The empire in miniature

Neil Gray and Leigh French argue that the Glasgow scandals are exactly symptomatic of the politics of our era

Glasgow City Council – pursuing urban boosterism, place marketing and property development with alacrity – has been posed as a paragon poster-child for post-industrial ‘regeneration’. Adhering to ‘leadership’ and ‘vision’ myths reified by new management culture, a narrative of entrepreneurial ‘success’ has until recently centred on the personal skills of former City Council leader Steven Purcell. This can be seen as part of a wider association of cultural life with an aspirational imperative: Blair once hailed Purcell as “a visionary civic leader”, and Purcell’s rise from ‘deprived’ Yoker, to leader of the Council at the City Chambers seemed to personify the Blairite fantasy of meritocracy. But the entrepreneurial narrative is implicitly an individualising discourse: being ‘excluded’ is at least partly one’s own fault for having the wrong skill set, the wrong character traits or the wrong kind of family life. In this context, alternative, and more importantly collective models for dealing with one’s personal situation (workplace or community organising, grassroots campaigns, etc.) become inconceivable. To disagree is to be ‘against aspiration’, to be recalcitrant and against change, to want to keep people, or one’s self, in the ghetto. The positivist aspects associated with this discourse have unravelled of late with Purcell quitting his posts amidst cocaine and alcohol confessions; the quoted strain of running the local authority; the pressures of planning the Commonwealth Games; and controversies over Strathclyde Partnership for Transport. The recession has also worked to de-legitimise the modus operandi of the market calculus personified by Purcell’s administration, though hardly as much as it should have.

Following Purcell’s fall, the dominant Labour Party within the Council quickly sought to distance themselves from his once venerated Leadership, concerned that “everything the council achieved during Mr Purcell’s time as leader has somehow been devalued”. This acute reversal suddenly averred that the “City is not just about one man”, that the ‘transformations’ were “not because of the person who was in charge but because of the hard work and dedication of you and your colleagues” at the Council. But recriminations over Purcell’s personal life shouldn’t obscure the fact that he’d been heading a local authority caught up in a web of “cronyism” and an “elaborate system of political patronage”. The real issue – that which ‘scandal’ obfuscates – is the restructuring of local government along lines of market largesse at public expense. Here, as elsewhere, so-called ‘post- fordist’ restructuring has spawned an ‘economy’ of conspicuous consumerism reliant on exploiting a low-waged vulnerable service class; while subsidised property speculation’s boom- and-bust routine has blighted the city and reinforced extremes of inequality masked by pageant.

Perhaps what is most important here is to understand the by now banal imperatives that foster such contradictions in the first place. A good place to start is David Harvey’s (1989) seminal account of the shift from a managerial mode of urban government (nominally associated with ‘thick’ government, redistribution, and the provision of services and amenities to local citizens) to an entrepreneurial market-led mode of governance, firmly pre- occupied with facilitating economic growth for capital. In this paradigm, city governments are increasingly obliged to take an entrepreneurial turn, working as active state partners in an attempt to create a ‘good business climate’ and lubricate capitalist investment in the city. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri summarise the result of this transition well when they argue that neoliberalism is not really a regime of unregulated capital, “but rather a form of state regulation that best facilitates the global movements and profits of capital”. The state, they conclude, is the “executive committee” assigned the task of ensuring the long-term survival of collective capital, regulating capitalist development in the interests of global capital itself.

While individual actors will have a crucial role to play in this procedure, clearly they are subordinate to neoliberal growth machines. Purcell’s ‘State of the City Economy’ address in 2008 is an exemplary document in that it expresses quite clearly his ‘vision’ for the city. Regurgitating the dull rote of neoliberal convention, he promised that ‘Team Glasgow’ (an un-elected cabal of business leaders purporting to represent the wider interests of ‘Glasgow’) would do everything they could to help businesses ‘cope with the downturn’: “The first thing that all public bodies, including my own Council, must do, is to examine where we can help business by being more flexible and willing to do things differently. This is no time for unnecessary rules and processes; this is a time to do everything we can to help”. The message couldn’t be clearer: “My main priority is helping business in the city through the economic difficulties ahead”, he said.

