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Obituary: Ernie Perry

FOR SOME of his contemporaries in the House of Commons, the abiding memory of Ernie Perry is standing at the entrance to the aye and no lobbies at divisions and with his broad smile coming up afterwards and saying: "I counted you in and I counted you out." Perry was enormously proud of being the first undertaker ever to become a Member of Parliament.

Ernie Perry - no one dreamt of calling him Ernest - was born in London, brought up in London and was thoroughly London. He left school at 14 and went into the textile industry. In the early Thirties, he became unemployed, but for the next 30 years made his way in the insurance industry.

In 1934, aged only 26, he joined the Battersea Borough Council. For the next third of a century, he served as a councillor, becoming Mayor of Battersea in 1955-56 and later an Alderman of the Borough of Wandsworth. He was the very essence of Herbert Morrison's London local government and all that it entailed.

Perry spent formative years during the Second World War as a gunner, becoming a troop sergeant in the Indian Artillery and serving throughout the Far East. For the rest of his life, he was extremely concerned about the conditions of servicemen and developed a lasting and sensitive interest in the working conditions of Asians. This extended to a real understanding of the problem of the immigrant Asian communities which came under Battersea Council's umbrella, and he met them in his work as a Member of Parliament.

In the 1964 general election in Battersea South there was the battle of the two Ernest Ps - Ernest Perry and the sitting Conservative Member Ernest Partridge; the labels were Labour Ernie vs Tory Ernest. Perry won in the small constituency by 12,253 votes to 10,615. Since the majority of the Wilson government was only five, later reduced to three, this was an important achievement. It owed a great deal to Perry's own popularity and also the fact that he was seen as a good counterfoil to the intellectual member for Battersea North, Harold Wilson's President of the Board of Trade, the Wykehamist and Oxford don Douglas Jay.

Apart from his sterling work in the whips' office, where he was very popular as London Whip, Perry made a real contribution to the House of Commons as a result of his expertise in the pensions industry, particularly the Policy Holders' Protection Bill of July 1975. He pointed out that it was necessary to differentiate between companies and friendly societies which deal in life insurance or general insurance only - of which over 95 per cent in Britain were stable and solvent - and companies which take over an insurance company and inject another sphere of activity into it, i.e. trying to link insurance with property bonds.

Repeatedly he told the Commons that the home insurance agent would give a person the advice to which he was entitled and which would suit his pocket. It was this kind of good advice in his professional capacity that endeared Perry as a councillor to so many in Battersea.

Behind the home service agent was a battery of unpaid officials who vetted his business. If they thought an agent had sold an industrial life policy when he should have sold an ordinary life policy, they would advise the impending policy holder to take an ordinary life policy. Sixty companies ranging from the Prudential Insurance Company to the Cooperative Insurance Society used to sell insurance on the doorstep. Perry argued that he and his colleagues had made it an honourable and useful profession, and indeed it was.

Ernie Perry was without ambition to be a minister and his purpose in the House of Commons which he served so well was that Labour in office should be a success and create benefit for those who put them there.

Tam Dalyell

Ernest George Perry, insurance agent, undertaker and politician: born London 25 April 1908; MP (Labour) for Battersea South 1964-74, Wandsworth, Battersea South 1974-79; Assistant Government Whip 1968-70, 1974-75, Opposition Whip 1970-74; married 1950 Edna Perks Mankelow (died 1998; one son); died London 28 December 1998.