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The Glasgow Labour Party and the Mohammed Sarwar Case: Some Personal Reminiscences

Mike Cowley

THE CALL arrived almost four months after my initial application. My transfer from Leith Constituency Labour Party in Edinburgh to Glasgow Pollok – a simple procedural formality – had finally been accepted. This was good news. It had been a turbulent few years in Leith. First as secretary and then as chair of my Labour Party Young Socialists branch, and as a delegate to the GC, I had witnessed and participated in much that even now shapes my approach to labour movement politics.

Though the Republic of Leith had demurred in the face of the witch-hunts, nevertheless the YS was under constant scrutiny. We felt under siege, and although I wasn’t a member of the Tendency, everyone else was, and I couldn’t help but share in the mentality of the hunted.

The final act of an eventful period came as I was about to depart Auld Reekie for an honours degree at Glasgow University. Ron Brown, a maverick left-winger and MP for Leith, had been busy digging himself a grave again, this time by foolishly letting the champers fly at a press conference called to celebrate the failure of charges brought by a mistress who had accused him of totalling her flat in a fit of drunken rage. Ron’s son was a prominent comrade in the YS, and I clearly recall many a meeting where his father dutifully turned up as our guest speaker, only to be confronted by lonely halls haunted solely by the obligatory Socialist Workers Party heckler and his/her dog.

Anyway, the anti-Ron camp, long impatient to rid themselves of their roguish and unpredictable MP, took a second shot at deselection. The media circus rolled into town. Our constituency offices became a fortress wherein all manner of political bile was split until, ultimately, Malcolm Chisholm was chosen to replace Ron as our man in parliament.

I felt gutted. It was a good time to go. The Militant were getting ready to leave the party, and I had just passed the age threshold for YS membership newly instituted by Kinnock.

I truly believed that, shorn of the craziness peculiar to Leith in the late ’80s, a more rewarding political period lay ahead.

I first became aware of the demi-monde I was stepping into while visiting Edinburgh for an anti-cuts demo. Malcolm Chisholm (now MP) told me of the phone calls he had received checking out my voting record on the Leith GC. Pollok didn’t like my friends, and despite my never being a member of anything more (less?) dangerous that the Campaign Group, nevertheless it took them four months to approve my membership. Here’s why.

Pollok had been the scene of some particularly nasty with-hunting. This was and remains Tommy Sheridan country, and during the non-payment campaign Tommy had recruited scores of new party members through the Anti-Poll Tax Unions, all of whom were denied membership on this or that spurious ground, precipitating an expulsion frenzy. The mood remained bleak on my arrival, and a culture of dark suspicion informed the party’s every move.

It wasn’t long before I was approached with a view to a coup. This is what the plotters had in mind:

1. The deselection of James Dunnachie, a right-wing time server, to be replaced by persons unnamed, otherwise known as Mohammed Sarwar, a local councillor and millionaire.

2. The replacement of incumbent GC officers with activists prepared to reinvigorate the party as a campaigning organisation.

Known left-wingers, myself included, were approached to help out. There were only a handful of us, and in retrospect we should have kept our distance. Here was a centrifugal force we were best well out of. Wheels had been set in motion for the kind of vicious intrigue that has little to do with the intervention of socialists in the labour movement. Motivation for our initial qualified support came in two easy-to-digest bites. One, regardless of our circumspection regarding millionaire "socialists", Sarwar was and is a decent human being, politically naive, ideologically uncommitted and, we felt, an antidote to the moderate rise in fascist activism in some areas of Scotland and the BNP’s recent success in the Isle of Dogs. He would be Britain’s first Muslim MP. Two, the moribund party was crying out for a more radical layer to take over the machinery of the GC.

We convinced ourselves that, given circumstances that would develop with or without our participation, abstentionism was not an option.

How wrong we were.

Honestly, I don’t know where to begin. How about stake-outs outside prominent members’ homes, racist and homophobic abuse, mini tape recorders produced at meetings so that slander might be preserved and passed on to the relevant authorities? Anyone for physical threats, rumour-mongering, my dad threatened at a totally unrelated community council meeting, the leaking of all manner of tall tales to the local and national press?

