Obituary: Eric Ogden

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A third of a century ago, a large number of eager new Labour MPs flooded into the Commons, determined, in the white heat of the technological revolution, to change the face of Britain. The majority was only five, and within weeks three, after the by-election in Leyton when Patrick Gordon- Walker lost; with a balance of payments crisis, they had an uphill task. And none was more enthusiastic to tackle problems than four new Labour members from Merseyside, Colonel Dick Crawshaw, paratrooper and solicitor, Jimmy Dunn, seafarer and trade union official, Eric Heffer, master carpenter and building trade worker, and Eric Ogden, miner, seaman and textile worker.

Harold Wilson, himself a Merseyside MP who had represented part of Ogden's constituency, told his housing minister Richard Crossman that they should be treated with kid gloves and that their problems should be taken most seriously when they came to see him. Typically the four of them were in Crossman's room within days of his appointment, arguing the case for Liverpool.

Eric Ogden was born, the son of a textile-material printer in the Middleton dye works, in 1923. In his maiden speech on 27 November 1964 during the late-night debate on grammar schools, Ogden said:

A long time ago, I took a scholarship examination. I failed it. At that time, the strange thing was that in the vil-

lage where I lived no one was wor-

ried, surprised, or concerned in any way when a child failed a scholarship examination. It seemed to them that it was simply that one did not have the power to pull strings in the right place. There was no disgrace or stigma. It was simply that one was just not lucky enough to get a place.

Fortunately, my father was able to afford pounds 5 a term to send me to grammar school, a grammar school which had a system which discovered the secret of making me work hard, so that I left it with as good a series of results as any child who went to it. I have since been made a governor of this school [Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Middleton], which is as old and proud and which has as great a tradition as any school in the land. But it is not the same grammar school as when it first started six or seven hundred years ago.

It has changed, thank goodness, which is what has happened to the whole of the education system, which will continue to change in spite of, or because of, us.

Throughout his time in the Commons Ogden devoted himself to the cause of sensible constructive educational change.

Always immensely patriotic, he volunteered as a Bevin boy in 1940 having attended the Wigan Mining Technical College and then the Merchant Navy, for which he trained as a radio operator. One of his first ships was a Dutch merchantman which had slipped out of Rotterdam. Ogden applied himself to learning Dutch. By the age of 22 he was a veteran of the Atlantic convoys and had sailed to the west coast of the United States and many other seas. He eschewed childish. discourteous behaviour in the Commons. "The North Atlantic and its dangers," he said, "taught me to be friendly and respectful to people."

Friendly he certainly was. Eddie Loyden, MP for Liverpool Garston and Ogden's agent in the 1964 general election, says of him: "In politics I was miles apart from Eric Ogden and had only one thing, seafaring, in common with him. But he was so nice personally that I could get along with him as an individual and work with him." This view is shared by Mrs Doris Heffer, widow of Eric Heffer, the famous left-wing MP for Liverpool Walton, who describes Eric Ogden as a great team player with her husband and says they never had a bad word, even when Ogden was de-selected and had to go to the Social Democrat Party as a political home.

After the Second World War Ogden followed his father into the textile industry. His political interests were encouraged by Harry Earnshaw, general secretary of the Dyers, Bleachers and Textile Workers and later to be conference chairman of the Labour Party. In 1952 Ogden took up a clerical post with the National Coal Board, earning the approval of the powerful Joe Gormley, the secretary of the Lancashire Miners, who encouraged him to become a councillor in the borough of Middleton. With the patronage and support of Earnshaw, Gormley and, above all, the redoubtable Bessie Braddock, with her close connections with the National Union of Seamen and as chairman of the dreaded organisation sub- committee of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, Ogden secured the candidature at West Derby.

Non-Liverpudlians who get selected for Liverpool parliamentary seats have something of a handicap. Possibly it is the natural chirpiness of Liverpool people which can be interpreted as aggression. Ogden began to be given a hard time and as a government loyalist was soon out of tune with the West Derby party, who were not of the Militant Tendency but among whom were particular left-wingers wanting to oust Ogden to get the seat for themselves.

However Ogden, as a trade-union-sponsored MP government loyalist and friend from Liverpool of Harold Wilson, who had the Huyton Merseyside seat, was in line for a government post. Bad luck struck him on Wednesday 13 March 1968. Crossman's diary records:

The party meeting on prescription charges was the worst we have ever had. It started with a feeble and ineffective report by Kenneth Robinson. He made no effort whatsoever to make the best of his case or to argue that he had saved the hospital service by sacrificing prescription charges. Indeed he apologised throughout and gave the impression successfully that he'd struggled against the decision.

Then up rose Laurie Pavitt, who used to work in the health service, and made a high-minded speech in moving the anti-government mo-

tion, so high-minded that Eric Og-

den who moved a pro-government motion lost his nerve, ratted and sat down. That was pretty disastrous. After this no one spoke for the government except Woodrow Wyatt, who told us that we could no longer afford a decent National Health Service. He was duly howled down.

In that moment of panic Ogden forfeited what might have been a good ministerial career.

One little written-about aspect of an MP's life, of under-estimated importance, used to be the modest supper, followed by two hours of earnest discussion, with an industrial heavyweight. In this milieu, Ogden was at his best - courteous, candid, succinct and with an informed point of view. In the middle 1960s, I was one of a dozen or so MPs representing coal mines who was bidden to the table of Alf Robens, the chairman of the National Coal Board. Robens, powerful, bluff and blunt in his heyday, listened attentively to Ogden, noted what he said and returned to the issues that Ogden had raised at subsequent suppers.

Nor was Robens the only one to take Ogden most seriously. The formidable Sir Christopher Hinton FRS, chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board, engineer, and later Lord Hinton of Bankside OM, who did not suffer fools gladly (or, more accurately, at all), paid similar attention to Ogden's lucid points explained, as they were, with a use of the hands more common among Italian politicians than British MPs.

During the period of the 1974-79 Labour government Ogden's relations with West Derby deteriorated to the point that he was de-selected in 1981 and, after briefly finding a haven with the SDP, who were hardly his soulmates, returned to private life. There was not a trace of sourness in him and he indulged his appetite for heraldry, stamp collecting and travel. He had accompanied Sir Michael Shersby, the Conservative MP who was to die within 24 hours of him, to the Falkland Islands. He retained a lifelong interest in the welfare of the islanders and would talk about the Falklands and Tristan da Cunha with me, albeit we took very different views. He was tolerant of other people's opinions and immensely curious about any place which he visited.

In the last years of his life he was a frequent visitor to Yugoslavia and, knowing that he was dying last week, telephoned his stepdaughter- in-law in Prague and spoke to her in the Czech language to say goodbye.

Tam Dalyell

Eric Ogden, miner, seaman, textile worker, politician: born Rhodes, Lancashire 23 August 1923; MP (Labour) for Liverpool, West Derby 1964- 81, (SDP) 1981-83; Chairman, Falkland Islands Association 1983-87; married 1945 Patricia Aitken (one son; marriage dissolved), 1964 Marjorie Smith (nee Smith; two sons and two stepdaughters); died Edmonton, Middlesex 5 May 1997.