Tales from the socialist republic

Town Hall politics and the people who practise them are not great entertainment – unless the town is Sheffield in the 1980s and one of the politicians is David Blunkett. Stephen McClarence, who observed the passing show from the press benches, reports

On the first Wednesday afternoon of the month for most of the 1980s, I sat through council meetings in Sheffield, trying to find something funny to write about.

And only Philip Moscrop made it bearable.

I was there to review the municipal music hall in all its absurdity, to puncture pomposity and deflate windbaggery. But, on a more serious level, this was an extraordinary time in local Yorkshire politics.

David Blunkett, whose ministerial diaries have had such saturation media coverage over the past few weeks, was council leader, the city was dubbed the capital of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, and the council pursued policies that were either ground-breaking or laughable, according to taste.

Bus fares were hugely subsidised, the Red Flag was hoisted over the Town Hall on May Day, the city was declared a nuclear-free zone, and councillors generally involved themselves in the international working-class "struggle". To some, this meant never wearing a tie: ideology became idiocy.

Sheffield practised political correctness before anyone else had even heard the term. It was undoubtedly "Left", but was it "loony"? Was it daft to have a three-hour debate on goldfish rights, leading to a ban on the fish being offered as fairground prizes? Or was it enlightened?

The city became almost an independent enclave, with its own political and economic agenda, and its own foreign policy (it regularly condemned Pinochet's latest exploits in Chile). One former councillor has called it "an island of Socialism in a sea of Thatcherism", but there were plenty of people who thought the council's time would be better spent repairing the roads and putting up more bus shelters.

It was a time of great idealism and a certain naivety, when Sheffield Council tried to change the world and councillors tried to change their babies' nappies in the council chamber. And Blunkett embodied it.

His diaries, in which some reviewers have noted an underlying bathos, reflect just how much he has changed, and how much Labour has changed, over the past 20 years. Spin has replaced substance, with principles sacrificed to power-seeking pragmatism.

As a commentary on the hothouse atmosphere of national politics, with all its intrigue and self-absorption, the diaries couldn't be bettered. But to understand something of Blunkett's local political context, try Tomb of the Unknown Alderman, a more modest book due to be launched on Monday.

A collection of anecdotes, it offers an amused sidelight on the innocence of those long-gone Socialist Republic days.

More than that, though, it's an insider's view of life on a council where Blunkett may have been king, but Coun Philip Moscrop, a Scouser by birth, was court jester.

Back in the 1980s, Sheffield council meetings were interminable. Hours would pass, amendments would be tabled, votes would be put, and, in the real world outside the panelled Town Hall council chamber, the afternoon would slowly fade into evening.

And then, just when you thought you couldn't take any more, Philip Moscrop would stand up to speak and a frisson of excitement would flash round the room. Because this is the sort of thing he said:

Of an education policy: "We're going out into the open like snowmen on a dark night."

Of a planned budget: "This is just a pin in the ointment, and remember, anyone can trip up like a can of baked beans." To the Liberal councillors: "You can sit like a sandpiper, put your head in and talk out of the other end." To the Tories: "You lot over there, you're like New Brighton donkeys – gob open, wide-eyed and legless."

Moscrop did to the English language what pigeons do to statues. He had a surreal turn of phrase worthy of James Joyce and a set of false teeth with a life of their own. He died in the early 1990s, but his oratory survives him, thanks to Tomb of the Unknown Alderman. The book, with contributions from Roy Hattersley, Joe Ashton and Blunkett, has been compiled and edited by John Cornwell, a Sheffield councillor in the Sixties and Seventies and later the bluff deputy leader of South Yorkshire County Council (RIP).

Though now retired from local politics, he still plays the game with journalists. "Don't quote me on that," he'll say after a particularly juicy revelation. Or: "That's off the record." Or: "That's not really for this piece." So the world will never know the identity of the councillor who was "very bright but very malicious, and eventually alienated everyone".

When Cornwell approached former colleagues for behind-the-scenes stories of Town Hall life, many were initially stumped. But, as he says: "If you see life as a bit of a joke, the council was full of it." The jokes do indeed come thick and fast. Cornwell recalls Coun Mrs Enid Hattersley, the famously talkative mother of Roy and a one-time Lord Mayor of Sheffield:

"She would often ring you late at night, around 10.30pm, with some crucial issue of the day and after relating it, would then launch into any topic that took her fancy. She didn't expect dialogue and often these calls would go on for over an hour. On several occasions I made a cup of tea and returned to find

she was still rattling on, unaware that I had been away."

That reminds me of my own first interview with her. She sat me down in her front room, started talking and it was a good three hours before she paused to say: "I must just use the toilet. You have a look round the garden." As I stepped on to the lawn, the toilet window flew open and she shouted down: "As I was saying…"

There's a story from Blunkett about the Rev Alan Billings, then deputy leader of the council, now a regular on Radio 4's Thought for the Day.

During a meeting, Blunkett asked Billings whether one of the more frail elderly women councillors was in the chamber. "No," said Billings. "She's died." Another councillor turned to him: "What do you mean, died? There she is, sitting in her place." Quick as a flash, Billings came back: "You don't call that living, do you?"

Billings was always droll. One afternoon, I remember, he ambled wearily over to the press bench and asked, with great solicitude: "Don't any of you have better things to do with your lives than sit and listen to this?"

Another councillor, Tony Damms, recalls walking with Blunkett and his dog along Brighton promenade during a break from the 1983 Labour Party Conference, when he was just coming into national prominence:

"While waiting at a pelican crossing, a family on the other side of the road seemed to be taking a great interest in David, and I could hear them say: 'It is, you know.' I told David he'd been spotted and he rather preened himself as we walked across the crossing. As we drew level, one of the family cried out triumphantly: 'Told you so, it is a curly-coated retriever!'"

Two stories recall distinguished visitors. Margaret Thatcher was guest speaker at the 1983 Cutlers' Feast, an annual industrialists' white-tie-and-tails dinner. An "Unwelcoming Committee" of protesters gathered to meet her and there are various stories about the evening, but none, I think, as good as one told me at the time by a journalist attending the Feast. As protesters threw eggs at Mrs Thatcher, one industrialist turned to another and said: "These people can't be poor, throwing eggs at the price they are."

And there was an early 1970s visit by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. As Sir Irvine Patnick, former MP for Sheffield Hallam, recalls, it fell to Lord Mayor Martha Strafford to welcome them at the station and lead them to the cars waiting to drive them to the Town Hall. "Prince Philip started to head to the Mayoral Rolls until Martha stopped him. 'That one's mine, luv,' she cautioned. 'Yours is the funeral car behind,' pointing to a Co-op limousine."

Reading the book has roused many emotions. Not nostalgia, exactly; that would be like having nostalgia for toothache. More a wistful sense of political times more interesting and energetic than today's; of the clubbish, almost family-like, atmosphere of local politics; of many councillors' curious combination of a sense of civic duty and a desperate longing for publicity, even if they are only ever going to be world-famous in their own backyards.

Above all, the book recalls Philip Moscrop, who rescued many a Wednesday afternoon for me. Who else would ever have said:

"You Tories are as much about representation as a bird that loses its feathers."

"Every garden has a different sod under it."

"This authority has too many sergeants and not enough Indians."

"The Poll Tax legislation has got people taking boiled sweets, they are so frightened."

When Blunkett left the council for Westminster, Moscrop gave him a ringing endorsement. "This man has the realistic mind of a master statesman," he said. "He is no teacake."

n Tomb of the Unknown Alderman and other tales from the Town Hall by John Cornwell, Sheaf Graphics, 8. Available on 0114 255 0851.