ONE of Jack McConnell's new ministers was at the centre of a political row last night over his past leadership of a sleaze-hit council.
Hugh Henry, a former Marxist who had links with the Militant Tendency, was appointed deputy minister for health and community care in the reshuffle.
As leader of Renfrew council in the mid-1990s, he presided over the descent of the authority into a series of sleaze scandals and slanging matches in the council chamber which had to be broken up by the police.
Scottish Nationalists yesterday called on Mr McConnell to re-think the appointment of the MSP for Paisley South.
Colin Campbell MSP said: "Hugh Henry either knew about the sleaze in Renfrewshire and ignored it or else was so incompetent that he was unaware of the serious misconduct that colleagues were involved in."
He added: "Given his recent commitment to ending sleaze and cronyism Jack McConnell must now explain how Hugh Henry can be considered qualified to be a Scottish executive minister."
The arrival of Mr Henry in the Scottish executive completes a dramatic turnaround in his political fortunes. Twelve years ago he was a Labour outcast, suspended from the whip for bringing the party into disrepute.
Mr Henry was suspected of supporting the extreme left Militant Tendency and defied party bosses by urging councillors to refuse to set a budget in opposition to the poll tax.
At one meeting attended by Militant activists in the late 1980s, Mr Henry told supporters: "The ideas of Marxism are becoming more relevant to people in the Labour Party. Marxism is now firmly on the political agenda."
When asked about his Militant past yesterday, the new minister said: "This has all been in the public domain before, I have nothing further to add."
Political opponents in Renfrewshire yesterday said they were astonished Mr Henry had been appointed to the executive and accused him of being an "unprincipled opportunist" who had converted to new Labour for the sake of furthering his career.
One said: "Hugh has managed to keep his past very quiet but he was never motivated by ideology, he was only motivated by his own self interest."
Mr Henry, 49, became involved in politics when he was a social worker at Strathclyde Regional social services department in the 1980s.
Mr Henry was elected as a Labour councillor to Renfrew council in 1984 and later became involved with the Militant Tendency. His name was mentioned in the magazine Militant and he spoke at meetings where Militant leaflets were distributed.
At one he said: "I want to counteract the impression that it is the Left who are infiltrating the party. I would argue that the real infiltrators in the Labour Party were the academics and intellectuals who used the Labour Party as a vehicle for their political ambitions.
Mr Henry clashed with the Labour Party leadership when he proposed Renfrew Council should not set a budget in response to the imposition of the poll tax by the Conservative government.
He said he could not ask the people of Renfrewshire to pay a tax which he would not pay himself.
Mr Henry was suspended from the Labour party whip in 1989 but within five years he had undergone a transformation into a new Labour Blairite who was elected as leader of the Labour Group at Renfrew Council.
Another of his opponents said: "It was an incredible change. He started wearing suits and toeing the party line. He pushed through 28 million of cuts in the council budget over the three years between 1996-99, something which he would have been bitterly opposed to only a few years earlier."
During his leadership, the council was divided by furious rows over allegations of sleaze and cronyism which led to police being called to the council headquarters in Paisley to break up the confrontations.
One allegation of nepotism was over the appointment of Mr Henry’s wife Jackie to the post of school inspector for the council. The allegation was investigated but found to be groundless.
It was in 1999 that Mr Henry stood for election to the Scottish parliament as MSP for Paisley South and his rapid ascension to the executive has been seen as a reward for his staunch support for Jack McConnell
Colin Campbell yesterday said he had written to Jack McConnell to question the appointment of Mr Henry as a junior minister.
"He was Leader of the Labour Group on Renfrew Council at a time when allegations were made about funds at Renfrewshire Unemployed Workers Centre. He was a leading light in the party during the scandal that beset Ferguslie Community Business and he was a central player in the party when the now disgraced Tommy Graham was endorsed as a candidate," Mr Campbell said.
"Jack McConnell has to explain how it is that a man who was so immersed in the cronyism and sleaze of the Renfrew Labour Party is fit to be a minister in the Scottish executive"