Obituary: Frank Haynes

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THE HOUSE of Commons in the 1980s was seldom reduced to total silence during Prime Minister's Questions. One such memorable occasion was when, in his booming voice, Frank Haynes, Member of Parliament for Ashfield, and number one in the ballot, called Margaret Thatcher, then at the height of her prime ministerial dignity, "ducky". It speaks volumes about Haynes's reputation for geniality on all sides of the House that he could get away with such unlikely effrontery.

Almost anyone else would have been muttered out of the Chamber by opponents and colleagues alike as a cheeky, cheap, whippersnapper. Not so Haynes. He was a House of Commons character, and an original. To her credit, I saw the Prime Minister lean over to Kenneth Baker and ask what "ducky" meant. She then came back and said: "Mr Speaker, I understand it is an endearing remark."

Haynes's father had died when he was 15. Haynes recalled him working for the railway unloading bags of mail at Euston and then loading them for delivery to the Post Office. His dad's death had a tremendous effect on his life. There were three boys and two girls - he was number three in the middle - and they had lost the breadwinner. His mother had to manage the best way she could and the family had to go without until they became of an age to work and got jobs. Thirty years later, during the miners' strike, Haynes was determined that children should not suffer as a result of the industrial action; he was forever reminding other members of the Parliamentary Labour Party that it was their sacred duty to prevent poverty in this day and age.

Haynes had worked in a small factory then as a London fireman during the Second World War and briefly went on to the railway. When he was 18, one of his later heroes, as he put it, Ernie Bevin, "decided I had to go into the pit to help make up for the shortage of manpower created by men being called up in the war". Haynes thought that he would have liked to have gone into the forces but looking back was glad that he hadn't. I remember talking about my National Service in the Rhine Army with him and his saying that his nature of rebellion was such that he would have ended up spending most of his time in jankers.

He was sent to Nottinghamshire to become a miner. where he met Vera, to be his adored wife of over half a century. He told us that he was a southerner who didn't know what he was going to do. "To go down that shaft and into the pit workings for the first time was shattering; when the winding-engine man knew that there were people of my kind on the chair riding down the shaft for the very first time, he would go a bit faster than normal." In spite of having it rough at first as a Londoner in the coalfield, he ended up at the pit face and stayed there until he was elected to the House of Commons in 1979.

He lived in Mansfield and soon began to realise that the people there were wonderful. He became active in the National Union of Mineworkers at the pit, attending meetings. After a short time he was advised to stand in the branch elections. He became a branch delegate to the area headquarters of the NUM at a time when they were going through a rough period in his pit. In 20 years there he saw a lot of changes going from pit-and-shovel work to 99 per cent mechanisation.

He started going to conferences and when it was his turn to go to the Labour Party conference he got the bug of politics, seeing all the figures in the trade union movement and politicians like Jim Callaghan, Harold Wilson and Denis Healey on the platform. "It did give me political ambitions, but only as far as local authority level because I was invited to stand for the local council, which I loved. When Ted Heath's government introduced the Housing Finance Bill, forcing local councillors to fall into line on rent increases, I went to the meeting in chains, but kept my arms under the desk until I was called." Haynes always was one for the dramatic gesture.

He was then asked to stand for the Nottinghamshire County Council, where he was a success because of a very real devotion to the Health Service and the welfare of his fellow miners. He was transparently sincere about wanting to do good for the vulnerable and the less well-off. He was asked to stand for Parliament and refused "because I honestly didn't think I was ready for that kind of thing".

Then chance took over. David Marquand, the intellectual heavyweight MP for Ashfield, decided to go with Roy Jenkins to a key job in the European Commission in 1976. If there is anything electors do not like it is sitting MPs taking what are perceived as cushy numbers. Labour were humiliated at the by-election.

The Ashfield party decided it wanted a candidate who was the antithesis of Marquand and Haynes fitted the bill perfectly. He was selected in 1976 and won the seat in 1979 with an 8,800 majority.

Haynes used to tell us that when he arrived in the House of Commons he went into the Chamber and thought, "What the hell am I doing here?" Straight from real manual work in the pit to a job as a Member of Parliament. He settled down and obviously loved every minute of it. He specialised in energy, coal and health. Unquestionably he had the loudest voice in Parliament and the commentator Matthew Parris wrote that, when Mr Speaker Thomas called Frank Haynes, they turned off the televisions in St Thomas' Hospital and listened.

Haynes avoided being simply a House of Commons buffoon and was effective at going to see Conservative ministers, who liked him very much, even if his opening remark to them was "You know I hate Tories" with his big beaming smile.

Within 18 months of becoming an MP he took up Mrs Thatcher's offer to any member who had a problem with industry or unemployment in their constituency to come and knock on the door of No 10 Downing Street. Haynes had a group of factories which had run into severe difficulties and wanted to lay off some 400 people, so he got an appointment. He would regale his friends with how she met him at the door and offered him a drink. "I told her I didn't think Dennis Skinner would approve! She loved that and it broke the ice; the end result was that she gave me 10 minutes to put their case and, after looking at their export record, agreed to help them. As a result, no one was laid off."

Haynes was spotted by Michael Cox, then the Opposition Chief Whip, as a likely member of his office. This was a perfect niche for him as he was both popular and dedicated to the good of the Labour Party and those whom he represented in Parliament. It gave him an authority as an opposition whip where people have to be cajoled by force of the whip's personality.

Frank Haynes would, I am pretty sure, not have passed any of the written tests now being imposed on potential Labour candidates for council elections in 1999. Nor would he have found the hurdles being erected for New Labour parliamentary candidates easy to jump. But, I am damn sure that the Town Hall in Mansfield, the offices of the Nottinghamshire County Council, and the Palace of Westminster would have been the poorer, without Haynes's forthright, breath of fresh air, and his irreverent, sincere and benign presence.

Tam Dalyell

David Francis Haynes, coalminer and politician: born London 8 March 1926; MP (Labour) for Ashfield 1979-92; Opposition Whip 1985-90; married 1948 Vera Lancaster (one son, two daughters); died Jacksdale, Nottinghamshire 11 September 1998.