Labour to act over Monklands council scandal: MP 'to heal wounds' caused by allegations against local authority. John Arlidge reports

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The Independent Online
LABOUR promised 'tough talk and urgent action' yesterday to clear up the scandal surrounding Monklands District Council, following the party's narrow win in the Monklands East by-election.

Helen Liddell, who held John Smith's seat with a majority cut by more than 14,000, said she would 'heal the wounds' caused by allegations of sectarianism and dis crimination at the local authority.

Party officials want a meeting with Jim Brooks, the council leader, to discuss 'Monklandsgate'. They are expected to urge him to act on claims of discrimination, nepotism and corruption, or to stand down.

The allegations dominated campaigning in the Lanarkshire seat. Labour, which underestimated the strength of local anger over the performance of its councillors, reversed its Monklandsgate policy half-way through the campaign. Mrs Liddell abandoned her defence of the ruling group, publicly accusing the council of discrimination in spending and calling for a public inquiry.

The U-turn infuriated councillors and local Labour MPs who intervened to defend the authority, throwing Labour's campaign into disarray. Tom Clarke, the MP for Monklands West, dismissed Mrs Liddell's criticisms as 'largely McCarthyite smears, mythology', and Jimmy Wray, chairman of the Scottish parliamentary Labour group, said her comments were 'open for a writ'. In a humiliating climbdown, Mr Wray later retracted his comments.

Yesterday, Mr Brooks himself spoke out, adding to the sense of confusion in Labour's ranks. He angrily rejected Mrs Liddell's attacks and insisted he would remain council leader. 'The Labour Party nationally cannot control me,' he warned. 'I will go down in history as a fighter.'

Despite her firm promises, senior Labour figures question Mrs Liddell's ability to put an end to the affair. One said: 'John Smith tried to solve the problem for two years and failed. Jim Brooks has proved a remarkable survivor.'

The scandal dominated reaction among the parties to the Thursday's by-election result. The Scottish National Party angrily denied Labour charges that it had played up sectarian feelings. Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, said that the Tories alone had opted to play 'the Orange card'.

Mr Salmond said he was delighted with the result. The 19.2 per cent swing to the nationalists threatened 37 of Labour's 49 seats north of the border, he said.

George Robertson, the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, argued that Labour's sharply-reduced majority reflected 'extraordinary local considerations in a unique by-election'. The Liberal Democrats were delighted they had beaten the Conservatives, who described their fourth place as 'bitterly disappointing'.

MONKLANDS EAST

Helen Liddell (Labour): 16,960. Kay Ullrich (SNP): 15,320. Stephen Gallagher (Lib Dem): 878. Susan Bell (C): 799. Abi Bremner (Against Criminal Justice Bill): 69. Duncan Paterson (Nat Law): 58.

Labour majority 1,640.

Turnout 70.17%

General election, 1992: J Smith (Lab) 22,266; J Wright (SNP) 6,554; S Walters (C) 5,830; P Ross (Lib Dem) 1,679. Lab maj 15,712.

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