Jim Bollan is proud of the number of times he has been hauled before the watchdog for councillors’ conduct. Most recently, the veteran socialist councillor was brought before the Standards Commission to answer 37 allegations brought by the CEO of West Dunbartonshire Council after he made public details of a hushed-up internal probe into corruption believed to have cost the council around £9 million – and triumphantly walked out with a slap on the wrist after just two allegations, completely unrelated to the corruption probe, were upheld. “They try to silence you by threatening you with the Standards Commission,” he says. “But I think it’s a badge of honour. I’m here to challenge what’s going on and try to change it for the better. If you’re going to sit and have knowledge about corruption and not do anything about it, you’re not doing your job properly.”
Bollan is coming up to 34 years of service as a councillor, initially in the Labour Party, later in the Scottish Socialist Party and now in the localist West Dunbartonshire Community Party (WDCP), which was launched in 2015 by former SSP members and community activists. This year, the WDCP is hoping to double its representation in the council chambers by electing its founder, Drew MacEoghainn, in the ward neighbouring Bollan’s. “Being a single councillor, I can’t put a motion down to get it debated without it being seconded,” Bollan points out. “If Drew gets elected, we’ll be able to form the agenda. That agenda we’ll take from the streets, about the issues – about poverty, poor housing, education, the crisis in living standards. All the issues that are facing working class people, we’d be able to take them to the table and get motions debated. And then it will be up to the Labour Party and the SNP to either vote for them or against them, and the people can decide.”
MacEoghainn was just a school pupil when Bollan was first elected to Dumbarton Town Council in 1988, but he was already developing an interest in radical politics. “We had a lot of teachers going on strike with EIS, we had an apartheid regime running rampant in South Africa – you couldn’t do anything but be politicised at that stage,” he recalls. Most of his family were communists and MacEoghainn soon threw himself into the nascent Scottish Socialist Party, which he stayed with until 2015. In that time, he went from training as a cooper to working with disabled children in Glasgow, before finally ending up at the Community Ownership Support Service (COSS), ostensibly helping councils to empower local communities through asset transfers. “There was an awful lot of middle-class people in senior positions in councils who looked at communities like mine as if they were going to run away with the money, they were going to steal it,” he says. “I used to explain to them, in working class communities, if you steal a penny, everybody knows – your name’s blackened. If you’re looking at anyone, it’s the more affluent communities who will say ‘well, my pal’s a lawyer, give him the consultancy money’.”
A central feature of the WDCP’s platform is its ambition to restore and strengthen local democracy. Bollan contrasts the role of unelected officials in today’s West Dunbartonshire Council with the “political control” in the former Dumbarton District Council. He explains: “The councillors were interventionist and the officers knew and felt that, and knew they would need to broadly follow the manifesto of the group that was elected. Today it’s completely different. The standing orders that govern the council are skewed in favour of delegating powers, immense powers, to the chief executive. The ruling group don’t want to be interventionist – they’re quite happy for unelected officers to do the day-to-day work.” MacEoghainn notes: “We’re getting a new chief executive midway through May. That’s the time to sit them down and say ‘this is our new way of working, here’s your delegated powers, here’s what we’re going to take back, here’s what’s going to be our responsibility’.”
Part of the problem, the pair argue, is that the vast majority of councillors have full-time jobs which limit the amount of time they can spend on local politics. “They open the meeting papers as they walk into the chamber – they’ve never read them, never discussed them, “says MacEoghainn. “The leader of their party will give them a nod and they’ll vote that way.” Bollan is proud of his status as a “full-time councillor” with no other source of employment, and MacEoghainn is committed to being the same if he is elected. Both have also committed to being as accessible to the public as possible – Bollan holds three surgeries a week while some leading councillors hold as few as one a month, and MacEoghainn plans to regularly walk the streets to speak with people who won’t come to surgeries – and to meeting regularly with trade unions and tenants’ groups to discuss local issues. “One of the things that we’ve always believed is that the solutions to a lot of the issues that working class people face in their communities can be found from within the communities themselves,” Bollan says.
Though council budgets have been significantly squeezed by austerity, the WDCP argues that the council can still do more to help people struggling amid the rising cost of living. Bollan wants to see the £12 million or so in the council’s reserves “used creatively to get to the people who are at the bottom of the heap … people who are on zero-hour contracts, are on low wages, and are getting hurt by high bills”. The party is also proposing an expansion in new council homes to provide more affordable housing. “We’re putting forward that any new site should have at least 25 per cent council houses in it,” MacEoghainn says. He points to the council’s £34 million plan to build a new road connecting Clydebank and Dumbarton, on a site heavily contaminated by oil giant ExxonMobil and now being treated at public expense, as a waste of money. “There is money there, we just need to make sure we’re putting it into the right places and helping the right people,” he argues.
He also wants the council to take a more direct role in the economy, particularly to help young people into trades. “This area was a hotbed of industry. We had shipbuilding, we had everything in this area, it was phenomenal,” MacEoghainn says. “The council now has what they call a ‘trainee apprenticeship scheme’. I was an apprentice – five years’ apprenticeship as a cooper. These kids are there for a year and booted out to the street. That’s not an apprenticeship. Stop bastardising the apprenticeship name and just tell them what it is, it’s work experience.” Instead of buying windows and doors from private companies for council houses, he suggests the council could produce them. “We could have apprentice electricians, apprentice plumbers – make this the hotbed of apprenticeships in Scotland. You offer young people life opportunities and they’ll settle here, you’ll get more money coming in and you’ll improve your housing. It all starts with the young people.”
Though focused on local issues, neither Bollan nor MacEoghainn are disinterested in what’s happening at a national level. The WDCP takes no formal position on the national question, but both of its candidates in this election are strong supporters of independence (albeit for “a socialist republic, which is slightly different from the ruling body in the SNP”, MacEoghainn jokes) and believe a failure on Nicola Sturgeon’s part to deliver a fresh referendum in 2023 would be an error. “Sturgeon and the SNP have got a responsibility to the working class in Scotland, who in the coming years are going to be under the cosh from a Tory government, to give us an opportunity to get rid of that albatross round our neck,” Bollan says. “I think as time goes on, and she fails to do that, the number of people who will switch off from the independence issue will build.”
Bollan is well-known beyond the boundaries of his own council ward, with residents in neighbouring areas often coming to him for help. The WDCP will hope that this, combined with the party’s popular policies, will give MacEoghainn a boost in his election bid – but he is cautious about his odds against three incumbent councillors, including the SNP council leader, the Labour opposition leader and a senior Tory. “I want folk to come out and get rid of the Tory – that’s my main goal,” he says. “I’m no great friend of the Labour Party or the SNP, but to get rid of a Tory is paramount. If nothing else, let’s vote her out.”
- You can find the rest of our series of council election interviews here.