And at the epicentre of the fun, the Pollokshields ward, where I was going through purgatory as branch secretary.

Hang on, this gets better.

During all this, I was also chair of Glasgow University Labour Club, an organisation on paper only which myself and a couple of comrades had raised to a left-wing group capable of winning seats on the (non-NUS affiliated) student union and SRC bodies on campus. This is for another article, perhaps, but our Club had recruited a few loose cannons as well. We made the front pages of the Sunday Times Scotland edition, the Glasgow Evening Times and sundry other rags for misdemeanours that shall remain unnamed for the record. Political life for me steadfastly refused to be dull. Naturally, on one occasion following an anti-racist demo, comrades from the Club ended up in a street fight with the worst offenders from my ward.

I persisted in the by now redundant mentality that things could only get better. I was to be corrected one last time.

The Boundary Commission had intervened, and how. Even if Sarwar, now with a supportive band of GC officers behind him, was to be selected ahead of Dunnachie, the seat he coveted no longer existed. Neither did that of Mike Watson, an MP with some mildly leftist credentials who had even spoken once or twice on a Glasgow University Labour Club platform. The newly drawn constituency of Govan was the new prize. The SNP had upset Labour here before, and, as a general election loomed, was prepared to do the same again. The Sarwar and Watson camps began to collate the shit on one another. Myself and the handful of lefties with sufficient sanity left to politically function began to back off. Subjectively, Watson was to the left of Sarwar. But I still felt that, objectively, given the witch-hunting right ranged against him, Sarwar remained marginally the more positive bet. I believed this with approximately zero enthusiasm. It was a kind of revolutionary defeatism. Some even went over to the Watson camp. The plot thickened, and I still had to commit my most basic error.

It was now three years since I’d moved to Glasgow, and my finals were fast approaching. As most of the great and good of my constituency – with, it has to be said, some justification – thought I was a prodigious dope-head and irretrievable Marxist, it surprised me when I was asked to be Sarwar’s election agent in the forthcoming council elections. Unbelievably, I accepted, adding the caveat that my commitment would be limited not only for political reasons but also because I had to put aside some time for my studies.

Here, the craziness finally came home to roost.

Following Sarwar’s election, persons unknown contacted the police and suggested they take a look at Sarwar’s election expenses. Further accusations were lodged, and before I could say "Good morning, officer" I was being grilled and ultimately cautioned by two plainclothes with bad breath and bored expressions. The charges were later dropped, but it was clear that the Watson camp, allied to anti-Sarwar elements in the Pollokshields Asian community, were hell-bent on getting their man.

Not long afterwards, I moved back to Edinburgh.

No doubt comrades will have seen on the news the trial of Mohammed Sarwar, charged with, amongst other offences incompatible with the integrity of liberal democracy, bribing an election opponent during the ’97 general election. I was then, and remain now following his acquittal, convinced as to Sarwar’s innocence in these matters. Regardless of his politics, here is a man who has been ruthlessly hunted, slandered and set up by political opponents not motivated by political principle but by envy. He was, and in all probability remains, a political innocent. The newspaper photos of himself and his family outside the Edinburgh courts show none of the conspirators he was involved with in those early days. I neither know nor care if any of them remain in labour movement politics.

As for myself, I remain, by the skin of my teeth, a member of the political wing of the labour movement, and active within it. I look back on my time in the YS with some pride. Much of what I took part in in Pollok I now regret. There are many initiatives I might have taken, but didn’t. We do not exist in a movement created in the image of socialist aspiration. Negotiating the maze can be tough, and though my politics have not dimmed my hunger has abated. Age and time are factors here.

Why did I submit this article? Perhaps as a catharsis, most probably as an attempt to learn and move on. I apologise for its anecdotal character, though I have left much of the madness out, and the names too, for fear of libel.

Such darkness is difficult to convey. But then, transforming our movement never promised to be simple.

From What Next? No.14 1999