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Jimmy Jennings

Former convener of Strathclyde Regional Council;

Born: February 18, 1925; Died: January 25, 2013.

Jimmy Jennings, who has died aged 88, was a steelworker who spent 45 years in local government, four of them as convener of Strathclyde Regional Council, then western Europe's largest local authority.

As convener, he cut an imposing figure and became an excellent ambassador for a region which embraced half of Scotland's population. He travelled near and far but his first commitment was always to his home community of Kilbirnie where he was held in the highest regard.

As MP for Cunninghame North for 18 years, I knew him as a shrewd political operator, deeply loyal to the Labour Party. He could be relied on to cut through over-precious ideological arguments with straightforward questions about what was best for the people we were elected to serve.

He had a particular involvement over a long period with the police service and there was a high level of mutual respect. Sir John Orr, a former Chief Constable of Strathclyde, recalled: "As chairman of the Police Negotiating Board, Jimmy was massively influential in improving the conditions of the job, not just in Scotland but throughout the UK.

"He was an unusual politician, with no airs and graces, who really understood the police and cared deeply about the situation of the ordinary police officer."

They first met when Mr Orr was a constable in Monckton and Mr Jennings, as chairman of Ayrshire County Council's police committee, would inspect police housing – a duty that took him into the grassroots of police and their conditions.

His Who's Who entry summed up the reason for his political longevity. Under "recreation", he listed "local community involvement" and this was reflected in the roles he fulfilled with a host of local organisations associated with the public good.

Kilbirnie was a steel town and his father was employed in the Glengarnock works when Colville's were the owners. He had fought at the Somme and often woke up screaming as the nightmares recurred. It was a poor community and the social conditions visited tragedy upon the family.

Of young Jimmy's three siblings, two died from conditions associated with poverty – the brother to whom he was particularly close from meningitis and an infant sister from TB. It was these circumstances that forged his very fundamental brand of socialism; essentially it was about improving conditions and opportunities for the people from whom he came.

He attended St Palladius School in Dalry and then St Michael's in Irvine – his years of "exile" from Kibirnie, as he called them. In 1943 he passed an exam to become a fighter pilot but since this was going to delay his entry to the RAF, he joined as a wireless operator, serving mainly in the Far East.

On his return, he joined the steelworks, the union and the Labour Party. He was employed at Glengarnock for 33 years until shortly before the closures which eventually led to termination of the local steel industry. In 1958 he had taken his first steps into local government when he was elected to Ayrshire County Council.

In 1964 he was appointed chairman of the Police and Law Committee and then became chairman of Ayrshire Joint Police Committee. Soon after Strathclyde was created he became chairman of the Police and Fire Committee. After eight years as vice-convener and then convener, he resumed the Police and Fire chairmanship and held it until Strathclyde was dissolved in 1996.

His knowledge of the police service made him an influential contributor to two major reviews of police pay and conditions. The first was under Lord Edmund-Davies, who was appointed by the Labour Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, and whose report in 1978 led to substantial improvements. Then there was Sir Patrick Sheehy's report, a decade later when Mr Jennings was heading the employers' side in national negotiations.

He found his forte as convener of Strathclyde. He was an avuncular showman, full of wit and good humour, but above all with a genuine interest in people. One of his particular interests was in forging a strong link between Scotland and the Special Olympics movement.

When his civil duties were over, he could be found calling the bingo at Garnock Labour Club or standing on the terraces to watch Kilbirnie Ladeside. He was an honorary vice-president of the Scottish Junior Football Association, a justice of the peace and an honorary sheriff as well as being made the first Freeman of North Ayrshire in 1997 and awarded an OBE in 1998. He might have retired from local government in 1996 when Strathclyde Region ceased to exist but opted to fight what was regarded as an unwinnable seat for Labour on the new North Ayrshire authority. He won and held the seat at the subsequent election before bowing out from elected office in 2003, just short of his 80th birthday.

In the 1966 General Election he was the candidate in the hopeless seat of Perth and East Perthshire. His main reward was a fund of good stories – not least that when offered accommodation by a local party worker, he found himself sharing a bed with John Smith. There was also the one about a Labour worthy handing him the brush to sweep the committee rooms with the observation: "You're doing everything else. You might as well do that too."

He then sought the nomination for Central Ayrshire, to succeed Archie Manuel, but lost out to David Lambie. The early death of his wife Margaret left him with five children to raise and ended any Parliamentary ambitions. He married Greta and they had two children. Greta also pre-deceased him.

It is likely he achieved more for his community as a local politician than he would have as a parliamentarian and home was certainly where his heart was. In the words of Sir John Orr: "He didn't just talk about community. It was not some plastic word. He really did care about community and believed it was where politics began and should make a difference."

The leader of the Labour group on North Ayrshire Council, Peter McNamara, said: "As a worker on behalf of his community, there was none better than Jimmy Jennings. He held many posts but none was more important to him than being the local councillor."

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