07 March 2010

The Strange Case of Steven Purcell

I'll start by going through what we all know:

We know that Steven Purcell has resigned as Leader of Glasgow City Council. We know that despite early indications to the contrary, he has now taken the step of resigning as a Councillor altogether.

We know that Purcell has left the country, though we do not know where. The tabloids can't decide if he's on the other side of the North Channel (in Donegal), the other side of the Atlantic (Florida) or the other side of the world (Australia).

We know that Purcell attended a rehabilitation clinic. We know that he briefly went missing from there last weekend. We know that he was being treated for 'chemical addiction' and we now know that he has taken cocaine. Further, we know all this despite the initial statement citing 'stress and exhaustion' as the reasons for his departure.

We know that Council Deputy Leader Jim Coleman is in charge temporarily. We now know that Coleman refused to put his name to the statement drafted by Purcell's lawyers and PR firm as the Council (or at least, the Labour group) had drafted a different statement referring to the addiction.

We know that the police, specifically the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, turned up at the City Chambers to discuss the risk of blackmail to him, and that following that discussion, Purcell upped sticks to the West End.

We also know that Labour were made aware of the situation in the run-up to the Glasgow East By-Election, but chose to do nothing, save prevent him from being the candidate.

And that's where we are. When it was stress, everyone was wishing him well, singing his praises and hoping for a speedy recovery. Now, it's like they're all talking about someone different. Was this not the same guy who helped to bring the 2014 Commonwealth Games to Glasgow? Apparently not, that was a team effort. Was this not the same guy who was tipped to be a future Labour Leader and First Minister? Apparently not, because we say this about every Leader of Glasgow City Council. Granted, the precedents are Frank McAveety (who got into trouble for choosing eating a pie over Parliamentary duties) and Charlie Gordon (whose approach to fundraising ended up causing the downfall of Wendy Alexander), so if we were shooting for the moon beforehand, we didn't even manage to hit a star on those occasions.

But Purcell was different: he did secure the Games and he did have something about him. While a number of the decisions taken on his watch were unpopular (the school closures spring most readily to mind), he was capable and was highly adept at banging the drum for Glasgow in the way that we expect Alex Salmond to bang the drum for Scotland.

Plus which, I have to confess to a respect for Purcell which I'd imagine not many of you will be surprised by: while there are a good number of 'out' politicians these days, there are very few who would make decent role models - who wants to emulate Peter Mandelson, for heaven's sake? Purcell, on the other hand, managed to navigate the rapids of Glasgow Labour, get to the top there, and seemed more than ready to go to the next level. Even though he attained the Leadership before he came out, he sought and won re-election as himself, and the actual announcement seemed to come and go without any big thing. So of course seeing someone like Purcell getting there and staying there is a boost, a cause for optimism and a reason to be ambitious. After all, if he can get there, why not anyone else? Speaking from my own perspective, there are a couple of practical barriers (being 100 miles away from the border is the primary obstacle) to my wanting to put myself forward for something in the short to medium term, but thanks to people like Purcell, sexual orientation isn't one of them.

So what happened?

Well, at the risk of understatement, it looks like Purcell made some bad choices. Most of us do, but then, most of us don't lead Scotland's largest local authority. So when they caught up with him, as happens to everyone, then they were absolutely going to hit him harder and heavier than usual. And let's face it, a sequence of events which, if some reports are accurate, leads to you leaving the Northern Hemisphere altogether is pretty earth-shattering.

And of course, it seems that Labour were sitting on a timebomb for eighteen months. There was never going to be a good time for this one to go off, but having had that long to draw something up, they've contrived to destroy Purcell when they were seeking to protect him. We've gone from "Leave the man alone!" to "What the hell has happened here?" in one move and it's exasperating, but it's not hard to see why. In fact, the two aren't mutually exclusive: there is nothing that can be achieved by hounding Purcell except prolonging the agony that he's surely in. Rather, the questions are to be asked of his colleagues and basically boil down to, "Who knew what? When did they find it out? What did they do about it?" The answer to the last one is, apparently, naff all. Bravo.

And it was the silence that did it in the end: when the story did finally break, the instinct to circle the wagons took over, but it was done to such extremes that rather than leading everyone to believe that Purcell just needed time, it led everyone to reckon that there was more going on than we were being told. And so it proved. It's like trying to move up (or, indeed, down) a flight of stairs quietly: the steps seem to be creakier and you end up making more noise tiptoeing than if you'd just blundered up normally.

The result? A few days ago, everyone was talking about there being nothing more than a temporary vacancy in the City Chambers, now Purcell is out of politics altogether and probably for good. The Lazarus act required for anything else to happen would have to go beyond even Mandelsonian proportions.

