GAVIN Callaghan is on a mission to transform the culture of Basildon Council, he says.
Last month the Labour leader helped orchestrate a coup which unseated the Tory administration after a 15-year rule. They were out of control, he says, and it was time for a change.
Since 2014 the council had been in no overall control, with the Tories forming a minority administration. But despite holding the minority of seats, says Callaghan, they used the executive power afforded them by the cabinet system to push through a series of unpopular decisions.
So two weeks ago Labour, UKIP and independents ganged up to overhaul the council’s governance system, scrapping the cabinet and replacing it with a series of cross-party committees.
No party will control the council but Callaghan – at just 28 years old – has become the de facto leader, chairing the main committee – policy and resources.
When we meet in the Labour Group Room at the Bas Centre, he says the new role has kept him at the council offices until past 10pm almost every night since he took on the role.
His first job is to decide how the council will find £4million of savings in the next year.
He can’t guarantee there will be no redundancies but, he says, “I’m able to guarantee that frontline services will not be hit.”
Beyond the budget deficit, his primary aim is to overhaul the council’s attitude.
“It was cosy, it was arrogant, it was ignorant to a lot of the facts and a lot of the impacts,” he says. He cites the axing of disability charity DIAL’s funding, the relocation of Basildon Market and the signing off of detailed planning permission for Dry Street behind closed doors.
“The first time us opposition councillors were finding out about major things that were happening in the council was when we were reading about it in your paper,” he says. “We couldn’t carry on with a minority Tory administration just doing what they wanted and, to all intents and purposes, pretending that they still had a majority on the council.”
Changing the culture, he admits, is ’not going to be easy’: “I’m going to be one of the youngest people in the country who are going to be taking on these roles and responsibilities. But I am determined to make sure that I do the best job I possibly can, so I’ll be doing my reading, I’ll be making sure that every decision that we take is well thought through and evidence-based.”
Asked how, at such a young age, he has managed to manoeuvre himself into the council’s plum role, he insists he doesn’t know and that would be a question for others.
Callaghan has a history of securing senior roles at a young age. At 25 he became the leader of the local Labour Group and at 26 he helped run Andy Burnham’s Labour leadership campaign.
This is despite not coming from a political family, he claims: “The conversations around my household dinner table are more about whether Sunderland are going to relegated than what George Osborne was saying in his budget.”
His mother is from the north east, his father from the east end. Both were the children of Irish immigrants. As he and his sisters grew up in Basildon, he says, their parents instilled in them the importance of working hard and working together. They encouraged him to become the first man in his family to attend university, which he did.
But it was external influences which politicised him, beginning at age 11.
“I went to secondary school and my best friend is quite severely disabled, and he couldn’t come to the same secondary school as me because there wasn’t accessibility in the school,” he explains. “I remember thinking at the time that really wasn’t very fair.”
By the time he left school there has been ’radical improvements’, “and the more I learned about it, the more I realised that politics can make a difference in people’s lives.”
He joined the Labour Party at 16 but had no intention of becoming a politician or an activist.
“I wanted to be a journalist so I didn’t nail my colours publicly to the mast,” he says.
His first job was in Manchester, commentating on horse and greyhound races for Betfred’s in-store radio station.
It was in Manchester, months after leaving university, that he watched the protests erupt over the tripling of university fees.
“The three years I’d just had an university were the best three years of my life, and the most informative,” he says. “They completely opened my eyes to things I had never seen before – and I wanted my cousins and my nephews to be able to do that as well.”
He discussed the issue with former Basildon MP Angela Smith, who told him, “Don’t get angry – get active.”
So he did. By 2012 he was back in Basildon, standing for Labour in Pitsea North West against Conservative cabinet member Andrew Baggott. To his own surprise, as well as many others’, he was victorious and, at just 23 years old, was elected to Basildon Council. He got a job at the Houses of Parliament, working for Labour MP Steve Rotherham, where he stayed for almost five years before leaving to work for disability charity the Papworth Trust.
His earlier years on the council are perhaps best remembered for a series of very public spats with then Tory mayor Mo Larkin, including one in which he mistakenly claimed she had spent taxpayers’ money on a portrait of herself.
Asked whether he thinks they have damaged public confidence in him, Callaghan laughs.
“No one remembers Mo,” he says. “Mo’s part of Basildon’s history. I’m part of Basildon’s future.”
He has proved himself, he insists, by repeatedly beating the odds – first by unseating a Tory cabinet member, then by becoming the local Labour leader at 25. He registered a respectable second place during his 2015 battle against Tory John Baron for the Basildon and Billericay seat in Parliament and was last year re-elected to his seat in Pitsea North West for a second term.
But does he regret any of his spats with Mo, I ask.
“Not really,” he says. “Because it’s all part of learning to be the best councillor that you can be.”
He has had to work hard to maintain his position, he says, whereas, “there’s a lot of people as councillors – and I’m thinking particularly on the Tory benches – who just get elected.”
His Tory critics claimed during the heated meeting last month where their cabinet was ousted that Callaghan had led the coup to bolster his own CV; that at the first sign of a safe Parliamentary seat up north he would be gone.
“I’m not on a ballot paper on June 8,” he says. “I’ve chosen not to be on a ballot paper and that’s because I want to do good things in Basildon.”
He will not rule out a move up north in future. His girlfriend is from Leeds and may want to return home. His beloved Sunderland AFC tempts him back up north several times a month.
“Never say never in life,” he says. “I don’t know where I’m going to be in ten years time. I’m not going to sit here and make an arbitrary commitment that I’ll never go up north again in my life. But I have no ambitions to stand for Parliament any time soon.”
He enjoys the personal attacks, he says: “A bit like Margaret Thatcher said – who I know so many of the Tories here love – I love it when they attack you personally because it means they have not got a single political argument left to make. I’ve been a thorn in the side of the Tories for a long time in Basildon. I’m an even bigger one now.”