised tough action to clean out any "corrupt" practices. However, the NEC's response to the Glasgow inquiry has been held back so as not to frighten the public with an old Labour bogey before the devolution referendum on 11 September.

The fate of Glasgow Govan MP Mohammed Sawar, himself a graduate of Glasgow council, hangs in the balance while Strathclyde police continue their investigation into a charge of bribing an election rival. Mr Sawar has been stripped of his parliamentary party privileges pending the outcome of all inquiries and the Govan constituency Labour party has been suspended.

Govan's woes were compounded yesterday with the defection to the Scottish National Party of Gordon Archer, a key aide to Mr Sawar in the election. Mr Archer, a Glasgow city councillor, blamed the London leadership's tightening grip on the party in Scotland. He would probably have not made it on the list of Scottish parliament candidates heralded by Mr McConnell.

There have been inquiries into nepotism in Monklands and officials from Keir Hardie House, Labour's Glasgow HQ, have stepped in to sort out abuse in North Lanarkshire and Kilmarnock. Cronyism and the pervasive problem of "jobs for the boys", often the result of councillors being able to influence staff appointments at low levels, have been the main complaints.

Mr McConnell thought he had sorted out Paisley in 1995 when three constituency parties - the two Paisleys and Renfrewshire West, represented by Tommy Graham, were suspended following "irregularities" in membership records. There were claims of pensioners being enlisted without their knowledge and subscriptions paid for 44 trade union members with a single cheque.

The object, according to local activists, was to influence selection ballots. A document listing irregularities in Mr Graham's constituency, including the improbable 44 new members - six of whom were also in the SNP - was sent to Keir Hardie House by three men who lost a bitter selection contest with Mr Graham.

But old electoral habits in the Paisley area seem as hard to kick as the drugs which have become the town's notorious stock in trade since Coates and Clark stopped making cotton thread for the world. On Monday, Labour's London headquarters confirmed it was looking into a block application to renew lapsed memberships in a branch of Irene Adams' Paisley North constituency. A cheque for pounds 100 covering 20 unemployed people was received at the end of July.

Mrs Adams has been the target of smears alleging affairs with MPs, attempts to deselect her and a verbal attack by Mr Graham only last week that she is "lazy" and "milking" the death of Mr McMaster for all it's worth.

Mr McMaster had backed his neighbour in her fight against Paisley's violent drugs trade - a crusade that made enemies within Labour circles when she alleged a security company set up with public money as part of a regeneration scheme for a sink council estate was being used to launder drugs proceeds.

Two councillors involved with the failed company, FCB (Security), vehemently denied any criminal links. Fraud squad officers investigated the company and a report is still being considered by the Crown Office. The Scottish Office also inquired into what had happened to pounds 330,000 of public money paid to the firm.

If the Fraud Squad and public prosecutors have not got to the bottom of the corruption allegations in two years, the Labour leadership's task looks daunting. Mr Blair may find it easier to make an example of the foreign frolickers on Glasgow council and hope a death is sufficiently chastening for "a town called malice".

Gordon McMaster

Two factors were said to have contributed to the decision of the 37-year- old MP for Paisley South to gas himself in the garage of his suburban home at Johnstone: the chronic fatigue syndrome he had suffered from for 18 months, and his belief there was a whispering campaign at Westminster and in Scotland that he was gay and suffering from the Aids virus.

Claims that 18-stone McMaster was a closet homosexual, a torment in macho west Scotland, have continued, including that he had been seen in gay bars in London and Blackpool. While Labour was in opposition, McMaster served as a whip and then as a spokesman for disabled people, but he failed to get a job in the new government.

In a type-written note found beside his body, McMaster referred to neighbouring MP Tommy Graham and former deputy whip Don Dixon. "I would rather be dead with my conscience than alive with theirs."

Irene Adams

Elected for Paisley North in 1990, on the same day as McMaster and following a bitter selection battle, Adams was also the target of smears. Allegations include claims of an affair with McMaster, and drink problems.

Death threats were made against the 48-year-old MP in 1995 during her campaign against Paisley's violent drugs barons. She alleged that a security company set up with pounds 180,000 of public money and linked to Labour councillors had become embroiled in laundering drug money.

Adams was expected to give evidence to the Labour chief whip's inquiry about the smears she and McMaster endured.

Paisley North constituency party remains suspended following attempts to "pack" membership lists and get Adams deselected.

More than 50 "irregular" names have disappeared from the roll since Labour's Scottish headquarters began its reorganisation of the constituency party.

Norman Godman

Another victim of smears, the 60-year-old MP for Greenock and Inverclyde gave evidence to the Labour Chief Whip on Monday evening. A close friend of McMaster and Adams, Godman was similarly the target of attempts at deselection.

The somewhat lugubrious Godman has been an MP since 1983 and is noted at Westminster as an advocate for the fishing industry. However, the whisperers alleged he was a poor Commons performer and had neglected his constituency duties.

Godman has pressed for a full National Executive Committee inquiry into the faction fighting and all the allegations of party vote-rigging and corruption that have blighted politics in Paisley and Renfrewshire for almost a decade.

Tommy Graham

The tough former engineering worker and MP for West Renfrewshire said to be behind the smear campaigns has been lying low. He is alleged to have plotted to oust his neighbouring MPs to get his cronies elected.

After an initial denial, Graham, 53, has said nothing apart from an outburst to Glasgow's Evening Times at the weekend in which he described how McMaster accused him of spreading the gay rumours.

"I said: `I've never called you a poof in my life. It's not my style'," Graham told the paper. He went on: "If the real truth came out, the guy had a drink problem.

"That's what lost him his job. It's a shame. The bloke was ill, wasn't he? He was ill with the booze. He couldn't drink a whisky, he had to drink doubles and doubles and doubles."

Lord (Don) Dixon

The former Labour deputy Chief Whip, is the only non-Scot in the cast and expressed surprise at being named in McMaster's suicide note.

However yesterday he told BBC Radio's Today programme that when the Whip's Office was being reorganised in 1995 he told McMaster that "he could not have stood the pressure of taking over my job and I wasn't going to recommend him.

"I think he was having problems. I could recognise there were problems then and obviously they have come to the fore since," he said.

Dixon insists that he had heard "no rumours" about McMaster. However, the 68-year-old former shipyard worker who became MP for Jarrow has a similar background to his friend Tommy Graham, and as Whip it would have been part of his job to know damaging Westminster gossip.