And of course, Glasgow Labour is starting to turn in on itself, with people jockeying for position and various figures looking to hang Purcell out to dry. This suggests that the outlook for the Labour Group could have been ugly whether the former Leader's trajectory was the upward vector we were expecting or the downward vector we got: there doesn't seem to be an obvious successor and given Jim Coleman's caretaker status, Scotland's largest local authority is left basically rudderless for three months, plenty of time for a lot of in-fighting and back-stabbing. Moreover, this happens in the run-up to what has, of late, been a rare beast: a Westminster General Election where Glasgow has the potential to surprise. Can John Mason succeed where Robert McIntyre, Winnie Ewing, Margo MacDonald and Jim Sillars all failed and consolidate a By-Election win against Labour? Can Osama Saeed beat the Labour machine and the hostile press coverage to win Glasgow Central? Can either the SNP or the LibDems get that breakthrough against Labour in Glasgow North? You have to go all the way back to 1992 to find even one reason to be at the count in Glasgow, but this time, we have at least three, and now we're going there against the backdrop of a Council likely to eat itself.

And of course, a potential Scottish Labour leader is now out of the picture, which has broader ramifications at Holyrood: either they have to hope that Jim Murphy loses East Renfrewshire but manages to sweep into the Scottish Parliament next year like an avenging angel, or they have to find the personality that Iain Gray left down the back of a couch somewhere. The former isn't ideal as a) he actually has to lose his seat, which isn't set in stone; b) he would then come in as a loser rather than as a winner, and c) the last person to switch like this was Alex Salmond, and he got the Party Leadership first having announced he was seeking not just to be SNP Leader but also First Minister, then getting step 1 achieved, had more than two years to find and win a seat at Holyrood. Jim Murphy, on the other hand, would have to get elected to Holyrood before even being eligible to stand in a contest to be Labour Leader, which means finding and winning a seat (not easy when the equivalent seat to his own is, notionally, already in the hands of the party he would have lost to by then and the other seats are likely to have sitting Labour tenants), then there has to be a vacancy for the group leadership, which requires Labour to lose the 2011 Election, and only then can he stand, and before he can utter the words 'First' and 'Minister', would have to endure a lengthy period as Leader of the Opposition. So unless Labour manage to pull something out of the bag this Spring, then in three months time, Iain Gray will basically be the uncontested Leader of Scottish Labour. And I really don't think that's good for them.

One last thing: am I just being insecure/paranoid about some of the press reporting? My hackles were raised when the Scotsman used the word 'lifestyle' in one of its pieces - the L word is one of those god-awful euphemisms and seems like a decent corroboration of the "nudge nudge wink wink you do know he's a poof" approach described in an excellent post by Clairwil. Maybe I'm just seeing a demon that isn't there, but if I'm not, then it seems the press have learned nothing from the outcry following Jan Moir's attempts to dance on Stephen Gately's grave.

I hope Purcell is in Australia because I know that if I were in his shoes it would be excruciating to watch what's now unfolding. The spotlight has been shone on his personal demons, and in the melee that's developing, we're in danger of giving into our own.


Clairwil said...

Cheers for the mention. I just find the response to this from certain people both online and off quite distasteful. Whatever Purcell has done -and it seems he has been pretty foolish in his personal life, he was always someone I had a degree of respect for even when I strongly disagreed with him.

His downfall is not one I can take any pleasure in. If anything it just seems like a bloody waste of a promising politician.

I don't blame him for getting off his mark and I sincerely hope the press do not manage to catch up with him. What benefit is there in hounding the guy? He's resigned which for him should be the end of the matter.

Given that we now know that others within the council were aware of his problems for at least 18 months, it would be interesting to know what exactly brought about his resignation now rather than 18 months ago. I'm presuming those in the know have decided to keep this to themselves until such times as it could be used against him.

Steven Purcell is not the first affluent young man to go a bit OTT with the coke and he'll not be the last. For me the real story lies in who within the council knew what, were they using that information against him and if so why.

Lallands Peat Worrier said...

Although I didn't dwell on (or even mention!) the issue in my own remarks on The Strange Case of Councillor Steven & Mister Purcell, I'm particularly interested in your final asides visa vie 'lifestyle', Will.

Too often there is too time spent really reflecting on our discourses about sexuality - and I'd argue, as I've persistently argued, about the role of gender - in Scottish popular representation.

The media are particularly implicated. As you say, pervasive use of little, ostensibly harmless asides combine to exceptionalise homosexuality (or for that matter, anything except 'vanilla' heterosexuality). Merely reflect on a parallel article, written if Purcell had never ended his relationship with his former wife. Citation of his sexual-object choice, out of the blue, would seem gratuitous - even bizarre - in an essay outlining the late disorders of his time in office.

