Election '97: 'Donnygate' affair spawns its own anti-sleaze hero

Christian Wolmar
Wednesday 23 April 1997 23:02

Labour faces its own anti-sleaze candidate in Doncaster, which has achieved national notoriety with a local government scandal of growing proportions.

Neil Swan, a former Labour Doncaster candidate, is standing on an "anti- sleaze Labour" ticket against Kevin Hughes, a junior Labour whip in the last Parliament and also a former Doncaster councillor.

The Donnygate affair, which has been dubbed recently as "the worst local government scandal since the Poulson affair", first came to light in January after the district auditor revealed he was questioning the validity of trips abroad and extravagant "working" lunches by councillors.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that the police are widening their inquiry to include land deals, contracts with a security firm and various other financial deals and the police are now setting up an office in the town hall.

Mr Swan said he wants to put pressure on the national party and to act as a focus for local concern about corruption at the council. A New Labour supporter, he wants to draw the national party's attention to what has been happening for many years in Doncaster.

Mr Swan was a councillor between 1987 and 1990 and fell foul of what he calls the ruling "Mafia" on the council. He said: "It started at the first meeting I went to, when I asked a few questions about the annual report, they didn't like that."

An inner caucus of leading councillors, based originally around the National Union of Mineworkers, the miners' community group, has long made the key decisions about what happens on Doncaster council, and Mr Swan fell foul of them: "I discovered their existence by accident. I was driving, a bit early, to a meeting, and I saw this bunch of councillors standing outside the local T&G office. They had obviously tried to get in for a meeting but the caretaker had locked them out. When they noticed me, they started jumping over hedges and trying to hide behind the building. It was hilarious."

Thanks to a grant of pounds 7,000 from the People's Trust, a fund created with a pounds 2m donation by Mohamed Al Fayed, Mr Swan has an office, a fax and even a hired van. He hopes that there will be some money left over to sponsor candidates in the 1998 council elections, if the clean-up of the council, which has started through the resignation of several leading councillors, has not been completed.

Out on the stump, Mr Swan drops into a group of women who live in terraced housing opposite a development site. They have complained about not receiving any information as roadworks and shops appeared opposite them, with no warning.

Two of them, Heather Wilson and Susan Arksey, have been badgering the council for two years but their letters get lost or they receive patronising replies. Mrs Wilson said: "We started taking in our letters to the council to make sure they got there, but they refused to give us a receipt for them."

In the market in Thorn, one of the small towns which make up much of the Doncaster North constituency, Mr Swan is greeted by supporters. He has become a repository for all complaints about the council, but there is, too, deep embarrassment about Donnygate.

"I've seen these councillors plotting in the local club. They're like a coven of male witches," says Frank Dallas, a pensioner, who is angry about recent figures showing some councillors getting more than pounds 20,000 a year in expenses.

Yet, local Tories are surprisingly uninterested in exploiting the scandal. Peter Kennerley, a candidate from Central Office casting - a City lawyer and Wandsworth councillor - reckons that Doncaster people will not react well to an outsider raising local sleaze: "This is still the people's republic of South Yorkshire. People are very dependent on the council and don't dare criticise it."

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