In the grip of the Party

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THE party may be closer to you than you think. Make a critical quip about the Budget this weekend and you may be surprised by the lukewarm reaction your remarks receive. Perhaps a quizzical eyebrow or two will be raised, perhaps your remarks will occasion a muttering of disapproval, or maybe this heresy that you’re promoting will be met by a stoney silence that acts as a weighty rebuke in itself.

Those with whom you drink, those at a business reception, may well be much closer to the Labour Party than you’d ever imagined. While the party has a Scottish membership of 22,500, its influence extends far beyond the confines of Scotland’s parliament and local councils.

No other institution musters such formidable power in every area of Scottish life. Big Brother may not be watching us, but the Big Pal from the People’s Party is never far away.

This may not be too surprising, given that the Scottish establishment has remained firmly Labour since the 1950s. Although the Eighties saw Margaret Thatcher’s agenda bring huge changes to Scottish society, the establishment was not for turning, and continued to nail its colour to the Labour mast. Scotland’s innate conservatism found expression in a Labour Party which survived the Thatcher years while its counterpart south of the Border was forced into a radical - and painful - re-think.

While Labour naturally defends its role in society and argues that it has no reason to prevent prominent people becoming members or creating links, the party’s opponents believe the dominance of a single party - Labour in this instance - has a corrosive impact on Scottish public life.

A Labour spokesman claims this talk of a one-party state is nonsense. "We have always seen ourselves as a mass-membership party. There is a place in our party for everyone. It is the case that many prominent people choose to become members of the Labour Party. They do not do so for advancement."

However, Professor James Mitchell of Strathclyde University’s politics department, is not alone in believing that the extent of Labour’s Scottish dominance is not in the country’s best long-term interests. "It is wrong and it is unhealthy that one party dominates so much of Scottish public life. We see this in quango appointments, where it is clear that people are being chosen from too narrow a part of society, which is wrong for public policy. The dominance may change with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the new greater openness of Scottish democracy, but the current situation will take many years to change."

The SNP is more than happy to agree with such an analysis. "What we have is a crony society of contacts and dark links. Labour were quick to criticise the Tories for filling public agencies with cronies, and they were right. But in their arrogance, Labour have persisted in perpetuating this society where who you know and your party contacts matter more than your real abilities. It’s wrong and they know it," says a party spokesman.

The most dramatic contrast between the establishments north and south of the Border is in the world of business. Although the late John Smith launched a famous ‘prawn cocktail’ offensive in the City of London to persuade business that Labour could be trusted, it was only with the advent of New Labour that the party south of the Border was able to lessen the impact of the business community’s traditional hostility towards Labour.

However, Labour’s tentacles in Scottish business run deep, giving access to a variety of cut-price services during campaigns, and allowing the party to use business figures to attack the claims of opposing parties.

A key pro-Labour business figure is Baroness Goudie, the Labour peer and secretary of the Scottish Industry Forum. While the forum claims to be independent, critics accuse it of being too close to Labour. Baroness Goudie is the former organiser of the Labour Solidarity Campaign and is married to James Goudie QC, a barrister with Lord Derry Irvine’s chambers. John Reid, the former Scottish Secretary, employed Goudie to act on his behalf when he was investigated by Elizabeth Filkin, the Commons sleaze watchdog, in 1999.

Other key Labour figures in Scottish business include Brian Gilda, owner of the Bathgate-based motor dealers Peoples Ford, Matt Thomson of the East Kilbride printing firm Thomson Litho - which deals with a substantial amount of Labour election leaflets and materials. The list of business people with close and long-standing links to Labour goes on. It leaves other parties shaking their heads in awe at Labour’s ability to make itself the party of Scottish business.

Labour can count among its friends in the business world David Moulsdale of Optical Express, Chris van der Kuyl of VIS Entertainment, conference organiser Neil Stewart, William Haughey, the former director of Celtic Football Club and a substantial donor to the party, Sandy Leitch, head of the British arm of Zurich Financial Services, Margaret Seymour of Seymour Swimming Pool Engineers Ltd, Taylor Ferguson, Glasgow-based international hairdresser, Eric Davidson of Edinburgh-based Tayburn Design, Paul Muir of Hamilton-based ISI Group, Donald Storey, the multi-millionaire property developer, advertising guru Chris Trainer, and Miriam Greenwood of the British Linen Bank.

