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A FUNNY OLD GAME, POLITICS (Part One)

14-04-2007

Tory councillor Len Clark recently walked out of a Birmingham Council meeting after calling Sir Albert Bore a “bloody hypocrite”. But Labour veteran Hugh McCallion recalls the days when Clark was a keen socialist. In this first extract from his forthcoming memoirs, he pulls no punches.

After twelve years the Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher, which had so enthusiastically promoted the Metropolitan County Councils concept, decided they were not working and they had to go. The Labour Party, which had so vigorously opposed their setting up, now just as vigorously opposed their abolition.

The Government engaged Price Waterhouse to make the case getting rid of them and the Labour-Controlled County Council engaged Coopers & Lybrand to make the case for retention.

Never has the old adage of he who pays the piper calls the tune been more appropriate. Both firms of consultants produced a cogent, well-argued case for their respective paymasters. You won’t be surprised to hear that the government won.

How did Peter Walker justify the whole debacle? “Every century there is a lunatic who attempts a root and branch reorganisation of local government. I was the lunatic this century.” Is there another lunatic just around the corner or do they come in pairs these days?

A number of Birmingham members of the County Council had found themselves in prominent positions on the authority and were bitterly disappointed when their power base disappeared.

Some lesser mortals were more astute and immediately made themselves available for election to Birmingham Council. A few of the leading lights were confident they would be head-hunted for the safest wards. When this didn’t happen they started lobbying vigorously elsewhere but, unfortunately for them, most of the vacancies had been filled.

One of the powerful elite who sat back and waited for the Party to beat a path to his door, was Len “Crocus Crusher” Clark who is currently a prominent Conservative member of the Coalition running Birmingham Council.

Prior to becoming a member of the County Council, Len had been one of the Labour Party power brokers in the Small Heath constituency where he was, amongst other things, the late Lord Denis Howell’s election agent.

As the winnable vacancies gradually disappeared with no approaches to Len, he began to panic. When he and I met in the street on one occasion, he berated me about how the Party was squandering talent like his. I advised him in terms that were not the epitome of diplomacy, to stop belly-aching and go hunting for a seat.

About six weeks later, a good colleague of mine, Councillor Bryan Bird, was de-selected by one vote in the neighbouring ward of Stockland Green. Bryan had been a hard-working local member for a number of years and had also been a very effective chair of Leisure Services.

This wasn’t good enough for an amalgam of dogma-driven lunatics and a handful of pea brains who organised a coup in favour of a woman who they regarded as a strong left wing socialist. The fact that she was a fractious, bossy so and so who would make two short planks look intelligent, didn’t seem to matter. These were the days of Derek Hatton and his militant morons.

Coincidentally, another long-standing colleague and friend of mine, Councillor Jim O’Donnell, had decided to stand down in Kingstanding ward. In my capacity as the ward chair, I visited most of our members and explained the situation regarding Bryan and Jim. I told them openly that I was lobbying for Bryan who was a councillor with an excellent track record. There was no doubt in my mind that the members would back Bryan.

When news leaked out about the Kingstanding vacancy, I was assailed from all sides by people pressing their claims. Len Clark was about the fifth to make contact and, as is his wont, his approach was about as subtle as the butt end of a ragman’s trumpet.

“Hugh, the party owes me this seat and I’m relying on you to get it for me. Just tell me what we have to do. Who do you want me to go and see?” When I explained that Bryan Bird was already in the frame and the front runner, his exasperated language nearly set the phone lines on fire.

The following day, he contacted a number of influential people, including the Labour Party Organiser, and they dutifully contacted me on his behalf.

On the night before the shortlisting conference, Len rang me about half a dozen times. When he realised that I hadn’t budged an inch and that he probably wouldn’t even make the shortlist, his final call around midnight contained a threat to take his talents to another party.

I told him that the fact he was even considering this was an indication of how shallow his socialism was in the first place and how right we were not to consider him. We exchanged a few parting pleasantries and some weeks later I heard that he had joined the Conservative Party.

There is an object lesson here which is well worth dwelling on for a moment. When he was a big cog in the Labour Party wheel, Clark was well-known for churning out leaflets attacking the Tories and the Liberals and for his robust, uncompromising performances at public forums.

When he became part of the “Halford’s Mafia” group of chairmen at the County Council, he was one of the most ardent and belligerent exponents of socialist policies. At Council meetings he sat on the Labour benches hurling insults across the chamber to the Tory benches where he now sits hurling insults across the chamber to where he used to sit.

If I had pushed him instead of Bryan Bird all those years ago, he would probably still be on our side of the chamber gesticulating and decrying the selfish, uncaring Tories and the despicable Lib Dems, the very people with whom he now happily communes.

And this is the guy who regularly lectures people about hypocrisy and integrity. Funny old game politics.

Forthcoming extracts include Hugh's memories of Edwina Currie and new BBC chairman Sir Michael Lyons.
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