Alec Woodall: MP who fought for the rights of miners and servicemen
Wednesday 12 January 2011
"He was forthright and honest. He stood by his word. He was underrated in the House of Commons and worked hard. He got on with the job." That was how his Yorkshire whip, Alan McKay, summed up Alec Woodall. McKay shared digs in Balham with Woodall when Parliament was sitting, along with the MP for Pontefract Geoff Lofthouse (later Lord Lofthouse) and Edwin Wainwright, MP for Dearne Valley. And the overwhelming majority of his colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party would have agreed with him. "For someone from Alec Woodall's background or mine in the Yorkshire coalfield, parliament was a different world," Lord Lofthouse, who served as deputy speaker, told me. "Alec would make the detour in his car to Pontefract to collect me and drive me down to London. He showed me the ropes, as he did to many Yorkshire working-class MPs. I could always trust him for advice."
Alec Woodall was born in Hemsworth, represented Hemsworth in parliament and died in Hemsworth. His father was a miner who suffered an injury which resulted in a broken back and confinement to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and one of Woodall's special interests throughout his parliamentary career from 1974-87 was the treatment of and compensation for injured mine workers.
He went to the South Road Elementary School in Hemsworth and went at the age of 14 to the South Kirkby pit, where he was to spend the rest of his working life as a mine worker, ending up as the pit traffic foreman. Typically, he volunteered to serve in the war in 1939 and not to take advantage of his claim to work in a reserved occupation. He landed on D-Day+2 on the Normandy beaches, with the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and after the battle for Caen was seconded to the Canadian regiment, Princess Patricia's, the sister regiment of the KOYLI. As a sergeant he saw his French-Canadian platoon commander killed in front of him and had to assume command. He himself was blown up during the battle for Tessel Wood and invalided home to a hospital in Southport. The doctors put him right after months of surgery: he remained rather deaf, and deafness was one of his causes in the House of Commons.
In the late 1960s the various factions of the Yorkshire miners made it difficult for him to get on the parliamentary panel. But his friend and predecessor, Alan Beaney, prolonged his stay in parliament because he wanted Woodall as his successor, to whom he could bequeath his 34,000 majority. After eight years as a member of Hemsworth Urban District Council, at the age of 56 Woodall became an MP.
In 1976, he was chosen as parliamentary private secretary by one of the ablest of all cabinet ministers of any party, Edmund Dell, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Throughout his 13 years in the Commons, Woodall displayed an interest in, and deep knowledge of, trade and export issues. His attendance in the chamber was exemplary and whenever he made a contribution it was to the point and infused with personal knowledge. I remember his question on 18 February 1985 to David Hunt, Mrs Thatcher's energy minister: "Is the minister aware of the grave concern that is being expressed by many domestic consumers about the quality of the coal that is now being delivered to them by distributors? Is he further aware that that coal is nothing but muck, that it spits, causes a great deal of hardship and anxiety, and is not worth the money that is being paid for it, which is almost twice as much as the price for domestically produced coal?"
Woodall was one of Arthur Scargill's sworn enemies. I shall always remember how he pronounced "Scar-gill" with the anger and passion which could only come from a fellow Yorkshire miner. He was in the thick of it, alongsideothers representing the Yorkshirecoalfields such as Peter Hardy, in the battle to save the industry from being led up the garden path, as they sawit, by Scargill and his friends. Woodall was to pay the price by being deselected in 1987, in favour of the chairmanof his own constituency party, a Scargill supporter.
With the support of his wife, a very strong Yorkshire lady, Molly Scott, also born in Hemsworth, he did not succumb to the bitterness which might have been expected. He devoted himself to the work of the Soldiers', Sailors', and Airmen's Families Association, on whose national committee he had served for most of the time he was an MP. I said to him once, "have a good weekend." He replied, "on Friday and Saturday I'm going down to Portsmouth to see 'the bad boys'." I discovered that six or seven times a year he went to the service detention centres to see that they were being treated properly. The services, particularly the "squaddies", had no better friend in Parliament than Alec Woodall.
Alec Woodall, miner and politician: born Hemsworth 20 September 1918; MP for Hemsworth 1974–87; married 1950 Molly Scott (one son, one daughter); died Hemsworth 3 January 2011.
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