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Tribute to Colin Aherne from H&F Leader Stephen Cowan

I am heartbroken to announce that Councillor Colin Aherne, the Chief Whip of H&F Council’s Labour Group and councillor for Wormholt and White City, died in Hammersmith Hospital yesterday (11 July) following complications arising from a heart attack. All of us that knew and loved Colin are devastated. This is the link to the condolence book.

The immense shock people feel across the council is in part because Colin remained a bold, vital, and cherished part of our lives right up until the end. He was 77 years old.

Colin would tell how he was, “A proud Welshman, with an Irish name, living in England”. Out of respect, three Flags of Wales flutter at half-mast outside the council offices on King Street.

Colin was particularly proud to live in Shepherds Bush and to represent the people of his ward, which he did with care for 35 years. He would often characterise his assiduousness by explaining “I’m a belt and braces man”, something he applied to: his constituents’ case work; his 35 years on the planning committee; his 35 years on the licensing committee; his nearly four decades as a school governor; his time as chair of the adoptions board; and his over 30 years as chair of governors of Wormholt Primary School. He was a diligent elected representative.

This clip of Colin talking about the importance of empowering people and listening to and respecting the needs of young people really captures his approach.

Fierce champion

Colin was a fierce champion of the people he represented. His convictions were borne out of the genuine hardship of his early life. He was born in 1944 in Tredegar into a loving family whose home had no electricity, no gas, and an outside toilet. His mother and father’s struggles to provide food, clothes, coal to heat the home, or pay for a doctor if anyone in the family fell ill was something, that back then, was commonplace for people in that small Welsh community – something that gave Colin a burning life-long passion to fight social injustice.

Faced with working in the local pits, Colin joined the Army instead, having been enticed at 15 years of age by a John Wayne movie he and his friend had seen at the local cinema. He saw action during the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation sometimes telling how he spent his eighteenth birthday being shot at in Borneo. He was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.

This harsh life could have produced a harsh, bitter man. But Colin was quite the opposite. He was one of the kindest, sweetest, most caring, funniest and optimistic people I have ever met. The tributes pouring in already reflect that. “There’s no such thing as the good old days” Colin would say, pointing out how things are now so much better for most people in Britain because good people campaigned and fought to change the world.

A better world

Colin spent his lifetime doing what he could to change the world for the better. He was an active trade unionist much admired across the trade union movement for his integrity and hard work. In the early 1980s, he was arrested and fined for collecting money to send food parcels to striking miners. By 1986, he was elected to Hammersmith & Fulham Council. He became the Chief Whip shortly afterwards – his meticulous approach proudly giving him a reputation as the best barrack-room lawyer anyone had ever come across.

In 2006, Colin was a crucial member of the borough’s opposition leadership, and since 2014 he has been a key force behind some of the administration’s most compassionate programmes which have included:

  • being the only council in England to abolish charges for adult social care
  • providing free breakfast for all local primary school children
  • providing food in and out of term time for children needing support
  • saving the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates
  • funding the law centres so the poorest people have access to legal advice, and
  • introducing an Industrial Strategy linked to the borough’s schools which is bringing local young people some of the best career and business start-up opportunities anywhere in the world.

There is so much Colin achieved. It is impossible to list all of it here. He was a well-read, thoughtful, and insightful person.

Brave

Two weeks ago, when Colin was first in hospital, I was with him when he explained to a wonderful nurse how the doctors and nurses had asked him lots of questions - but there was one thing they hadn’t asked him to do. “What was that?” she enquired: “To pay” he answered before going on to tell how he comes from the same town as Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the NHS.

Yesterday after the call came to rush to the hospital, I was ushered into the Intensive Care Unit to find 12 medics standing around Colin. There was a wide variety of beeping sounds and flashing lights as he was rapidly being prepared for emergency surgery. He gave the biggest smile and presented a thumbs up. One of the medics announced to the others how “Colin is part of the team that saved Charing Cross Hospital” at which point they all began to thank him. As he was wheeled past me, he put his hand out for a high five. He was very brave and a fighter to the very end.

Colin was so proud of his nieces and nephew. He loved his family very much. I know he considered the Labour Group and his friends in the party as a part of his wider family – something all of us are proud to be.

And he loved Hammersmith & Fulham. The place he’d made home and where his work over four decades has changed this part of the world so much and for the better.

Colin Aherne was a gentle, considerate man. He was one of the finest, wisest people I've ever known. He was a great friend. He was a rare and good human being. We will always miss him.