Lallands Peat Worrier said...

Cripes. That should be 'too little time spent'. Always helpful to leave the crucial, meaning-imparting word out of your sentences.

Will said...

Clairwil, absolutely right, the Councillors are the ones needing the microscope treatment as of now, though I'm not holding my breath.

LPW, thanks for the clarification to a post that did leave me a trifle bemused as it was in the key paragraph! And I'd agree in that the way we go about difference in politics, be it gender, orientation, religion, race &c. is completely barmy - we bring it up constantly as the odd little snide remark, then suggest an organised positive discrimination campaign which doesn't sit well in an election which actually consists of 650 sub-elections, but we do nothing in between.

To put it bluntly, the political classes need to work out whether a) this is the 21st Century, this shouldn't be an issue anymore and everyone should grow up and give judge each other on individual merit rather than their gender/race/class/partner/god, or b) this is the 21st Century and we desperately need to have some sort of thought as to how we represent the various sub-groups that make up the country rather than limiting ourselves to snide remarks or blunt instruments.

Unfortunately, I'm not holding my breath on that count either.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I don't have much sympathy for Mr Purcell. As a GCC employee of many years I have never witnessed such cronyism as exhibited under our former leader. It will be interesting to see whether any of the dozens of FOI requests relate to his very close relationships in the property world.

Administrator said...

Interestingly, it has been suggested by more than a handful of people that he is not abroad, but sitting quietly with a couple of plods finest, twitching the net curtains at every passing car...

Anonymous said...

"We know that he was being treated for 'chemical addiction' and we now know that he has taken cocaine."

Not sure if he was ever TREATED for addiction.

subrosa said...

You perhaps are a bit paranoid Will when you immediate conclude that the word lifestyle relates to his sexuality. Until I read that in your post it never occurred to me.

The translation of lifestyle in connection with Purcell meant a social person, a party animal - as is well known in Glasgow.

Charlie Schnifter said...

I think COSLA might need to be brought in here, it's becoming clear that his close confidants and senior staff knew about this situation for a long time.

The DEA met with him last May, that was before the Glasgow NE By Election and also before the labour Group at Glasgow City Council refused to attend a council discussion on organised crime called for by the minority SNP group.

This, much like the accusations of bully with brown, reeks of a culture of dismissiveness, a general sweeping under the carpet rather than dealing with the problem.

That Purcell's diary alone appears to have been servely curtailed (every monday apparently) because of his activities is evident enough to mount a COSLA Investigation in the actions of the leader's advisors and just how far down the chain in the Labour Group and party this goes.

I sincerely hope to god that nothing comes from the apparent post mortem to be carried out on this Labour activist youngster who Steven Purcell employed in the council and whom the News of the World cites as often visiting Steven Purcell in his office.

This is more than personal tragedy, as the Times reports, this points to a kind of 'culture' prevalent within Glasgow City Council, one of the longest running hegemonies in the UK.

Time to blow out the cobwebs and start a COSLA Investigation into the council's key financial dealings, property, contracts and licensing decisions.

Labour knew nothing said...

"...We know that the police, specifically the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, turned up at the City Chambers to discuss the risk of blackmail to him..."

According to the Daily Mail today, tthe DEA had a source saying that a dealer had mobile phone footage of Purcell that was incriminating, hence why they went o visit him.

It also appears that a senior labour aide sat in on the interview and that Labour councillors were told about it.

This was May 2008, prior to Glasgow East.

Insider said...

Was Jim Murphy aware of this problem?

Is Jim Murphy really Labour's best hope, have you seen him at Scottish questions, he's useless, instead returning to hackneyed old sound bites.

Jim would split Scottish labour through sheer force of careerist personality.

Grogipher said...

Excellent post, as always Will.

Subrosa - I suggest you go back and read the red tops' coverage of the affair, and you'll notice the subtle little digs. They might not be noticed by most, but they're there.

It's mostly "gay Purcell" or the like, and each mentions his ex-wife and his coming out.

Would you ever see a story that says "white, heterosexual, Christian, male Councillor" in any paper? No... It's just drawing attention to difference, which doesn't help anyone get along.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

I see nothing wrong with the use of "lifestyle" Purcell appears to have been a part of a shady hedonistic subculture. These are of necessity secretive and cabalistic. Its a simple fact that gays do favours for one another just as masons do. Trying to shut down debate about the negative aspects of gay club life and its possibly corrupting influence on a very highly placed public official seems to me disingenuous and actually, sinister.

Grogipher said...

Its a simple fact that gays do favours for one another just as masons do.

News to me.

Sophia Pangloss said...

