Obituary: John Golding

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The Independent Culture
IN THE affairs of the Labour Party, there have been men and women who have had less than their share of the headlines, but whose importance in the party has been out of all proportion to their public profile. John Golding was a man of passionate beliefs about furthering the cause of working people. What he believed and whom he supported were matters of the utmost consequence. For two decades he was a really important, if unsung, figure in British politics.

Golding was the self-proclaimed arch scourge of the militant tendency. He relished the role. Dennis Skinner, on being told of Golding's death, reflected: "As a member of right-wing Old Labour, he and I sparred for years on the National Executive Committee. John organised the votes of the Right and I organised the votes of the Left." He added with more than a tinge of affection and admiration: "John knew the rules inside out and he used them to the utmost advantage of the Right."

In 1983 when Golding opposed the Telecommunication Bill he made history by speaking for 11 hours, along with many other filibusting interventions for the purpose of making it as difficult as possible for Mrs Thatcher's government to implement the rip-off privatisation of British Telecom. Few MPs have caused an addition to the Parliamentary textbook, Erskine May. Golding's activities were responsible for standing order no 29, agreed on 27 February 1986, that a member may rise in his place and move "that the question be now proposed" when a member is in the course of making a motion or moving an amendment at any stage of proceedings on a Bill.

Golding, the supreme tactician, had spotted that he could speak for - proverbially - ever before the Chairman could move "the question be now put". The Chairman of this Committee was the eagle-eyed Miss Betty Boothroyd, who whatever her personal exasperation, understood the then rules of Committee better than anybody. She had also served for some years on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party with Golding, and said of him:

His priority was the Labour movement where he spent a lifetime advocating, cherishing and advancing the cause of democratic socialism. I witnessed the fight he put up and how he expressed his passionate views on behalf of the British telecommunications industry. In addition he was a fine friend to many of us.

John Golding was born of a pottery worker's family, his father later becoming a chef. After Chester City Grammar School he became a Civil Service clerk, first of all at the local Rivers Board and Fire Brigade and then at the Ministry of National Insurance (1948-51). He went to work for the Post Office and soon became involved in the Post Office Engineering Union who, spotting his obvious intelligence and nous, sent him on a TUC scholarship to the London School of Economics.

Later he did a PhD at Keele University where his subject, revealingly, was Thomas Hobbes and the Leviathan. In 1960 he was appointed the Assistant Research Officer of the Post Office Engineering Union being promoted to Education Officer four years later. He was one of the trade unionists who played an important part in the series of two-way traffic in ideas, the so-called Bonnington conferences, which formed the background work to Harold Wilson's appeal before the 1964 general election on the White Heat of the technological revolution.

In the summer of 1969 Steven Swingler, the Minister for Pensions, and MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, suddenly died and on 30 October John Golding, by 21,786 votes to 20,744, defeated the young Nicholas Winterton, now MP for Macclesfield, in the ensuing by-election. In 1970 Golding defeated Winterton in another hard-fought campaign by 2,106 votes and subsequently held the seat comfortably against Sir Nicholas Bonsor, later a Foreign Office minister.

He was immensely proud of representing Newcastle-under-Lyme both because of his father's connection as a pottery worker and because the seat was once represented by the great Josiah Wedgwood. Within weeks of arriving at the House of Commons, he was appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Eric Varley, one of Harold Wilson's closest associates.

Mark Fisher, MP for Stoke and thus his Parliamentary neighbour described how "John was a wonderful and much loved constituency MP. He also was a great expert on the Tote on which he did much constructive work."

Golding's causes were numerous. He was one of the first to highlight the problems of derelict land and badger ministers into coming up with a constructive policy for areas which were not only eyesores but health hazards. With his legendary passion for fishing, Golding was appalled by how the countryside had been devastated in the past by industrialisation and was determined to make it his life's work to help young people live in an attractive environment rather than an ugly one. From the mid-Sixties he was one of the first to make his fellow politicians aware of the problems of air pollution.

Another theme which he pursued relentlessly - I admired him for his capacity to be relentless in worthwhile causes - were the evils which arose from low pay. He was one of the first to campaign for a national minimum wage and highlighted this cause as long ago as his maiden speech in November 1969:

Employers will not modernise and pay higher wages without being faced with competition, and in such areas as north Staffordshire where there is a great reliance on traditional industries - industries not responsive to change - it is most important that they have new technical industries.

