Spectre of loony-leftism raised in rehabilitated Islington

Ex-Labour researcher says council's dogmatic spirit pervades party. Ian MacKinnon reports
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The north London borough of Islington, once an enduring home of "loony leftism" and now symbolic home of New Labour, has once more been thrust unwillingly into the limelight with Leo McKinstry's excoriating attack in the Spectator.

It is that wider significance of the borough - home to the Blairs and other left-leaning glitterati - as a cipher of the sensible, voter-friendly New Labour Party that gives Mr McKinstry's devastating allegations of the borough's continuing bureaucracy and waste such resonance.

For those who thought the politically correct days of bans on black coffee and council-funded gym mats for lesbians were past, Mr McKinstry's words will come as a shock.

They are all the more devastating since the man, until recently political researcher to the shadow public services minister, Douglas Henderson, said the spirit of left-wing dogma in the local authority pervaded the party and showed how it would behave inpower. In Islington, the leadership cried foul. Phil Kelly, chair of the education committee, conceded that administration of the authority, which employs 10,000 and has an annual turnover of £200m, was not perfect, but it was greatly improved.

"The kind of things he was describing may have been true when I first arrived at the authority in 1984," Mr Kelly said. "But it came to change after the great rate-capping fight of 1985 and 1986 when it became clear that there was not going to be any more money for local government.

``We had to look very closely at efficiency of the services we provide. In the end he is just wrong in what he says."

But tales of council excesses persist - council officers costing the authority £750,000 because they failed to submit housing subsidy claims on time, and of as many as 30 officials suspended on full pay while awaiting disciplinary hearings are meat and drink to the tabloids.

An independent academic and close observer of local government conceded that Islington had never been a "great advertisement" for Labour in London, and nowhere near as successful as its neighbour, Camden.

That is a theme the sole Conservative on the authority, Clive Blackwood, exploits, able at the drop of a hat to parade statistics that he maintains amply illustrates his point and backs Mr McKinstry.

That the cost of processing housing benefit claims in Islington is £161.49 per head compared to £103.69 in Camden is a favourite.Similarly, Mr Blackwood points out that claimants are not getting a better service for their money; the percentage of housingbenefits paid with 14 days in Islington is 36, while in Camden the figure is 95.

Equally, he is able to point to grants to community groups which the Race Equality and Community Affairs committee discussed only this week, among them the Irish Women in Islington Group and the Hi-Fashion Music Group.

"Nothing at all has changed since the loony left days," said Mr Blackwood. "The culture of the organisation is still exactly the same.''

Council leader's view, page 13