TRIBALISM IN POLITICS

New Statesman & Society leader, 23 June 1995

The scandal of Monklands council in Scotland should teach Labour some lessons about the dangers of slavish loyalty to party

The independent report by Robert Black QC on the Labour council in Monklands in central  Scot­land, published this week, makes depressing reading. Black confirms nearly everything that the local Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser alleged more than two years ago about Monklands’ public spending and employment practices. The local Catholic-domi­nated Labour machine – the “Monklands Mafia” –  pumped money into Catholic Coatbridge rather than Protestant Airdrie, systematically hired the relatives of councillors as employees, and gave councillors priority in getting repairs done to their council houses. It is a shabby record of sectarianism and nepotism of which Labour should be ashamed.
Labour has acted decisively in suspending the Monklands Labour group, and shadow Scottish secretary George Robertson’s promise that “anyone in Monklands who has brought the party and with it the local commu­nity into disrepute will have to be brought to account” is wholly welcome.
But this is not the end of the matter. Leaving aside Labour’s behaviour in the early stages of the scandal –  when the local paper broke the story, it was denounced hysterically by the party establishment in Scotland, and the party was slow to act even after it accepted that it had a case to answer – the Monklands affair raises big ques­tions about Labour’s political culture, and not just in Scotland.
Of course, it’s the Scottish angle that is most obvious. If one Labour stronghold in central Scotland is still riven with the sort of religious sectarianism that Labour politi­cians have for years claimed no longer has any purchase except on the football terraces, how many others are in the same state? Monklands suggests that the final victory of secular, class-based politics is still to be achieved.
More generally, Monklands speaks volumes of what can happen when a single party machine dominates local politics for decades without ever being removed from office in an election – and that’s a situation in which Labour finds itself in large swathes of England and Wales as well as in Scotland’s central belt. This is not to say that every council in the country that has been solidly Labour for years is corrupt and nepotistic: contrary to the Tories’ claims this week as they desperately tried to divert attention from the arms-to-Iraq-and-Iran scandals, there’s no evidence to suggest that Monklands was not an extreme case rather than typical. For the most part, Labour local government is remarkably clean, thanks largely to the strong current in British socialism that places the highest values on public service and per­sonal integrity. On the whole, Labour is not the party of shysters on the make.
Nevertheless, there have been enough counter-exam­ples in recent years to make complacency dangerous. And one reason that they exist is that there are strong ele­ments in Labour’s culture that counteract the moral imperatives at the root of British socialism. The most important of these is a streak of almost tribal party chau­vinism, which manifests itself in several ways: a refusal to admit that the worst of Labour might not be better than the best of any other party, unremitting hostility to other political parties and to criticism “from outside”, unques­tioning loyalty to the evidently corrupt and incompetent. The adage “He may be a bastard, but at least he’s our bas­tard” could have been coined to describe one of Labour’s most persistent and unpleasant habits of thought.
Its deleterious effects extend far beyond toleration of local council malpractice, moreover. In the past few weeks, since Tony Blair declared in NSS that he was relaxed about dialogue with other parties of the centre-left, Labour’s numbskull chauvinist tendency has spent an inordinate amount of time and energy denouncing Paddy Ashdown and his party.
No matter that there are few significant policy differ­ences between Labour and the Lib Dems (and that, where there are, the Lib Dems are often more radical); no matter either that Labour might need support to form a govern­ment after the next election: the Lib Dems are not Labour, so they must be the enemy! This “reasoning”, which of course has its equivalent among some Lib Dems, will undoubtedly get more of an airing as the two centre-left parties slug it out in the by-election in Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, which both think they can win from the Tories. It’s almost tempting to argue for tactical voting for the Tories to knock a little sense about coopera­tion into the party chauvinists’ heads.

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