Right at the heart of Labour
(From The Guardian Newspaper 22 Jan 1999)

JOHN GOLDING, the former Labour minister and MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who has died aged 67 from complications after a heart operation, was a tireless soldier of Labour's trade union right-wing. He possessed a natural political nous, authority and energy that bellied his short, but stout stature. For him or against him - he was the best friend you could have, or the worst enemy, if you found yourself on the wrong side -his sharp, impish sense of humour would always liven up the room.

He and his wife Llin -Newcastle-under Lyme's current MP, made a formidable political team - instinctively "old Labour" in their support for the working class, pensioners, the unemployed and the rights of ordinary people to be represented by trades unions. In more than 40 years of active politics, including 17 years as an MP, Golding would admit he made more enemies than friends. Often, as when he led the Labour moderates' fight against Militant in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the blood feud would come down to politics, pure and simple. Golding was uncompromising in his hostility towards dreamers and schemers on the left, including Tony Benn and Erie Heffer, whom he believed offered nothing for everyday folk.

At that time, when organising the trade union-led fightback for "common sense", he was justifiably known as the most influential man in the Labour movement. A master of every political trick in the book, he was bloody-minded enough to copy the left's tactics and use them to the moderates' advantage. In the Commons tea-room, MPs under threat but innocent in the finer arts of the roughhouse - such as Robert Kilroy Silk - would frequently ask Golding how to get themselves organised. "I'm fed up of this f ... in' idiot. I'm going," Eric Heffer once shouted at a home policy meeting of Labour's national executive, after Golding stalled another left quick-fix by giving the meeting a two hour long insight into ordinary, working-class views on every subject under the sun. Alas, in a scene worthy of Basil FawIty, Erie walked straight into one broom cupboard, then another, before slamming his papers down and shouting "Oh f ... it, I'm stopping after all."

"And these were people who thought they could run the country," Golding remarked in the political memoirs he was near completing before suddenly failing ill at Christmas. The memoirs, strongly encouraged by Llin, are a testament to the trade-union brothers -many from the West Midlands, including John Spellar, now a defence minister, and Roger Godsiff, MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook - who carried the torch during Labour's darkest hours before Militant was finally routed and the party began its tortuous climb back to respectability under Nell Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair.

Occasionally, the hostility to Golding was purely personal. It often fell to John to step where others feared to tread. In 1983, during Labour's leadership election - in the wake of a disastrous general election defeat and the resignation of Michael Foot as party leader - union tacticians calculated that Roy Hattersley simply did not command enough votes to defeat Kinnock. Hattersley would have to bite his ambition and be content with the deputy leadership instead. "Do you mean to say that I am going to have to play second fiddle to a red-haired Welsh windbag," Hattersley exclaimed, when Golding was deputed to deliver the black spot. "Yes, if you put it like that, you are going to have to play second fiddle to a red-haired, Welsh windbag," came the uncompromising reply Hattersley's undying enmity cost Golding a place in the shadow cabinet. If he was bitter at the time, the scars never showed. In politics, his attitude was that you win some, and you lose some. "I got Benn, then they got me," he said after losing to the left the position he always kept as political officer in the Post Office Engineering Union (POEU). That victory over Benn - the recapture of Labour's feuding NEC in 1982 after "five years hard labour", as he put it - was undoubtedly the high point of this strand of Golding's career. Using the moderate and soft left's narrow majority on the NEC, as Foot abstained, he ruthlessly removed Benn and his acolytes from all their positions of power.

To many, with Golding playing a key role in determining the 1983 manifesto, it remained a mystery why Labour fought the election on what became known as "the longest suicide note in history". The answer, if Golding was asked, was straightforward: he had already decided that because of all the feuding, Foot as leader and the Falklands to boot, Labour had already lost the election. He was cunning enough to allow the left enough policy rope to hang themselves, so the Bennites could never again blame the right - as they had done after Jim Callaghan's defeat in 1979.

While the annals of Labour history will undoubtedly record Golding as one of the right's best ever "fixers" --- a label he took pride in - there was much more that that to his political career. Wellversed at an early age in politics and philosophy, he reserved a healthy disregard for ideologists with their heads in the clouds.

He went to Chester Grammar School before studying, eventually, at Keele University and the London School of Economics. He had begun his working life in the Civil Service in London -- as an "office boy" at 16, as he described it, then, as a clerical officer at the Ministry of National Insurance and it was as a researcher with the Post Office Engineering Union that he returned to Newcastle to stand in a 1969 by-election.

It was then, too, that Golding first met his future wife, Llin, a hospital radiographer, Labour activist and the daughter of a former Labour ME who was given the task of driving the young candidate during the election campaign. Both were already married, with separate families of their own, but 11 years later they were to tie the knot together a second time round.

After winning the Newcastle by-election, Golding quickly joined the Wilson government, first as parliamentary private secretary to Erie Varley, then minister for technology, then as a whip. As minister for employment from 1976, he was intensely proud of Labour's efforts to cushion the blows of unemployment and short-time working, despite the best efforts of the left to undermine the Callaghan government in the party and the unions.

To a born street-fighter, after 1979 (an election tainted by the tragic death of his eldest son), opposition under Margaret Thatcher came as second nature. Golding still holds the record for the longest-ever Commons speech - 11 hours and 15 minutes speaking to one small amendment - which successfully delayed the privatisation of British Telecom until after the 1983 election. It was a tactic, as one of the outstanding parliamentarians of his day, that he would use repeatedly to great effect. These days rules have changed, so Golding's record is unlikely to be broken, but delay was then often the only effective tactic against a massive government majority.

Golding was certainly not though one of those pompous MPs who enjoy the sound of their own voice. Indeed, he showed an almost childlike pride in his award by the Guardian in the 1980s as the Commons' worst-dressed MP.

IN 1986, aged 55, Golding gave up the Newcastle seat after becoming general secretary of the newly-merged National Communications Union, following another vicious battle with the left. There, he had to summon all his negotiating skills in deft handling , of strikes and disputes with British Telecom at the height of Thatcher's onslaught against the unions. To the end, he remained active in local politics, both in support of Llin and Newcastle's Labour borough council.

Politics aside, Golding's great passions were fishing, horse-racing and, latterly, Spanish. Weekend after weekend, he would throw himself waist deep into the rivers of mid-Wales or well-stocked lakes of Hampshire, with the Spanish ambassador often in tow. A fair cook, his family freezer was stocked to the brim with freshly-caught salmon and trout. Asked, too, how come the pot was always full of game, he said it was because of a case he was assisting at an employment tribunal. "The chap's good with traps," he would say, "I'm being paid in rabbits instead."

Just before his death, John took a new mischievous delight at running rings yet again around civil servants in his new appointment to a Ministry of Agriculture advisory panel on the plight of British fresh-water fishing. If the Sir Humphreys of this world thought they could "fix" any committee they liked, they got their lines snagged with Golding. They would always- be caught out by the master-fixer, himself.

John Golding, politician and trade union leader, born March 9, 1931; died January 20, 1999

 

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