THE deadly but evocative phrase "rotten borough" was being bandied around Falkirk on Friday to describe the political controversy that is hanging over the town like a pall.
The trouble centres on the Labour Party's selection process to find a new candidate for the local Westminster seat which the Sunday Herald has been investigating now over a number of months.
Last week, this newspaper reported that Scottish Labour were investigating claims that new members were signed up in the town by the trades union Unite without the individuals completing application forms.
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This followed news that the selection process had been suspended amid concerns over membership recruitment, and SNP claims of a "civil war" within the local party. On top of it all is the continuing presence of the troubled MP Eric Joyce, left, who triggered the selection process by deciding to stand down at the next General Election following his conviction for assault after a fight in a bar in the House of Commons.
One of those who feel that the term "rotten borough" now has currency in the town is Falkirk Council's SNP group leader Cecil Meiklejohn, one of the opposition members on an authority administered by a coalition of Labour, Conservative and independents.
She said: "The 'rotten borough' phrase does seem fitting in the case of Falkirk, yes. It doesn't put Falkirk Labour Party in a good light. We've been going round people's doors to discuss the independence referendum and what we're picking up is a strong sense that the old precept – who you know counts for more than your ability – is coming back into play."
Meiklejohn and others are concerned that the bad publicity stemming from Labour's internal disputes, which have repeatedly made national headlines, is "putting the area in a bad light".
"There is so much negativity coming out of Falkirk right now that people are not hearing about the success stories here."
She added: "It's time the Labour Party HQ took a close look at the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] and how it goes about its business. It looks very much like they have gerrymandered the selection process.
"This isn't the first occasion that this situation has happened locally. You only have to look at what the council's Labour group did with the council structures, cutting out the opposition completely and shifting from a committee structure to an Executive Cabinet one. They have majorities in both the Executive Cabinet and the Scrutiny Committee."
Councillor Brian McCabe, secretary of the local authority's Non-Aligned Independent Group, has never minced his words when describing Labour's self-inflicted problems. He has described Joyce as a "fool with personal issues" and as a "very expensive charlatan". And when the Labour group introduced the new council structure recently, he described it as the day on which local democracy "effectively died". Labour said the old system was "archaic" and in need of reform.
On Friday, McCabe told the Sunday Herald: "The whole Joyce scenario brought disgrace on Falkirk." He claimed: "Now we have political shenanigans in the background of the Labour candidates who want to replace him.
"Lay that on top of the dictatorial new structure in the council, and you have a Labour Group in meltdown.
"I would go along with the rotten borough analogy. The underlying problem is with the CLP ... the selection process has dissolved into political in-fighting which is an embarrassment to the Labour Party, as far as I'm concerned. I don't consider them genuine socialists now – they are very much self-serving ... It's a very embarrassing story."
One local businessman, who declined to be named, said: "It was bad enough when Joyce was in the papers but [the selection process] is an embarrassment. You wonder sometimes if Labour think of the damage they're causing the town.
"I was talking to a supplier [in England] on Monday and he was joking ... about how it was like the bad old days, when Labour used to have their own [fiefdoms] and ran things they way it liked. I'd like to ask these people, where are the voters in all of this?"
Few seem to know when the selection process will reach a conclusion. McCabe says: "I'm not sure where it will all end now ... This entire shambles could drag on to the detriment of the Falkirk people."
A Scottish Labour spokesperson said: "It is no surprise that political opponents are trying to show us in a bad light – has it ever been any different? The party took swift action to deal with Eric Joyce, over whom we now have no authority.
"The party also acted quickly to investigate allegations of wrong-doing in the candidate selection process. A thorough investigation is under way and will report back when it is completed.
"The most important thing is that the people of Falkirk are properly represented and we are confident they will have faith in a properly selected Scottish Labour candidate to represent them properly."
by Russell Leadbetter