An Appreciation by Liz O’Donnell
Peter Latham, a long-standing member of our society, was my trade union mentor when we worked together at Newcastle College in the 1980s and 1990s. It was Peter who encouraged me to stand for our National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) branch committee and become, for a time, its treasurer and membership secretary. As chair of one of the largest college branches in the country and senior national negotiator on NATFHE’s National Executive Committee (NEC), he led us through a period of extraordinary turbulence in the sector. He was also involved with an impressive array of organisations and campaigns on the left for over forty years. His activism was not tub-thumping or strident, but a dogged, lucidly reasoned insistence on upholding the rights of workers and people from less-advantaged communities. He was also great company, with a dry sense of humour and a sharp analytical mind, and a good friend to many.
Born and raised in the Thames Valley, Peter was a grammar school boy who went on to study French at Oxford University – not perhaps a usual route into radical politics. In an oral history interview recorded as part of this society’s Popular Politics Project (1) in 2012, he explained that his mother and step-father held unusually radical views during his 1950s Home Counties formative years. One of his earliest political memories, he said, was of them giving accommodation to some of the Aldermaston marchers. Whilst at Oxford, he found himself drawn to left-wing politics. During this period, Peter also spent a lot of time in France, initially studying there, then working. It is safe to describe him as a lifelong Francophile, with an enduring love of the culture and language.
Peter was determined not to belong to the group he described as ‘faux revolutionaries’ – comfortably-off students who he believed were only playing at left-wing politics. As a boy he had visited Luton and been impressed by its gritty ‘northern-ness’! Later as a young man he realised that his ideas about the working-classes were somewhat romanticised, nevertheless, ‘having decided I wanted to live out my beliefs’, he said, ‘I decided I wanted to move North.’ This impulse brought him to a teaching post in Newcastle upon Tyne’s College of Further Education and, having been recruited into the Communist Party (CP) by Pete Smith, a Glaswegian studying at Ruskin (they met when Peter was doing postgraduate studies at Oxford), he joined the West Newcastle CP branch, later becoming its secretary (he was later to leave the CP to join Labour).
In the early 1970s, the west end of Newcastle seemed a hot-bed of radicalism. Peter found himself ‘surrounded by activists’ – young, educated people who wanted to change society for the better, whether through providing free advice and building links with the immigrant community at Benwell’s Law Centre or by analysing the dynamics of a changing society as part of the Community Development Project. There were two left-wing book shops in Newcastle, one of which was run by the CP on Westgate Hill, the other called Days of Hope – or, he joked, ‘Haze of Dope’. Peter was soon a well-known figure in these radical circles. From 1972-80, he was a delegate to Newcastle’s Trades Council, then an influential and vigorous body, with lively meetings held upstairs in the Bridge Hotel. Large May Day demonstrations were held every year and support for those involved in industrial disputes (like the miners’ strikes of the early 1970s) organised. He joined picket lines and delivered food parcels. In the late 1970s, the Trades Council founded the Centre Against Unemployment to campaign for full employment and provide advice to workers threatened with redundancy; in 1986 a building in the Cloth Market had been purchased, and this was opened by Yusuf Islam (better known as the singer Cat Stevens).
Peter on picket duty, Newcastle College 1989
In the midst of all these activities, Peter was elected Branch Chair of NATFHE at Newcastle College, one of the largest branches in the country with over 400 members. He was to steer it through what he described (with typical understatement) as ‘a fairly lively period.’ The mid 1970s were a time of substantial improvements in the pay and conditions of staff in further education (FE) colleges. There were limits on the working year (no more than 38 weeks) and week (30 hours), length of terms, class contact hours, with locally negotiated remission of teaching hours for specific responsibilities (such as being an officer in the union), and at least six weeks of continuous summer vacation. These conditions were consolidated into a single document, the ‘Silver Book’. But from the early 1980s, great changes were afoot in the sector, as central government sought to wrest power and influence over FE from local education authorities (LEAs), introducing competition and developing a quasi-market (2). This was to include a concerted attack on the status of FE lecturers, accusing them of a ‘lack of flexibility’, ‘restrictive practices’, and ‘outdated attitudes and behaviour in industrial relations (3). As a senior national negotiator during the ensuing disputes – which entailed spending a couple of days a week in London when union action was at its height – Peter also kept our branch acting together to resist the onslaught on our pay and conditions. Because of his national profile, he was able, in packed branch meetings, to make sure that we knew exactly what was happening at every stage. He also offered an invaluable tip when we were on picket duty, which was to always wear thick socks and walking boots!