It'd be fascinating to know how many 'well-placed' persons (cooncillors, heid polis, the like) get friendly chats wi' the HighCrimes and Drugs polis agency, tippin' them off that they're blackmail risks.

Purcell was only a blackmail risk cos he wis daein' something illegal. Are the polis stupit or what?

Or are thae aw' at it?

Anonymous said...

Why does Glasgow need 79 Councillors to run the City? We only have 59 MPs for all of Scotland. Is it to share out all the corporate hospitality?

Andrew BOD said...

Excellent analysis Will. There's not very much more to be said unless a Labour insider opens up or some real investigative journalist has the back up to get stuck in.

What will be interesting will be the affect it has on GE voters in Glasgow. Have the press kept it low-key enough to have little effect, or will it have an impact on the 40,000 Council / Council-related workers and their families. We'll know soon.

Will said...

It's interesting reading everything that's come through, people, the papers have gone quiet but if there's more to emerge then it will find a way, with or without them.

On a couple of specifics, however:

Subrosa, I hope you're right and I am being overly touchy about the use of the L word. Nevertheless, it is one of those trigger words and the minute I saw it my instant reaction was, "Here we go..." and Grogipher makes a typically excellent point about how the matter of his sexuality has been handled with all the subtlety of an elephant in a tutu.

And on a similar point, WW, I have to say, my experience is somewhat different and I share Grogipher's surprise at your "simple fact". Rather, my reading of the situation is that the LGBT communities are not as united as you (or, indeed, the community organisations) think, not as homogenous as many believe, and less like a cabal than you could possibly imagine. Indeed, there are a fair few sub-groups that would happily kill other sub-groups simply to see them die. I think comparisons with the Masons are utterly spurious and I find trying to tie his sexual orientation to everything else as a matter of course before any actual facts have emerged on when and where these events were set in motion to be equally "disingenuous and actually, sinister."

In terms of the rest, are there hedonistic gay people? Yes. Are there hedonistic straight people? Yes. Do gay people use drugs? Some do, others don't. Do straight people use drugs? Some do, others don't. In fact, I'm staggered that in 2010, people still perceive an instant link between sexual orientation and a social problem which crosses that boundary, or that it's become necessary for me to actually put this paragraph and the preceding one into words. In truth, I suspect there's blame to be had on all sides for that.

Anyway, with that rant done, let me just say that Sophia makes a great point about how the police were talking to SP about an illegal thing that he was doing but none of them thought to get the handcuffs out, and Andrew, I suspect that few decisions will actually be reviewed (the Labour Group would have a lot of explaining to do otherwise) so the course Purcell set the City on will continue for now.

Finally, Anon, in defence of Glasgow City Council, in Scottish terms, GCC has far more electors per Councillor (~5514:1) than most other Councils (in fact I think only Edinburgh has a higher ratio at ~5815:1). In fact, the average ratio across Scotland is ~3207:1. That may still seem like Scotland has more than its fair share of Councillors, but I suppose that if the numbers were to be reduced further, there'd have to be some ridiculously small Councils or some barking mad imbalances - already Highland has 80 Councillors (one more than Glasgow) with less than half the number of electors, and cuts would make discrepancies like that even worse.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Good heavens, this is an excellent analysis of a complicated, sad, exasperating and alarming situation.

Good job! Fair and scathing at the same time!

Burt Shane said...

Can't say I ever found Purcell to be anything other than a New Labour "moderniser" - in other words, a politician addicted to neoliberal privatisation of everything he could get his hands on. And getting the Commonwealth Games? How is that in any way positive? We will be in debt to this thing for years, as Montreal was with the 76 Olympics - they just paid the debt off. Closing schools, closing communtiy centres - how is any of that positive, or visionary or anything other than "business as usual" - the rich gain and the poor lose out.

Anonymous said...

i think the lifestyle remark was an oblique reference to his drug taking and partying rather than his sexuality. i don't think eddie barnes is a homophobe.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Will said...

Folks, just for the record, I generally tolerate most forms of comment save the outright illegal and - obviously - spam comments. But I do prefer comments to be on-topic (or at the very least, following the natural flow of the discussion) and I'm not having this comments section on what is already a sensitive topic hijacked to re-ignite old rows which have nothing at all to do with anything discussed here.

Anyway, in terms of the other comments, Jeanne, thanks for the kudos - it's a complex one and it's far from over. I like challenges but this is an ugly one as it's tough to strike that balance...

Burt, I suspect the Games will be political Marmite for years to come. Certainly if the logo people are any indicator, those in charge aren't doing themselves any favours, and Purcell's part in everything will get picked over - it'll have to.

And Anon, I hope you're right. I hope it's just me being touchy, but still...