Obituary: Tom Torney

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The Independent Culture
ETCHED INTO the memory of those who attended the Labour Party conference at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool in 1978 is the highly charged Wednesday afternoon debate on race relations. Tom Torney announced himself as "ex officio Bradford South with the Usdaw delegation [the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers], member of the Select Committee on Race Relations".

"We have come under some tremendous attacks," he said (and they most certainly had), "since the report was published, and we have come under attack in these resolutions." Torney, obviously hurt by the venom that was being poured on himself and his colleagues Sydney Bidwell, Bill Wilson and other Labour members, shouted defiantly at the conference: "You do not serve on a Select Committee for race for eight years and produce a lot of reports that have made a lot of good proposals to the Government to help race relations and suddenly become a racialist overnight as these resolutions imply."

Against constant barracking, he bawled,

But you do have to face the facts that the Select Committee Report does not say it is the fault of black people that we have got bad economic conditions. What it does say - or what we say - is that you have got to be realistic. It does not help race relations to bring great numbers of people into a country that already has a million and a half unemployed. It does not help black people or race relations to bring additional coloured people or any immigrants in when you have not got enough homes to go round already.

Being a Bradford MP in the 1970s or the 1980s was not easy. In fact because about a quarter of his constituents were from ethnic minorities Torney was immersed in the tensions which prevailed in that Yorkshire city during those years.

Torney was born in Marylebone, London, at the beginning of the First World War. His father was on military service in France, destined to return in the poorest of health as a result of being gassed.

As a lad of 15 he joined the Labour Party and worked as a shop assistant in various trades but mostly bakery. Early milk rounds to get pennies for his mother lit a lifelong interest, both in the trade union and in the House of Commons, in the non-exploitation of young children delivering milk.

In 1945 he was appointed agent for the supposedly hopeless seat of Wembley North. However, in what turned out to be a Labour landslide, the Assistant Judge Advocate General at the War Office, Lt-Col I.C. Baillieu, won 5,019 votes in the Liberal cause, allowing C.R. Hobson, a power station engineer who had been a member of Willesden Borough Council for 18 years, to defeat the much-fancied Lt-Cdr Peter Scott, son of the Antarctic explorer and later founder of Slimbridge, by 432 votes (15,677 to 15,245). On the strength of his startling election success Torney, at the then very young age of 30, was appointed a full-time trade union organiser.

He made various attempts to enter the House of Commons, and failed to be selected for Hull North in November 1965 and for Nuneaton in December 1966. Prompted by defeat he famously complained at the Usdaw trade union conference in 1967 that too many Labour Party Members of Parliament were from the professions. He had made his name at the Labour Party Conference in 1966 by casting the 350,000 votes of Usdaw in favour of defence expenditure cuts and against the party policy on Vietnam. " I was lying in a funk- hole in London during the Blitz when we were grossly out- numbered with bombers. I knew where to put the blame, and I am certain, Mr Chairman, that the workers in the paddy fields of Vietnam are fully aware of where to apportion the blame when the bombers stream overhead."

In 1969, when the veteran and much-loved Bradford MP George Craddock decided to retire, Torney was selected on the basis of being a firebrand left-wing candidate. He won the seat 20,985 to 19,009 with 5,694 Liberal votes. He was to live on an electoral knife edge for the rest of his parliamentary career.

Part of the reason why he held the seat was that he spoke up for the poorly paid. By March 1973 he had earned a trial on the opposition front bench and was chosen to speak for the party in the very delicate matter of the counter-inflation proposals. "The important thing is that for the sales assistants and the packers the worst hit by the freeze no consent order has been made," he said:

Members of Parliament have to obtain their information second-hand. Mine comes from Usdaw. The minister must prove the pounds 16.35 in the provinces and pounds 17.10 in London is inflationary. It is not possible to talk to a man taking home less than pounds 15 a week in terms of inflation. How can it be said that to give him the pounds 1 will wreck the Government's economic policy when the goods he packs and sells continue to rise in price? He has contributed nothing to the wages spiral but has suffered much in his struggle to exist and to keep a family on pounds 15 a week.

It was not altogether surprising, though it may have been unwise and tasteless, that Torney ostentatiously boycotted the ceremony in Bradford University in his own constituency when Edward Heath, then Prime Minister, was given an honorary degree.

By dint of hard work, not least among the Indian and Bangladeshi community, Torney had a 7,000 majority in the first election of 1974 in February and 8,275 in the second election of that year. In 1979 his majority sank ominously to 4,318 and in 1983 he scraped home by 18,542 votes to the Conservatives' 18,432 with the SDP candidate taking 12,143 votes and an independent 308 votes, by a majority of 110. It was a real cliff-hanger and the candidate who had begun his parliamentary life as a left-wing firebrand was metamorphosed into a man forever complaining about deviant left-wing tendencies which could cost him his parliamentary seat.

Torney became more and more interested in agriculture and served on the Parliamentary Agriculture Select Committee from 1979 to 1987. As chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party group on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food he complained bitterly that he was not made chairman of the Select Committee.

Truth to tell, in his last years in the House of Commons he took up a number of issues which gained him considerable publicity but also alas held him up to ridicule. In September 1975 he mounted an attack on motorway lavatories as a "national disgrace". In May 1976 he demanded an inquiry into the British army offering training for a private Fascist army. In August 1976 he asked about a shapely blonde woman photographer "cavorting about in the nude with sailors" on the submarine HMS Otter in Nassau. Then, in 1977, he was strident in the support of the efforts of Reg Underhill, then the National Agent, to expel so-called Trotskyist infiltrators who had tried to get rid of him.

After leaving Parliament in 1987 he retired to his native Derby. The Leader of the House of Commons, Margaret Beckett, who knew him well, paid tribute to him as a hard-working MP. "He worked tirelessly for the low- paid," she said.

Thomas William Torney, trade unionist and politician: born London 2 July 1915; Derby and District Area Organiser, Usdaw 1946-70; MP (Labour) for Bradford South 1970-87; twice married (one daughter); died Derby 21 October 1998.