Doris Heffer: Political secretary who formed a parliamentary double act with her husband Eric

I assert with the certainty of one who knew them both extremely well – one who worked with them and sometimes argued with them when they would give me a lift to the end of Horseferry Road on their way to their London pied-à-terre in Dolphin Square after the close of Commons business in the small hours of the morning – that without his wife Doris, Eric Heffer would probably not have become a Member of Parliament, and unquestionably not a member of the National Executive of the Labour Party, and indeed the national figure he became.

For more than a quarter of a century, from 1964 until 1991, Doris was Eric's constant, and where appropriate unobtrusive, companion in Westminster, Liverpool and up and down Britain, since Eric was greatly in demand as a speaker and as a standard bearer of the serious and sensible left. They made a striking couple – he, a huge and commanding presence, she diminutive and graceful.

Bob Wareing (MP for Liverpool West Derby 1983-2010) was Heffer's agent at the 1964 general election, whenhe won the Conservative seat ofLiverpool Walton. Subsequently Wareing became a counsellor for Pirrie ward, which Heffer had represented before he became an MP. "Doris told Eric bluntly when he was doing right, and when she believed that he was not acting wisely," Wareing told me. "I enjoyed being with them, not least because of the way in which Eric would often defer to Doris.'

Doris Murray was the second child of a semi-skilled worker in the electronics factories on Merseyside which became unified under Plessey. After winning a coveted place at grammar school, which was rare in those days for a working-class child, her education, like that of many of her generation, was disrupted by the Second World War and by being evacuated. She told me how she had spenttime in the west of Scotland, working as a secretary not only to her husband but to Norman Buchan, the left-wing MP for West Renfrewshire. She did this before any kind of salary was brought in for those who were secretaries to MPs.

Her hope was to be an interpreter but the headmistress of her last school advised her father to send her to a college of commerce to train as a secretary. She always made the point that she was professionally qualified as a secretary when salaries were eventually introduced for MPs' secretaries.

She continued to attend night school, passing exams in French and Italian to university level. When she married Eric, who had been a butcher's boy in the south of England, he was working as a skilled carpenter in the Liverpool docks. They met through membership of the Young Communist League. Not surprisingly, Eric was to fall out with the communist hierarchy and was expelled; Doris was summoned to the headquarters and told that she must leave her husband or leave the party. She refused, typically, to do either and let her Communist membership lapse.

But even when they were earning very little money, they went on ashoestring on holidays to Italy, and that was the beginning of their friendship with the great Italian left-wingers Pietro Nenni and Giuseppe Saragat. Years later, when I was a member of the European Parliament and he came before the budget committee, Altiero Spinelli, the communist Italian European commissioner, took me aside and asked how his friends the Heffers were. I believe it was Doris's mastery ofItalian, that led to Eric, againstthe wishes of many of his politicalsoulmates, being an outspoken champion of British entry into the Common Market.

Doris Heffer was far more important to the Labour Party than a bustling secretary darting round the Commons with files under her arm; her political opinions were listened to by many of my parliamentary colleagues. When I last phoned her, in November, she said that she was so angry with the Labour leadership that for the first time in her life she had not voted, let alone worked, at a general election. She was a highly political lady.

Doris had a delicate sense of humour. The first time I met her she said – I think it was a stock-in-trade response – "I am Mrs Heffer, if there can be such a person." When Eric and Doris stayed with us after he was the main speaker at a rally in West Lothian, my wife and I saw her talents as a raconteur. None of us who heard it will ever forget her description of a stormy meeting at Transport House of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in the early 1980s. Eric, infuriated by the powers-that-be in the party, rose from his seat and stormed out, opening a door. It was the wrong door, and contained the brooms and cleaning equipment. The National Executive was reduced to mirth.

Doris contributed hugely to Eric's own sense of humour, which made him such a popular figure in the party and in parliament. When he was dying, on his last appearance the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher crossed the floor to greet him.

Returning to Liverpool, Doris'sbrother David Murray told me, "after Eric's death she then looked afterher mother for many years until Mrs Murray died. This sort of self-effacing service and support for others has of course been the lot of many women of her generation, but Doris combined this with a strong sense of her own dignity and worth."

Doris not only typed Eric's letters to constituents and others, she composed them. One night in 1968, awaiting a midnight vote, I went across to the table in the Commons library, where Eric had ensconced himself signing a huge pile of typewritten letters. "Look what Doris has done for me," he said. "These are mainly replies to prisoners writing from Walton Jail. Doris has replied personally to each one of the letters – and at length."

Prisoners had no votes; most were from elsewhere in the north of England, not the Heffers' constituency. Doris Heffer did this because she believed in giving kindness and support to the powerless. Frequently, she sustained some correspondences long after the men were released. There was more to life for the Heffers than politics – they valued unsung human decency.

Doris Murray, medical secretary and political secretary: born Liverpool 19 August 1926; married 1945 Eric Heffer; died Liverpool 4 January 2011.

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