Michelle Mone, the Glasgow-based designer of the Ultimo Bra, has close links with Brian Fitzpatrick, the Labour MSP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, and in 1999 put her name to a prominent press advert which was harshly critical of the SNP’s taxation policy. A year later, Henry McLeish, the then Scottish Executive minister for enterprise, placed Mone on a ministerial taskforce.

Donal Dowds, managing director of BAA Scotland, is also seen as close to the party and employs Malcolm Robertson, son of Lord George Robertson, the Labour peer and secretary general of Nato. Another with close Labour links is Jamie Maxton, a senior executive at ScottishPower, and son of former Labour MP for Glasgow Cathcart James Maxton.

Put away your purse or credit card and turn to a newspaper or to radio and television, and the party is there in the media, both broadcast and print. Both BBC Scotland and SMG employ a number of key figures with strong Labour connections. Most famously, Lord Gus MacDonald, now a minister at the cabinet office, was chairman of the Scottish Media Group - which controls the Herald, Evening Times and Sunday Herald newspapers, and Scottish and Grampian Television - before becoming a life peer and a minister.

Others figures with Labour connections include Paul McKinney, a former spin doctor and now STV’s head of news, Alistair Moffat, the former director of STV Enterprises, TV journalist Fiona Ross, and Sandy Ross, STV managing director and former Edinburgh Labour councillor. In addition, Sarah Smith, daughter of the late Labour leader John Smith, is a journalist with Channel Four news.

BBC Scotland’s connections to the Labour Party include John Boothman, who produces political programmes at BBC Scotland and is the partner of Susan Deacon, the former health minister, and Stephen Low, a former Labour researcher and a producer on BBC Scotland’s Lesley Riddoch programme.

Other Scots in the BBC with strong Labour connections include Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark, who was placed on a panel by Donald Dewar to judge the best design for the new Scottish parliament building at Holyrood, and John Morrison, the Scotland correspondent for BBC network news whose brother Alasdair Morrison is a former Labour minister within the Scottish Executive. Few believe that these links automatically preclude journalists from performing their duties in an impartial manner, but critics worry that such a closeness between Labour and the media is not necessarily healthy.

It’s scarcely surprising that Labour and the Daily Record are close - the paper has a long tradition of supporting the party, and its editor, Peter Cox, is a card-carrying party member. However, Labour’s links with the Scottish media permeate almost every major paper in the country. Key Labour-connected figures in the Scottish press include Dean Nelson, editor of the Sunday Times Scotland, Ruth Wishart, the Herald columnist and broadcaster, Daily Record leader-writer Tom Brown, who has close links to Chancellor Gordon Brown, Jonathan Wills of the Shetland News and formerly of Radio Shetland, also an ex-flatmate of Gordon Brown, the senior Herald executive, Alf Young, a former Labour researcher, Peter Jones of the Economist, husband of former Labour minister at Holyrood Rhona Brankin, Lorraine Davidson of the Scottish Daily Mirror, and Torcuil Crichton, Westminster editor of the Sunday Herald, whose brother has stood for election as a Labour candidate.

This newspaper also employs journalists with links to either the party or the Scottish Executive. Deputy editor Tom Little is a former special advisor to Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell, while Sharon Ward, formerly special advisor to Donald Dewar, is Scotland on Sunday’s business editor.

Away from the constant spin of the media world, Scots law contains numerous learned and party-linked friends. Law firm Digby-Brown was last year linked to the furore surrounding the office arrangements of Henry McLeish. Digby-Brown’s former employees include Douglas Alexander, the Westminster e-commerce minister and brother of enterprise minister Wendy Alexander.

After Lord Andrew Hardie was made Lord Advocate in 1997, he appointed two figures from the firm as sherrifs: Peter Gillam and Rajni Swanney. Swanney was seen as controversial appointment, viewed by some in the legal profession as lacking experience.

Other Labour-connected figures in the Scottish legal world include Neil Davidson QC, seen as close to Gordon Brown, former Lord Advocate Lord McCluskey, Sherrif John Morris, who sits in Airdrie Sherriff Court and was close to the late Labour leader John Smith, Joan Aitken, who stood for Labour in Inverness East in 1999 and is now chair of the Scottish Prisons Complaints Commission, and Peter Grant-Hutchison, an advocate specialising in employment law and former Labour candidate for Eastwood.

