An “Old Labour” man
Albert Booth, former “Old Labour” Cabinet Minister, lifelong socialist and trade unionist, and my much-loved uncle, has died aged 81.
Albert was born in Winchester in 1928. His father’s search for work took the family up and down the country, and by the late 1930s they were living in Willesden, north London. One day, ten-year-old Albert answered a knock on the door. An unemployed hunger marcher was collecting along their street to pay for the funeral of a fellow marcher who had died en route. Young Albert listened with horror as he learned that when working-class people died, their bodies lay unburied until their grieving loved ones could raise the cash for a burial. The sheer, brutal injustice of this added to the socialist zeal imparted by his parents (my grandparents) to send Albert on the road to a socialist life.
Spending the war living in Scarborough, Albert left school at 13 and studied evening classes, funded by a grant from the Co-op. As the war ended, he moved to Tyneside and began work as an engineering draughtsman. He quickly became an active trade unionist, and by his early 20s was attending the national conference of the draughtsmen’s union (now part of Unite).
He joined the Labour Party as an extension of his trade unionism, was a national council member of the Labour League of Youth, secretary of his constituency party at the age of 24, and was a Labour election agent in 1951 and 1955. On the latter occasion, a young woman named Joan Amis volunteered her services to Labour’s election campaign; Albert and Joan married two years later, had three sons and a fantastic lifelong partnership. Albert was a Tynemouth borough councillor from 1962 to 1965, and chaired the local Trades Council.
Having previously put up a decent show in losing a safe Tory seat, Albert was elected Labour MP for Barrow-in-Furness in 1966. As an MP, he was active in the soft-left Tribune Group, then rather more influential than now. His closest political ally, in many ways his mentor, was Michael Foot.
When Labour kicked out the Tories in 1974, Foot became Secretary of State for Employment and picked Albert as his minister, in what was seen as an appointment to satisfy the unions and the left. As minister, Albert drafted some important legislation, including the employment sections of the Race Discrimination and Sex Discrimination Acts. At last, it became illegal to sack a worker for being black, or to pay a worker less for being female. He also drafted the Employment Protection Act, which created ACAS and enshrined in law that the state favoured collective bargaining, ie., that employers should negotiate workers’ pay and conditions with their trade unions. This clause would later be repealed by Thatcher, and has not been restored by New Labour, a fact for which former Labour Party General Secretary Jim Mortimer roundly castigated the government at Albert’s funeral.
When Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister in 1976, Foot became leader of the House of Commons and Albert succeeded him as employment secretary. The legislative highlight was probably the 1977 health and safety reps’ regulations, still in use and set out in the “Brown Book”. It forced employers to recognise union-selected health and safety representatives and to afford them various important rights, for example, to carry out workplace inspections.
However, that Labour Government badly let down working-class people, falling out with the unions, attacking jobs and public services, lashing up with the Liberals, and signing a woeful deal with the International Monetary Fund. It ended in the “winter of discontent’”, and its unpopularity opened the door for Thatcher’s Tories. Albert argued against some of this in Cabinet, but supported the leadership’s line outside, earning criticism from the left.
Socialists said that never again should there be a Labour government like that one — although subsequent ones have been even worse!
When Labour lost the 1979 election, Albert became transport spokesperson, and hired a young Peter Mandelson as his researcher, his first job at Westminster. In his last years, Albert described this to me with a sad smile as the worst mistake he ever made.
Albert lost his seat in the 1983 general election. One reason was that he refused to compromise his commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, at a time when this was a dividing line between Labour’s left and right, and when the new nuclear submarines were to be built in his constituency. Despite Albert arranging for Foot to write to Vickers workers assuring them that Labour would defend their jobs when it scrapped nuclear weapons, the issue still both lost him the seat and provoked substantial personal grief for him and his family. His stand on this issue earned him a reputation for integrity, Tam Dalyell describing him in an obituary in the Independent as the most principled politician he ever knew, even though not the best.