Of course in order to obtain such a ‘business-friendly’ regime, as Harvey has noted, cities are forced into a highly competitive “race to the bottom”, routing scarce public resources, and driving down labour conditions, as increasingly benevolent measures are offered to entice investment capital. These activities, however, only accentuate the geographical mobility and flexibility of capital, forcing urban governments to produce ever-more competitive policy cocktails, and subsuming policy ever more within the groove of uneven capitalist development: “Indeed, to the degree that inter-urban competition becomes more potent, it will almost certainly operate as an external coercive power over individual cities to bring them closer into line with the discipline and logic of capitalist development”.

The real issue – that which ‘scandal’ obfuscates – is the restructuring of local government along lines of market largesse at public expense. Here, as elsewhere, so-called ‘post-fordist’ restructuring has spawned an ‘economy’ of conspicuous consumerism reliant on exploiting a low- waged vulnerable service class

Purcell’s ‘vision’ included a ‘flexible’ land disposal policy that gives away ‘empty’ commercial premises owned by the Council to new businesses rent free, so that they can do without “the burden of rent costs”. Purcell argued that this showed how Glasgow City Council is “willing to do things differently, willing to be flexible to help businesses”, willing to ‘relax’ rules in order to promote development and safeguard businesses. “We are willing to look at deferred payment arrangements, profit sharing, joint ventures and greater risk taking on the part of the Council”, he promised. One beneficiary of this largesse at the public’s expense are the developers of the Commonwealth Games Village, who obtained the site rent-free, alongside an undisclosed ‘profit-sharing agreement’ with the Council. As a commercial property market magazine concluded in March 2010 (under the headline ‘Loss of council’s ‘Team Glasgow’ is huge blow for property’), the scandal surrounding Purcell may grab the headlines but the loss will also be felt by a featherbedded property industry.

Another means by which the City Council has shown its willingness to prioritise neoliberal enclosure and restructuring has been in the privatisation of basic services run previously by the authority. Since council housing ‘stock-transfer’ in 2003 (the largest transfer in the UK), there has been an acceleration of Council functions carved off to arm’s-length external organisations (ALEOs): care services, culture and leisure, catering, construction and maintenance services, parking, community safety and city marketing. Against a backdrop of diminishing terms, conditions and salaries for those employed by ALEOs, The Herald recently reported that the “cronyism at the heart of Purcell’s council” ensured friends and allies – sitting on the boards of these companies which meet just a few times a year – are being paid enhanced salaries for doing what the Council was already paid to do.

How does what the Herald called an “extended system of political patronage” work? Willie Haughey (a good friend of Purcell, key member of ‘Team Glasgow’, and the largest Scottish donor to the Labour Party) received £680,000 (plus VAT) for a plot of land in Rutherglen from Clyde Gateway Developments, an ALEO run by Purcell’s former political advisor, Iain Manson. Haughey had leased the land from the then-Glasgow District Council but bought it outright in the mid-1990s. Despite an independent valuation of £7.4 million, Haughey also received a £17 million compensation package for his business premises, which had to be relocated due to the construction of the M74 motorway. Another ALEO, City Building, recently awarded two large contracts to Haughey’s City Refrigeration Holdings, worth £11.2 million, despite his bid being significantly higher than other competitors. Clyde Gateway’s board includes four Councillors, all Labour, including George Ryan, Mr Purcell’s right-hand man when he became council leader in 2005.

The head of City Building is Willie Docherty. His wife, Sadie Docherty, is a Glasgow Labour Councillor. Garnering further accusations of cronyism, Scottish Labour’s former general secretary Lesley Quinn was recruited as City Building’s first business development manager. City Building’s £20,000-a-year chair, Gerry Leonard, is also a Labour councillor in Glasgow, as are three other board members. Just one board member is an SNP Councillor as with Culture and Sport Glasgow, whose Chief Executive is Bridget McConnell, partner of former First Minister Jack McConnell. Glasgow’s Labour-dominated Council has also been found to be passing public money into party political funds via at least one ALEO run by Labour activists, in the form of buying tables at party fundraisers. City Building treated Labour grandees, including Scottish leader Iain Gray and his wife, to a £2,000 dinner at a party fund-raiser. David Miller, at Strathclyde University, has also helped disclose Purcell’s free use of public cash as he used Encore catering service, one of the authority’s spin-off companies, to host lavish dinners for fellow Labour politicians.

