Obituary: Lord Dean of Beswick

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The Independent Culture
LOCAL GOVERNMENT heavyweights who arrive in Westminster have usually been disappointed, and end up regretting that they ever changed from local to national government. Joe Dean was an exception. Already 51 years of age, he arrived in 1974 as the successor in Leeds West to the redoubtable Charles Pannell. But he was known throughout the party, as the leader of the Labour Group on the Manchester City Council and long-time chairman of Manchester's housing committee. Indeed one of his first acts as an MP, carrying over from his previous incarnation, was to hand over the key of the 100,000th house to come into the possession of the Manchester Corporation, to Harold Wilson as incoming prime minister.

In 1974 Dean was immediately appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to his friend and fellow Mancunian Charlie Morris, who had been Harold Wilson's own faithful PPS in opposition and had been rewarded with the important post of minister of state with day to day responsibility for the Civil Service. Dean found himself very near the heart of that government.

Some MPs are rather special in that their colleagues perceive that their parliamentary existence represents a significant element in British society and a significant element in the Labour Party. Joe Dean was - and was proud to be - the representative of the skilled artisan engineer. He would stalk the corridors of the Commons, and later the corridors of the Lords and Commons, buttonholing colleagues, snub-nosed, looking up at his hero straight in the eye and expressing his point of view on the thorny topics of the hour in one syllable salty language.

Relentless, yes - but a bore he was not. What he had to say was usually interesting, often amusing, usually pertinent and contained a view widespread in Trafford Park which albeit uncomfortable deserved to be put, and which Labour politicians would be wise to take into account. He became a House of Commons talisman, a signpost rather than a weathercock and an excellent man of Parliament. Labour peers displayed good taste in requiring Dean over a period of years to be one of their two representatives in the shadow cabinet.

Joe Dean was born the only son among five sisters of an engineer and a devout Roman Catholic family. He was later to leave the Church on grounds of Christians' displaying hypocrisy in attacking one another so frequently but he valued enormously his contacts with the Catholic Church and the Catholic friends whom he had made at St Anne's School, Ancoats.

As he was to tell the House of Commons during the passage of the Inner Urban Areas Bill of February 1978,

I was born in a deprived area, and until the outbreak of war I was one of a family of six who lived in a two-up and two-

down slum house. I went to a school with 50 boys in each class. That may be the type of society the opposition front bench wanted to retain but I did not want it and I played a large part in removing it from the city that I later represented at local level. I do not want to talk about the warmth of those communities, because I think it is a good job that most of them have been removed.

Dean was apprenticed to the famous engineering works of Beyer Peacock. He remained immensely proud of this firm and its skilled management and workforce. Just before the Second World War the Great Western Railway of Brazil placed with Beyer Peacock an order for four-metre gauge four- eight-two plus 2/8/4 garratts, which was not completed because of the war but for which, nevertheless, much design work had been done. This was exactly the sort of development that the War Department was looking for and so naturally the drawings were taken out, dusted and such modifications as necessary made to fit the engines into a restricting loading gauge for Indian Railways. Twenty were ordered for Burma with superheated roundtop fireboxes and with plate-flamed power units. Dean, who remained fascinated by engines all his life, was extraordinarily proud of his part in making these machines so important for the war effort before in 1942 he volunteered for the Royal Navy.

With his knowledge of the rifling (the spiral grooving of a gun bore) of guns made at Beyer Peacock, he was very useful. And his wife, later to be one of the first women members to have any position in the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, continued to work on the rifling of guns at Beyer Peacock.

I never ceased to be amazed at the unlikely depths of specialist knowledge possessed by my parliamentary colleagues. Dean was a veritable walking Jane's Fighting Ships of the 1940s and for a Labour Member of Parliament he had a most unlikely hero - none other than Chester W. Nimitz, Admiral in the United States Navy.

On demobilisation Dean returned to Beyer Peacock, remaining there at the Gorton locomotive engineering factory until 1959, when he transferred to Metro-Vickers at Trafford Park. It was in the same year that he was elected to the Manchester City Council.

In his maiden speech on 12 March 1974 he expressed his delight that previously escalating rents had been frozen:

If the rent levels set by the rent tribunals are any indication, the further operation of the Conservative Rent Act would have been disastrous for working-class people living in council houses.

In his early period in Parliament he campaigned successfully for the outlawing of the "lump" in the building industry, involving difficulties with sub-contractors:

If we are to divert building forces in adequate strength to the municipal building programme and to house-building generally some form of licensing will be necessary. It has been proved beyond doubt that one cannot build houses at the same time as there is over-building of blocks of luxury offices and flats.

Towards the end of the Labour government, on 9 February 1978 Dean lamented how unlucky Leeds had been as a result of local government organisation:

My constituency has some nice parts but in the inner segment is an extremely deprived area. It is as bad an area as I have seen anywhere. In the reorganisation the boundaries of Leeds were extended quite considerably to include more affluent areas.The centre of Leeds has been somewhat masked by the inclusion of those areas.

Dean campaigned not only for those in dreadful housing conditions but also for the Direct Labour departments of big cities where he thought that large building departments had an immense contribution to make. He wanted his government to ensure that the private sector was made to toe the line in the way that private firms tender for contract. The direct labour organisations should not be at a disadvantage.

The Labour Chief Whip Michael Cocks entrusted Dean with the sensitive job of pairing whip in the final months when the Government was in a minority. He performed this important task, which included the wretched rejection of genuine requests for a pair, with tact and good humour.

In the 1983 general election Dean lost the West Leeds seat to the energetic doorstep campaigning of the Liberal Michael Meadowcroft. He was shocked. However Michael Foot imaginatively gave him one of the ration of Labour peerages. And he took to the House of Lords like a duck to water. On 16 November 1983 I went to hear his maiden speech. He said that he had the good fortune when a member of the Commons to obtain an adjournment debate on unemployment in the city of Leeds travel-to-work area, on 28 April. Dean added wryly:

Little did I realise, when speaking in that debate in April, that in less than two months I would myself be joining the dole queue. I can tell your lordships that it is a shattering experience for one who, since leaving school at the age of 14, has never been unemployed. We can debate unemployment in this chamber today, and we can debate it again; they will debate it in another place, and debate it again. But the trauma of standing among young people at the jobcentres and watching the despair registered on their faces, and the trauma of having middle-aged, highly skilled people come to you who know they will never work again, is an experience I do not want to repeat. It certainly taught me something about the problem.

Joe Dean was the antithesis of the slick modern "new" politician - but he offered both the Commons and then the Lords something of inestimable value.

Tam Dalyell

Joseph Jabez Dean, engineer and politician: born Manchester 3 June 1922; Leader, Manchester City Council 1969-74; MP (Labour) for Leeds West 1974- 83; Parliamentary Private Secretary to Minister of State, Civil Service Department 1974-77; Assistant Government Whip 1978-79; Labour Party pairing whip 1982-83; created 1983 Baron Dean of Beswick; married 1945 Helen Hill (one daughter); died Rochdale, Lancashire 26 February 1999.