The MP Who Keeps Cloth Cap Image

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TO MANY of his colleagues, Alan Meale is an unlikely target forallegations of "unacceptable cronyism" and "extraordinary and outrageous" conduct. The MP for Mansfield has had a successful Westminster career away from the limelight.

In many ways his upward mobility has reflected the history of New Labour. The 49-year-old son of a Durham colliery worker is now an environment minister and a confidant of the Deputy Prime Minister. But his first appearance in public life, after a stint in the Merchant Navy, was in trade unions. He was an assistant to Ray Buckton at Aslef, the train drivers' union, before being sponsored by Arthur Scargill's National Union of Mineworkers for his parliamentary seat.

Before entering the Commons, Mr Meale had been a researcher for a number of MPs, who all shared his left-of-centre beliefs. He was also closely involved with the hard-left Campaign group.

His big break came in 1994, when he was appointed parliamentary private secretary to John Prescott, who became Labour's deputy leader in the same year. The two built up a close working relationship.

In Parliament, Mr Meale has taken part in a range of campaigns, including sponsoring a Bill to improve the welfare of broiler chickens, and, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary beer committee, the introduction of a special ale for the bars in the House. He is a keen football supporter, and was treasurer of the all-party Commons football group. It was through his local club, Mansfield Town, that he met businessman Tony Kleanthous.

Like Mr Prescott, Mr Meale is sympathetic to the Greek Cypriot position in the Cyprus dispute. He is said to have travelled to the island 11 times in six years on fact-finding trips. The Labour Party has received donations from Greek Cypriot businessmen, and Mr Meale is said to have played a part in securing them.

He has hit the headlines before. At the age of 20, he and his fiancee, Kathleen O'Brien, were one of the first to take advantage of a law that allowed people under 21 to marry without their parents' consent. They later divorced. In l983 he married his present wife, Diana. They have a son and a daughter.