The little people of Paisley

The scandal in the west of Scotland has caught the nation's attention, but it's just a typical tale of small town corruption says Christian Wolmar
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The Independent Online
The councillors of Renfrewshire were on their best behaviour at their meeting on Thursday. There was no shouting or screaming and very few interruptions. This was unprecedented. The meetings in the Sixties council headquarters in Paisley are usually as brutal as the architecture of the building, with confrontations between Labour and the Scottish National Party, falling just short of the physical. The police have been called several times, not to deal with the public, but to control the councillors.

Conscious of the presence of a large contingent of journalists, the councillors managed to moderate their behaviour, but not their language. The SNP leader, Bruce McFee, a big man with weight problems, like many in this drama, was rather too pleased with his own invective, ranting about the Labour Party's "nest of vipers" and its "cesspit" of politics. Labour were like an "authoritarian junta," according to his deputy, Jim Mitchell.

It was all over the top, and so is the whole Paisley politics affair. These are little people, and this whole business is small beer, except that, by accident, it has attracted national attention and may well affect the devolution referendum taking place on 11 September. Looking at the councillors in action, it's clear that most wouldn't have the wit to indulge in major corruption schemes. "It's an August story," says Professor Alan Alexander, of Strathclyde University, a long-time observer of Scottish local politics, "made interesting by the imminence of the referendum."

Even some of those involved admit that the Paisley affair is really about feuding personalities. "There's no big ideological argument here," says Paul Mack, a leading player. "Many in the SNP could be in the Labour Party, or the other way round." Mr Mack was suspended by the Labour Party. He then got himself re-elected as a councillor when the official Labour candidate mysteriously withdrew, the morning nominations were due. He recently defected to the SNP benches.

Many people say the internecine battles started in the selection battles for two simultaneous by-elections in 1990, when Irene Adams and Gordon McMaster were elected for the seats. Others, such as Mr Mack, suggest that the real war began in 1992, when Nancy Allison, the present Provost (the north-of-the-Border equivalent of mayor), was stopped from becoming provost of the now-defunct Renfrew council at the last minute, by an alliance of the opposition and some Labour councillors.

Mrs Allison is still a powerful figure. Her little gang withdrew from the day-to-day politics of the council in a sulk, and attended few meetings until its re-formation as Renfrewshire, a more powerful council. Renfrewshire is controlled - just - by Labour. Several existing councillors found themselves dropped as candidates for the new authority, and the Allison faction took control.

The Allisons are allied to Irene Adams, MP for Paisley North, and united in their dislike of Tommy Graham who, when it looked as if either he, Adams or McMaster would lose their seats in boundary changes, promptly set up an office in Paisley, outside his constituency. This was also the time when, mysteriously, all the inhabitants of an old people's home found themselves unwittingly signed up as Labour party members. All these carpetbagging efforts proved unnecessary when the boundary commission retained the existing number of parliamentary seats.

There are also the usual accusations of patronage and nepotism flying around Paisley: of councillors' wives (including that of the leader, Jackie Henry) having well-paid jobs in the council, of councillors bad-mouthing their rivals, and of committee chairmanships being awarded for political favours rather than on merit. Indeed, Thursday's meeting was dominated by a row over whether Harry Revie, the convener (chairman) of property and construction, should be allowed to keep his pounds 18,000-a-year post, given that he has been suspended by the Labour party while allegations about his role as director of a council-sponsored company, the security firm FCB, were being investigated.

FCB is the one decent-sized potential scandal emerging in Paisley, but it has already been much investigated, with little success. It started, as many such stories do, with good intentions. In the late Eighties Ferguslie Park, on the fringes of the town, was the worst area of Paisley, with a reputation for harbouring gangsters in its mean, three-storey tenements. FCB was set up to create jobs in the area: the council, along with the Scottish Office and the Strathclyde Region, sank pounds 200,000 into the project. FCB thrived for a while, but it went bust last year, and pounds 321,336 is still unaccounted for.