Like many of his colleagues I shall remember Golding for his contributions year after year to the Labour Party Conference. In 1970 he strode to the platform and memorably on the Friday morning of conference told us some home truths: "The health service in my constituency seems to me at times to exist for the benefit of the medical profession rather than the patient. Dick Crossman paid too much attention to the views of the medical profession and too little to the Labour government."

Throughout his political life Golding, with a twinkle in his eye, expressed scepticism about the claims of many professional people who he thought had an exaggerated view of their own contribution to human welfare.

In 1974 he said to the Labour Conference:

I say this bluntly because experience shows that those individual members without a strong union loyalty seem increasingly to prefer those who are trained professional advocates - the lawyers, the lecturers, the teachers, the broadcasters - to those who are manual workers. While we recognise the great contribution that the professional advocate is making in Parliament and in the constituencies we believe that it is still very important that the Parliamentary Labour Party continues to have a strong manual trade union group.

He was a champion of widows and believed that they ought to be able to go to an official who would help them with letters of administration, tax, social security benefits, transfer tenancies, and all those things which add to the shock and confusion of bereavement.

At many by-elections, up and down Britain, I went canvassing with Golding. Invariably he carried one of those copypads with him on which he would write a letter in biro there and then despatching it in an envelope to the relevant official outlining the grievance which had been put to him on the doorstep. On a yellow page he had a copy of what he had written and woe betide anyone who received one of these letters and did nothing about it. He followed up every complaint.

After a period as a Government Whip, Golding was appointed by Jim Callaghan to a ministerial job for which he was supremely suited, that of Parliamentary Secretary at the Department of Employment. He was particularly concerned about subsidies which had poured millions of pounds away from the public sector into private enterprise. They had helped bring the nationalised industries into disrepute with the public and had severely undermined the morale of workers in the nationalised industries themselves.

As a former member of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, under the chairmanship of Ian Mikardo, who had a high regard for Golding's energy, drive and knowledge, he had made himself something of an expert on nationalised industries other than that of the Post Office. In the Post Office's union he was a central, if controversial, figure in tandem with his friend Bryan Stanley, the union's long-serving General Secretary.

In all the difficulties which faced Labour following the defeat of the Callaghan government by Mrs Thatcher, Golding played a central role. He remained staunchly loyal to the Labour Party and was genuinely shocked at the actions of Shirley Williams and, as he put it, "others of a gentle upbringing" to leave the Labour Party in 1980-81. He saw Tony Benn, Eric Heffer, and others, as making it impossible to win elections and he was vehemently against supporting Peter Tatchell as the Labour candidate in Bermondsey.

When his own constituency was targeted and taken over by people sympathetic to the militant tendency in 1982-83 he was refused renomination, as a prime target of the Left. Amidst bitterly fought wrangling of enormous complexity he gave up his Parliamentary seat at a moment when he thought, on the assumption that he could return to retiring age to his union as General Secretary.

Arrangements were made that the Newcastle seat should be contested by Llin Golding, formerly Secretary of the Newcastle Labour Party, with whom he had had a warm and loving marriage since 1980, and who was the daughter of Ness Edwards MP, Clement Attlee's Postmaster General and for many years Chairman of the Trade Union Group of Labour MPs.

The last speech I heard him make was on 23 January 1985, appropriately on post office closures. "Our post offices are now more crowded on Thursdays than was the Black Hole of Calcutta, but the talk is not of relief but of further closures. Why should we treat our old people in such a way?"

John Golding, post office worker, trade union official and politician: born Birmingham 9 March 1931; Education Officer, Post Office Engineering Union (POEU) 1964-69; MP (Labour) for Newcastle-under-Lyme 1969-86; Opposition Whip 1970-74, Government Whip 1974; Parliamentary Under- Secretary for Employment 1976-79; Chairman, Select Committee on Employment 1979-1982; member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party 1978-83; General Secretary, National Communications Union 1986-88; married 1958 Thelma Gwillym (one son, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1980 Llin Lewis (nee Edwards); died 20 January 1999.

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