A further reason for his defeat in Barrow was a nasty campaign by anti-abortionists based in the local Catholic church, who preached that Catholics should not vote for Albert Booth and put up posters denouncing him as a baby killer. Albert believed that the law should not prevent women accessing abortion should they feel they needed to, and had refused to sign an anti-abortion Early Day Motion.
Albert became Labour Party treasurer in 1984, and sought election to Parliament in the Warrington South constituency in 1987. He had been offered the safe seat of a retiring Labour MP, but refused on the logical grounds that it was the Tory seats that Labour needed to win! He lost the election, but achieved the biggest swing to Labour in the country. He was then offered a seat in the House of Lords, but refused on the principle that as a democrat, he could not accept a seat that he had not been elected to.
Albert then worked as transport director for South Yorkshire and then Hounslow Councils until his retirement, when he remained active in his trade union, though less so in a Labour Party he found increasingly distant from him politically. In the week before his death, he both gave his apologies that he could not attend his union branch meeting because he did not feel too well, and decided that he could no longer represent the Labour Party as a delegate to external bodies.
He also spent his time enjoying life with his family, cycling, walking, fishing, spending hours preparing delicious meals, and volunteering with his local Methodist church. Albert (or Uncle Ted to me) was a genuinely nice bloke — humble, friendly, very funny, great with kids, listening as much as talking, never pulling rank or putting anyone down. In one amusing episode, he spent about half an hour at my 30th birthday party arguing with a posh and arrogant young Tory that one of my mates had brought along. He politely pulled apart each one of his arguments, but never once revealed who he was.
Albert was a profoundly caring man, his socialism coming more from morality than from Marx. He understood that socialism would come not from earnest wishing, but from a movement, the labour movement. Albert Booth’s political life was not without mistakes, but the labour movement is poorer without him.
This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 41, 2010
John Charlton writes, in March 2006 I visited Albert and Joan in Beckenham, Kent. Below are some extracts from the interview with them.
I joined the Tynemouth League of Youth soon after arriving in the North East in 1946. We had about forty members mostly in their late teens and early twenties; as many girls as boys. The occupational spread was wide and included shop and office workers, civil servants, school students, draughtsmen, a colliery blacksmith, a printer, a high school teacher, a seamstress and a university student. Only a few came from strongly active political families.
There were a lot of debates and a lot of resolutions to the Party GMC. The issues were demands for further nationalisation, more public housing, against NATO, arms expenditure and the horror of Hirsoshima; a lot of ‘We deplore, etc.etc…’ and usually ignored by the GMC..
We attended NCLC [National Council of Labour Colleges] classes. A favourite lecturer was the organiser Stan Rees, a veteran of the Ruskin College strike in 1908.There was a definite thirst for knowledge. We were sure we knew what socialism was about: peace, international government, anti-colonialism, more Clause 4, common ownership and co-operation. We hadn’t much time for the Monarchy and wouldn’t stand for the National Anthem. Joan likes the tune but hates the words! On the Soviet Union we believed the Labour Government should not have followed the US in cold war hostility.
We were encouraged to speak at open air meetings at a Bomb site on Camden Street North Shields, the Bigg Market, Newcastle and Filey Holiday Camp. One of our members, Joan Murgatroyd actually spoke on the street in New York! Our branch entered a team of four for the national speaking contest.
On the social side we did a lot of hiking and camping. We used the YHA. The Currans always brought a red flag. Sing songs were important. I remember, ‘Three cheers for bureaucracy…’ and ‘There’s gelignite in the fire place…’
I admired our MP, Grace Coleman. She was Tynemouth’s first Labour MP. Many people found her austere and academic. She was a university lecturer in economics. I was her agent (at 22, ed) in 1950 when we lost. She was a remarkable woman. She spoke to packed meetings and had an amazing memory for people, faces and family association. She probably lost because a boundary change brought Whitley Bay into the constituency. I remember one humorous episode. A shop keeper from Hartley (a mining village) called urgently asking for a window bill. What was the hurry. He said he’d get no customers till he had one.