Significant Labour health quango appointees include: Lesley Hinds, chair of the Health Education Board for Scotland, ex-Edinburgh Labour councillor Brian Cavanagh of Lothian Health Board, Angela Dunbar of Ayrshire and Arran Acute Hospital NHS Trust, John Mullin of Argll and Clyde Health Board and the former Labour Strathclyde finance convenor.

More recently, the Scottish NHS Confederation, which acts as a lobbying and information organisation for the various health trusts north of the Border, has appointed a former Labour parliamentary candidate as its parliamentary and information officer - Donald Crichton, who stood for Labour against Charles Kennedy in Inverness West in 2001.

Labour’s coming to power has seen a number of party figures find places on key public boards. Christine May, the Labour leader of Fife Council, found herself at the centre of a cronyism row after being placed on two quangos - Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Homes. Other quangocrats include Sandy Matheson of Highlands and Islands Airports and a former Labour election candidate, and Ken Collins, head of environmental watchdog SEPA and a former Labour MEP.

The Labour network is no less influential within the education system. Strathclyde University’s Professor Alan Alexander is a former Labour parliamentary candidate and has since been appointed to be chair of Scottish Water - one of Scotland’s newest quangos. In addition, Professor Alice Brown of Edinburgh University’s department of politics, was enlisted by Labour as part of their panel to vet would-be Labour candidates for the 1999 Holyrood elections.

Others with a party connection include Labour activist Esther Roberton, chair of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, Sandy Fowler, president of the traditionally apolitical EIS, Duncan MacLennan, professor of housing and urban studies at Glasgow University, Farquhar MacIntosh, a trustee of the Skye-based Gaelic College Sabhal Mor Ostaig whose son is Ken MacIntosh - the Labour MSP for Eastwood, and Maureen Smith of the Scottish Higher Education Council - a former Labour press officer.

Prominent Labour students include Mandy Telford, president of NUS Scotland and president-elect of NUS UK, and Rami Okasha, the president-elect of NUS Scotland - both active Labour Party members. Some can be relied on to bring glamour into the drab world of Scottish politics. All that glitters is sometimes actually political spin.

As an answer to SNP’s Sean Connery, Labour has a villian ready to take on 007. Alan Cumming, who starred in the Bond film Goldeneye, is a Labour backer. Whether you believe it or not, Richard Wilson, star of the hit BBC comedy series One Foot in the Grave, is another supporter, as is composer James McMillan. The party can also count on Donnie Munro, Gaelic singer and former member of Runrig, and Scottish entertainers Russell Hunter and Una McLean. In addition, Greg Hemphill of BBC Scotland’s cult comedy Chewin’ the Fat, is also a prominent Labour supporter and was elected Rector of Glasgow University last year on a Labour ticket.

Red is the colour, and football - New football - is the game. Labour is one of the few political parties to have a foothold in the world of Scottish sport. In addition to Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson and Celtic’s William Haughey, John Boyle, the owner of Motherwell FC, and Pat Nevin, the club’s chief executive, are both close to Labour. Dominic Keane of Livingston, Kilmarnock senior executive Ian Welsh, a former Labour MSP, and Tony Higgins of the Scottish Professional Footballers’ Association also mix Labour-supporting with soccer.

The Labour effect is also prominent in the Highlands and Islands. Donald John MacSween, chief executive of An Comunn Gaidhealach, the Gaelic arts and campaigning group, is a former party member and remains close to Labour’s Alasdair Morrison MSP. Key in moulding Highland opinion in favour of Labour, is the Rev Prof Donald Macleod of the Free Church College. His son Angus is a former Labour Party press officer.

Such an intricate and wide-ranging web of connections may not in itself be an invitation for a culture of cosiness or cronyism to take root, but experience in other small countries, particularly the Republic of Ireland, suggests that it is all too easy for a culture of familiarity to turn sour and become a culture of endemic, if low-level, corruption.

The Labour Party contends that its critics are out of touch with mainstream Scottish opinion and the reason the party enjoys widespread support in Scotland is simply because it is best placed to represent that opinion; but few doubt the overwhelming dominance of a single party is not necessarily in the best long-term interests of the country.