Citizen Dave decries 'malaise of dictatorship'

Labour in turmoil: Suspended council leader speaks out 9 Prescott launches fightback 9 Moderates move on NEC's hard-left members

JOHN McKIE

The leader of Walsall council, Dave Church, whose district Labour party was suspended last week, yesterday insisted he would show more loyalty to the Labour leader, Tony Blair and the party's environment spokesman, Frank Dobson, "than they have shown to me and my party''.

In the first major interview he has given since his party was suspended, he told the Independent: "The Labour Party is suffering from this malaise of dictatorship.''

"It's really a case of 'I know best'. The answer to every problem is: 'Don't let them make the decision, let me make the decision'. That might not be Tony Blair, that might be his bunch of advisers. It is all about making decisions at the appropriate level."

Mr Church insisted that "I want to show more loyalty to Tony Blair and Frank Dobson than they have shown to me and my party. The country needs the Labour Party to be elected, local government needs the Labour party to be elected."

But he said he is mystified as to why the suspension has been made. He said: "Go and ask the party, as I am damned if I can find out. I would try phoning the London HQ in Walworth Road but I would probably only get to speak to a PR person."

Labour headquarters acted in response to Mr Church's controversial initiative to make the council's nine department heads and 37 other staff redundant, with 90 days' notice and set up neighbourhood committees. Mr Church's deputy, John Rotheray, claimed that the district party was acting in keeping with national policy but Mr Dobson suspended the party on the grounds that Walsall had done too much in too short a time.

Mr Dobson announced this on the day the Tory party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, was in Walsall, prompting negative publicity both for Tony Blair's administration and the Walsall Labour party.

Mr Church is furious about this. "The people saying 'too fast, too soon' are lying. It's taken us 77 days to pass one resolution, which does not affect people for another 90 days. If we were any slower we'd have stopped by now."

Mr Church also revealed that Labour's national executive committee (NEC) has been represented at every council meeting since May, when he took over as leader.

He rejected the criticism from Labour councillors which has appeared in the national press since the suspension.

"Some of the accusations of intimidation or mounting opposition are not true. It so happens that there has been an NEC representative at every borough Labour meeting since I have been elected leader. They made no comment - ever - about whether any rules were being infringed, nor about anyone being intimidated. They just sat there and did not say a word.

"The first objection anyone heard was when Frank Dobson spoke on the radio. He decided to react to the chairman of the Conservative party coming to Walsall."

Three weeks earlier, MrChurch and Mr Rotheray had attended a meeting in London for council leaders. At this, a local government officer from Walworth Road advised them to install a public relations team for the council.

Mr Church agreed with the officer, but was unwilling to risk criticism for spending council money on such a team.

"The criticism we would have got for such a move would not have been worth it but within 14 days the national Labour Party had contacted us complaining that we had not moved swiftly enough."

When asked to contact the assistant regional officer on his return from London Mr Church encountered more problems. "I rang the assistant and she started to brief me on what was happening. They were saying contact us before you speak to the press. The Labour Party did not contact me or John Rotheray before they spoke to the press."

Mr Church said he would carry out his controversial plan to get rid of the civic centre for 54 mini committees "tomorrow" if he could. "It will take place and I think it will take place under my jurisdiction. As soon as we get a budget for it, 54 decentralised neighbourhood committees will be ready to take over."

Mr Church shrugged off the charge that he was in the mould of the old style Labour councillors of the early Eighties. "I don't want to be an MP. I want to be leader of the council so that I can carry out this decentralisation. The title is not important to me, it is what you do with it. If I was run over by a bus tomorrow, I am reasonably confident that the policies would be carried on without me."

Mr Church found out about the controversy surrounding the council while on a holiday. "I was in a hotel in India watching a review of the British newspapers on World Service TV. The Sunday Times had done a big article on a place called Walsall and this guy called Dave Church. I got the shock of my life."

Mr Church is writing to the Press Complaints Commission about the conduct of the Sunday Times which sent a photographer to track him down in India. Mr Church says the photographer pretended to be an amateur, wanting to snap tourists.

The council leader also intends to complain about what he sees as the Sunday Times's "pestering" of his 19-year-old daughter, elderly parents, and his neighbours during his 23-day holiday. Mr Church is also considering legal action against Mike Bird, Walsall Tory leader, who claimed that the holiday was paid for by council community associations, a charge Mr Church denies.

Nevertheless, it is another issue which most annoyed him. Mr Bird's initiative of installing two more concrete hippos to join the others already in the town centre has been used by the Sunday Times as an example of more "loony left" bureaucracy from Mr Church, dubbed "Citizen Dave".

Mr Church insists he would never have added another hippo. "I wasn't even on the council when Mike Bird announced the plan to use millennium fund money for more hippos in the town centre."

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