According to a liquidator's report leaked to the local Paisley Daily Express, the money was supposed to have been paid to untrained casual staff, but there are doubts as to whether these people ever existed. Mr Revie, who was also Mr Graham's election agent, denies any knowledge of the affair and seems to have had little role in the actual running of the company. As Mr McFee points out, his suitability as a director of the company, protecting the council's investment is questionable. But Mr Revie is needed to guarantee Labour's hold on the council, therefore he retained his post at Thursday's meeting.

Then there is the bogey of Militant. Mr Mack and the SNP accuse the leadership, including the Labour leader, Hugh Henry, of being Militant stooges, but there is little evidence. Mr Henry admits to having been involved in Militant in the late Eighties, but says he left long ago.

There are no heroes in this story, and the villains are pretty mild. There are no councillors swanning about in expensive cars or living in houses paid for by developers, as there has been in Doncaster, another rotten Labour borough. Take Tommy Graham, the Renfrewshire West MP who has been suspended for spreading malicious rumours about his colleagues. Senior local Labour figures are not exactly complimentary about him. "He's an arsehole and should never have been made an MP. But he's not evil," said one. Mr Graham is not accused, as originally thought, of having contributed to Mr McMaster's depression through rumour-mongering, but he did not help his own cause when he blurted out to the local evening paper that the dead MP was a drunk who consumed "doubles and doubles". As a fellow MP put it, "Tommy came up from the hard school, and he's capable of being pretty vicious when he attacks."

Mr Graham is an uninspiring but loyal Labour hack, a bit of a buffoon with a sharp tongue, who has mostly toed the line, apart from indulging in the infighting which passes for politics in Renfrewshire. He weighs 20 stone, and is a constant smoker; there are fears among fellow MPs that this affair will damage his health.

Under pressure to be seen to be doing something, Labour has launched another inquiry into events in Paisley. But we have been here before. There have been half-a-dozen inquiries into FCB by agencies ranging from the Scottish Office to the Royal Bank of Scotland, in response to allegations by Mrs Adams that it has been used as a front for laundering drugs money and other criminal activity. None has so far come up with any evidence, and the police investigation seems to have got nowhere. No one is suggesting that Mr Revie has enriched himself, but locals in Ferguslie Park are confident that someone at the company or the council has lined their pockets with the casual workers' cash.

There was, too, a Labour enquiry into Paisley in 1995. It remains unpublished, but its leaked findings bode ill for the chances of truth emerging this time. It paints a picture of a deeply divided party but concedes that much of the information supplied was "anecdotal and cannot be tested for proof". Mrs Adams's party, Paisley North, remains suspended. Her enemies suggest this has helped her, since it meant that she did not have to submit herself for reselection to her local party. A suspension of Paisley South seems inevitable, which means that the national party can impose the new MP.

All this serves the interests of New Labour, which dislikes the old west of Scotland working-class MPs: they fit as poorly on Labour's benches as into their suits. In many of the national newspapers there have been pompous calls for a major inquiry headed by a senior judge, but they have been written by leader-writers who have never been near Paisley and have little understanding of the issues. As Professor Alexander put it, "If you got a hyper-QC, what would they investigate? How do you investigate a culture? It's like nailing a blancmange to the wall."

There is a major issue, but it is about democracy, not corruption. The question is this: how can democracy function when the local people are prepared to elect whatever donkey is wearing the red rosette?

Labour has controlled the west of Scotland for generations. The SNP has made few inroads in urban areas, the Tories have been wiped out, the Lib Dems are, as ever, on the margins. But Labour's domination is helped by the electoral system. In Glasgow, for example, Labour has 93 per cent of the seats on 61 per cent of the vote. The argument for proportional representation is overwhelming to many, both inside and outside the party, who reckon that without it, there will be more Paisleys and Doncasters, tarnishing New Labour's image. In fact, Labour spokesmen have found a novel way to reassure referendum voters worried that their party may dominate the new, devolved legislature in Edinburgh. They point out that the proportional representation planned for that body makes it unlikely that Labour will ever have a majority there.