Despite Peter’s best efforts, the union was no match for the Thatcher government’s agenda, although its worst effects were staved off at Newcastle College for a time when compared to colleges elsewhere in the country. The 1988 Education Reform Act handed to governing bodies the responsibility for the finances and direction of college policy, with at least 50% of governors to be local employers and no more than 20% LEA appointees. Then the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act took colleges completely out of local control through a policy of incorporation, ending national pay and conditions and leading eventually to the imposition of new contracts which substantially worsened our conditions. Peter’s outstanding leadership skills enabled us to slow down this erosion locally, not least because he was one of the two elected staff governors. This arrangement placed him in a difficult position: how could he lead the resistance to a new contract proposed by a governing body of which he was a part? Characteristically, Peter stood firm:
‘I was called into the Principal’s office, and I was told that as a governor I was subject to Cabinet responsibility. That’s to say that if the governors took a decision, I had to support that decision… [b]ut my line was that I was elected by my members, I therefore have a mandate (4).
The years following incorporation were filled with conflict between staff and employers. By 1997, aged only 54, he was suddenly given a once-and-for-all opportunity to take early retirement without losing out on his existing pension rights, which he took. In recognition of all his efforts to defend our pay and conditions, the branch unanimously elected Peter Honorary Life President (the only one to date). He then headed for his beloved France for the summer, but later said that ‘after I had finished painting the fence, pruning the trees, I began to think: “Who am I? I used to be a lecturer and a trade unionist, I knew who I was. Now I’m not really anybody” (5).
Returning home, Peter was ready to embark on a new phase of political activism, as a Labour councillor in North Tyneside, where he served for six years. Although he chaired one of its select committees and spent a year as a member of the cabinet, he downplayed how effective he had been, talking instead of the endless meetings. Predictably, his involvement in community affairs did not begin and end with his council duties. He was involved with Wallsend People’s Centre for fourteen years and was especially proud of its work with immigrants and the unemployed. Later, he became an elected governor for Northumbria Healthcare Trust, joined the Management Committee of the Rising Sun Farm, served as a Governor at George Stephenson High School and played an influential role in the formation of North Tyneside Learning Trust. He became a humanist and represented a humanist perspective on the Council body which oversaw religious education in schools. He also did a stint as a humanist hospital chaplain, and had a longstanding association with the Alliance Francaise.
In case this makes him sound an impossibly worthy individual, Peter was also a very happy family man, sharing beliefs and activism with Judith McSwaine, his wife, and bestowing a sense of responsibility to society on his beloved daughter, Jo. He loved walking, with or without the dog, enjoyed travel and cultural pursuits, endured Newcastle United’s fortunes, and had a wide circle of friends from many different walks of life. He was always self- deprecating about the positive impact he had on so many people.
In 2015, Peter was diagnosed with myeloma, a type of blood cancer whose treatment involves cruel side effects. Despite a period of remission, the disease returned and he died on 13 June 2018. Attendance at his funeral was so large that mourners, who had flocked from near and far, filled both chapels at North Shields crematorium and overflowed into the lobby. The remarkable range of Peter’s political activities, which continued well past retirement, mean that his absence is a great loss to our region as well as a profound personal one to his family and friends.
1 A transcript of this interview can be found on the NELHS website: https://nelh.net/ resources-library/oral-history/oral-history-political-organisations/oral-history-political- organisations-peter-latham/ (henceforth Transcript) ([accessed 23 May 2020]
2 A very useful account of the drive towards incorporation of the FE sector can be found in AB Webster, ‘English Further Education Policy up to 1993: the changing roles of central and local government and local FE consequences’, unpublished MPhil thesis (Coventry University in association with the University of Worcester, 2012), pp.167-200 https:// eprints.worc.ac.uk/1607/1/A_B_Webster_MPhil_2012.pdf ([accessed 22 May 2020]
3 As above, p.172.
Jon Bryan, Regional Support Official for UCU
Peter Latham, a former activist of one of our predecessor unions (NATFHE) sadly passed away on 13th June 2018. He was diagnosed with myeloma three years ago. He was 75 years old.
Peter was a trade unionist through and through, which was recognised by his local NATFHE Branch when he took early retirement from teaching modern languages at Newcastle College in 1997. The Branch voted unanimously to grant him the title of “Honorary Life President” at his last union meeting, when he stood down from the offices of one of the senior union representatives that he had held for many years.
As well as being active in his local branch for the union, Peter held many other offices during his working life in further education. At Newcastle College he was the elected staff governor, often in a minority on that body, but continually fighting for staff interests. He welcomed the “Nolan Principles” in the 1990s and the impact that they had Governing Bodies, changing the expectations of what it meant to hold public office.
Peter Latham was a member of the union’s National Executive and was a national negotiator in FE at a time of huge change, following the incorporation of Colleges in 1992. He successfully negotiated contracts of employment for members at Newcastle College and led successful industrial action during that time.
Peter was widely involved in the labour movement and was a delegate to Newcastle Trades Union Council for many years. He was also a Labour Councillor, involved in the Wallsend People’s Centre, North Tyneside Learning Trust, and Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust. The North East Labour History Society interviewed him recently about his role and life in the labour and trade union movement. It shows us the impact that he had on so many people Link to North East Labour History interview
Peter is shown here recently presenting a Star Award with the North Tyneside Learning Trust.
This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 51, 2020