Within days of Purcell resigning lawyers and a PR company arrived on the scene attempting to gag his former colleagues who’ve sought to distance themselves and their Party from Purcell’s personal peccadilloes. But what exactly, behind the morality tales, might they wish to distance themselves from? The Scottish government has finally expressed concern that spin-off companies “are being used to bypass limits on payments to councillors and reward political cronies”. Meanwhile, The Herald, stirred into muted action at last, said that though the ALEOs were not established for the sole purpose of buying loyalty, they “provided a convenient vehicle for purchasing patronage”. But to personify the system of largesse in Purcell alone is to erroneously perpetuate the story of ‘one bad apple’. Polite press commentary has consisted primarily of emotive stories of Purcell’s personal habits, obfuscating the high degree of institutional aggregation at work in Glasgow in marketing the ‘success’ of Glasgow’s urban renaissance. What was perceived as a dearth of mainstream media reporting led bloggers to speculate on west-coast failure to hold power to account. A piqued Sunday Herald, driven to comment, reacted defensively to “suggestions of a network of powerful figures working behind the scenes to influence the workings of the city … that this so-called network includes leading figures from the media [and] is now threatening to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the Scottish press”.

None of the above points to any ‘conspiracy’ of course, just politics as usual: the same old revolving doors network of legalised looting avid viewers of The Wire will have become accustomed to. No laws, moral or otherwise have been broken – no matter how much money has been channelled into the Labour Party via publicly owned companies, or how many members, relatives and friends are employed in senior positions in such companies.

Responding to “hints” that some Scottish newspapers have “pulled their punches on the controversy because editors have been too close to Mr Purcell or, worse, they have been cowed into submission by Peter Watson and PR firm Media House”, these allegations were rebutted unconvincingly: “Glasgow is a large city but its political and business centre is small. Personal and business relationships meld together, contacts extend and overlap, boundaries blur. Business dinners become social occasions, colleagues become friends”. Herald and Evening Times editor-in-chief Donald Martin told his sister-paper the Sunday Herald: “I was glad to play a role in Team Glasgow along with other individuals who believed in co-operating for the good of the city. Our aim was to encourage actions which would help the city. As a newspaper editor it is an important part of my job to make contacts in the political, business and other spheres and I also believe it is part of my job to work for the good of Glasgow and indeed Scotland”. This suggests, even confirms, an all-too-cosy political compact between Glasgow governance and certain sectors of the crisis-riven Scottish media. Indeed, Martin was part of a regular Friday afternoon drinking date, dubbed ‘The Ritz Club’, which, Holyrood magazine spilled, “included the editors of rival red tops [David Dinsmore], the Herald’s departing editor-in-chief [Donald Martin] and Purcell himself”. That Martin could be so open about these relationships suggests not a conflict of interests but a convergence of interests, effacing any significant debate of the underlying economic antagonisms in Glasgow.

None of the above points to any ‘conspiracy’ of course, just politics as usual: the same old revolving doors network of legalised looting avid viewers of The Wire will have become accustomed to. No laws, moral or otherwise have been broken – no matter how much money has been channelled into the Labour Party via publicly owned companies, or how many members, relatives and friends are employed in senior positions in such companies. As for multi-million pound contracts and shady land deals being awarded to Party donors, well, that just shows that an entrepreneurial spirit is rewarded in an age of entrepreneurialism.

What is perhaps remarkable about Glasgow’s economic policies and system of political patronage is that the disjuncture between the myth of market provision and ‘urban renaissance’, and the reality of a city with 40 per cent below the poverty line, hasn’t been more consistently and effectively exposed. For those on the ‘Left’ this seems an apposite time to fundamentally critique the legitimacy, not only of the crisis-ridden neoliberal project, but capitalism itself. Urban entrepreneurialism and its corollary, inter-city competition, as Harvey has observed, act as an external coercive power over urban governments, whose pro-business urban strategies reduce local authorities to the status of collaborators in their own subordination to capital. The result of these entrepreneurial strategies, as the geographer Jamie Peck reminds us, has been the identikit emulation of ‘winning’ formulas, pulverising social space under the market calculus, and “quickly stacking the odds against even the most enthusiastic of converts”.