The Monklands East by- election, for the other vacancy created by the untimely death of the Labour leader, has refocused attention on Monklandsgate, the scandal that refuses to die. It could yet pull down with it the electoral hopes of one of Scotland's most glamorous high-flyers, Helen Liddell, sometime confidante of Robert Maxwell and self-styled job creator extraordinaire.
With only 10 days to polling day, the Scottish Nationalists feel they are on a roll. Having scored 33 per cent in the Euro- elections two weeks ago, taking north-east Scotland from Labour, they believe they can inflict further humiliation - despite the 21 per cent swing required to overturn the general election result. Labour insists that its vote is holding up close to John Smith's 60 per cent share, but declines to back up that claim with private polling evidence.
However hard she tries, Mrs Liddell cannot shake off the public perception that Labour-dominated Monklands council is a corrupt, one-party fiefdom controlled by the 'Coatbrig' Mafia', a tightknit group of councillors, all of whom happen to be Roman Catholics, hell-bent on preserving their power and patronage. An internal party inquiry, which led to some reforms, has failed to stem the rumours and allegations which rival parties are exploiting as hard as they can.
An old man sporting an SNP sticker there last week growled: 'That's not democracy down there. There's 17 Catholic councillors. There's nae opposition. They're just doing what they like.' Three other men murmured approval. They were all Tory defectors to the Nationalists.
'Down there' means Coatbridge, for this is a tale of two towns that make up the Monklands district. Airdrie, preponderantly Protestant, is an old- established market town of about 40,000 people that looks down, literally, on the upstart Coatbridge, a hamlet until the Industrial Revolution, when waves of Irish immigrants were drawn to the steel, coal and engineering industries. The industry has mostly gone, but their descendants now comfortably outnumber Airdrieonians, and they dominate the Labour Party and the council.
But in this election, the Nationalists sense that Airdrie has an opportunity for revenge. The SNP candidate, Kay Ullrich, a chain-smoking 51-year-old social worker from Kilmarnock, says the Labour council spends 10 times more in Coatbridge than in Airdrie, and revives the stories of 'jobs for the boys', nepotism and sectarianism.
The Conservatives are not holding back either. Allan Stewart, the absurdly bewhiskered local government minister at the Scottish Office, hid behind the skirts of Labour activists who first exposed Monklandsgate to make the same charges. Touring the constituency, he said: 'Over the last two years, these groups have accused their fellow party members of religious discrimination, of handing out 'jobs for the boys', of financial irregularity and political corruption. They have accused them of lavishing largess on Catholic Coatbridge to the neglect of the more Protestant Airdrie.'
The Conservative candidate, businesswoman Mrs Susan Bell, agrees that on the doorstep she meets 'a perception that there is religious discrimination'. Is that her perception? 'Yes.'
Tucked away in a lane off Airdrie's main shopping street is the Orange Lodge Club, decorated with a bas-relief of King Billy on his white horse. They don't talk about perceptions here. John, a 54-year-old machine operator, insists: 'It's not Labour-Tory. It's Protestants- Catholics, that's what it is. Politics in this area is religion.' Some say they ought to be Labour, others that they are really Tories. This time they plan to vote SNP 'against the Coatbrig' Mafia.'
Robert, a burly, 60-year-old unemployed baker, argues: 'Let's stop all the kidology. John Smith knew what was going on, and he did eff-all about it. I'm Labour-minded, but what we have seen in the last 15 years has turned us against them. It's a protest vote. We've had enough of it.'
Then, unprompted, he added, with what passed for a knowing smile: 'She's a Riley, frae' Chapelhall.'
Chapelhall is one of the former mining villages that ring Airdrie, a Catholic enclave among the Protestant majority. 'She' is Mrs Liddell, daughter of a Catholic bus driver who made good and then became a
manager. It is sign of the political times that, here, her religious origins are raised ahead of her political pedigree.
Mrs Liddell, aged 43, is chief executive of the Business Venture Programme, which is funded by Scottish Enterprise and the Glasgow Development Agency and charged with 'job creation through high-quality small business start-ups'.
Before that she was head of the economic department of the Scottish TUC, and briefly economics correspondent for BBC Scotland. For 11 years, until 1988, she was general secretary of the Labour Party in Scotland. She fought East Fife in the October 1974 election and came a poor third behind the SNP and the sitting Tory, Sir John Gilmour.
So why wait 20 years before trying again? 'I am not the kind of person who hawks themselves around,' she retorts. 'I have been offered a number of nominations in by-elections and general elections. I am the kind of person who does something, who feels I have something to contribute. This is my home area. I joined the party here 28 years ago. I was John Smith's campaign aide. I fought the election here and in the rest of the country with John Smith. My husband and I joined the party together here. I married the chairman of the Young Socialists when I was vice-chairman.'
In the emotional aftermath of John Smith's funeral service, her husband (now a senior executive with a multi-national company) thought 'it was time for me to go back and do my bit'. She adds: 'It may sound schmaltzy, but it's true.'
Nevertheless, it is also claimed that the Labour Party machine assembled 200 postal votes for her candidature before she had to face the 'one member, one vote' encounter with the faithful - a session that left one working-class activist calling her 'super-bitch'.
Mrs Liddell walked the nomination, and that should have meant that her passage to Westminster was secure. It is not. She concedes that she is 'fighting a marginal', and recent voting figures support her anxiety. John Smith held the seat with a majority of 15,712, with the SNP in second place. In ordinary circumstances, his personal following would have been worth no more than 3,000 votes. Labour must hope it is worth more now, because the SNP took Airdrie South in the May regional council elections, and was only just balked of Airdrie North. A Labour win in Monklands East is genuinely contingent upon the silent vote for the memory of John Smith.
Mrs Liddell's connection with the 'Coatbrig' Mafia' is only conjectural, perhaps even fanciful. Her links with 'Cap'n Bob' Maxwell are more explicit. They rattle her - even if they play louder in the media than they do on the doorstep. She gets angry about being linked with Maxwell, pointing out that her pension went down with that of every other Mirror Group employee.
The line changes. To Newsroom Scotland news agency she insisted: 'The truth is I have never worked for Robert Maxwell. It is a smear to suggest I was ever employed by him.' But she told the Scottish Daily Express: 'Like everyone at the Daily Record and the Sunday Mail, I worked for Maxwell, but I did not work with him.'
There are further variations on the theme, but Mrs Liddell has never denied that Maxwell rang her at her luxury home in Langbank, Ayrshire, in April 1988, to offer her the job of corporate personnel and public affairs boss of his Scottish operation for pounds 50,000 a year.
She took the job, and stayed with it. Maxwell boasted that he had captured 'the services of this outstanding Scottish personality'. Her recruitment would bring to his Scottish papers 'an exceptional intelligence and humanity'. She was, by all accounts, extremely loyal.
Mrs Liddell's prospects also rest on the voters' perception of Mrs Ullrich, who is a latecomer to the field and also has some unfortunate political form. Last year, she told an SNP conference that the Royal Family was guilty of tokenism towards Scotland. 'They come once a year dressed like Harry Lauders, playing at kid-on Scots, and shooting everything that moves,' she said. 'We also have to endure the thoughts of Chairman Phil, lecturing us on things like the work ethic. Prince Philip was not acquired for his brainpower but for stud purposes - and that involves a completely different part of his anatomy.'
She now advances the official line of an independent Scotland within the Commonwealth, presumably accepting the role of the Queen. The Protestant vote does not favour republicanism.
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