Sir Gerald Kaufman obituary: Long-serving Labour MP and Father of the House

Kaufman was famed for his sharp tongue and dismissal of his own party’s 1983 manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sir Gerald Kaufman, who has died aged 86, was a highly complex character. As journalist, backstage adviser, MP, minister just outside the cabinet, leading frontbench figure in the Labour Opposition of the Eighties and follower of the arts, he had every merit of intelligence, application and easy, literate fluency in argument. But he could be counter-productively abrasive, took and gave rather too much offence and was perhaps a little short of self-doubt.

His clear and lucid mind inclined him to a laying down of the law in a masterful fashion not everywhere appreciated. Genuinely gifted, he was his own worst enemy, but not without competitors.

Gerald Bernard Kaufman was born in 1930 in Leeds, one of the many children of Louis Kaufman, a Montague Burton’s tailor, and his wife Jane. He progressed to Leeds Grammar School for which he felt no affection, having encountered anti-Semitism there, and to the Queen’s College, Oxford where in 1952, he became chairman of the Labour Club. A Daily Mirror journalist by trade, he fought two Tory seats in 1955 and 1959 before entering politics obliquely as an adviser to Harold Wilson, to whom he showed sustained personal loyalty.

Kaufman entered Parliament in 1970 for Manchester Ardwick and since 1983 served Manchester Gorton. His ministerial career began at the earliest opportunity, when Labour came to power in 1974, as junior to Anthony Crosland at the Environment, shepherding exceptionally protracted legislation, the Rent Act (near his heart as it gave tenants security of tenure), through a tight, difficult committee.

Sir Gerald Kaufman a visit to Israel in 2010 (Hazam Bader/AFP/Getty)

He was then given responsibility with Eric Varley at Industry (post-Tony Benn), for the Industry Act. Moving up to Minister of State at the end of 1975, he stayed there until 1979, taking care of aircraft and shipbuilding bills, arguing against the nonsense of the Chrysler deal, but defending, at least in public, the hardly less nonsensical Polish shipping agreement, both subsidies of uneconomic activities. He was never less than a painstaking, dedicated and capable minister, and it was his wretched misfortune to have qualified for cabinet office when in 1979 all prospects would be whisked away for the next 18 years.

In opposition he grasped Labour’s predicament exactly, backing Denis Healey for the key deputy leadership contest and standing up to the far left. But though he rose to leading portfolios, shadowing Environment from 1980, the Home Office 1983-87 and the Foreign Office 1987-91, he would not be wholly happy. His gifts were for minute grasp, not persuasion in debate. Always combative, Kaufman was not subtle in public argument. “Just hint a fault and hesitate dislike” was a hypocrisy (or finesse) quite beyond him. He attacked enemies – and, in an oddly Thatcherian way, they were more often enemies than mere opponents – with words too rich for the palette.

“Infamous” was a recurring adjective. An Independent  journalist would sigh that “there was scarcely any topic he touched that was not scandalous, any ministerial statement that was not outrageous”. He once turned on Leon Brittan, of Latvian Jewish extraction, engaged in 1984 upon immigration rules cosy by the standards of later Home Secretary David Blunkett, charging that had they applied when his own parents arrived from Poland, they would have been sent back to the gas chambers. The grasp, always good, could be vitiated by the animus.

Opposition can be done deftly with information or by full-frontal assault. Kaufman, so good at the first, was attracted to the second, riskier option. John Smith would triumph in indictment speeches, Robin Cook would do very well. The test of this style of opposition is the response of the government. The Tories disliked Robin Cook, but had a healthy respect for his closely argued case and savage irony. They were genuinely scared of Smith who, over Westland, sliced them fine. Gerald Kaufman they never quite took seriously. He could be witty, but was more often sarcastic, spent too long in top gear and, in his furious but ornate way, became predictable.

Kaufman addressing the House (PA)

He would demonstrate greater strength on standing committees when an eye for detail could embarrass a minister, and he flourished in his final parliamentary job as chair, from 1992 onwards, of the National Heritage Select Committee, later the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. The arts had always been a concern, and he was a regular at arts festivals. He also wrote a little. His best book, How to be a Minister, has a light, sardonic touch and approaches minor classic status.

Wwhat was incontestable about Kaufman was the courage in any cause he cared for. He was the one member of the shadow Cabinet with the nerve to tell Michael Foot that he should give up a leadership far beyond his abilities. And throughout the period of frightened silence when entryism and deselection were cats that had got the tongue of most Labour politicians, Kaufman spoke up quite fearlessly again and again.

He is credited with calling the calamitous Labour manifesto of 1983 “the longest suicide note in history”. Significantly, he would be rewarded with a sustained series of very high votes in the annual ballots for the shadow Cabinet, when Labour did that sort of vulgar thing.

The courage also showed more than once on the Israel issue. Kaufman protested at the entry to Britain in 1972 of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, co-plotter with Yitzhak Shamir in 1948 in the killing of 91 Arabs, Jews and British in the King David Hotel bombing. And in April 2002 he attacked Ariel Sharon in the Commons for his readiness resort to violence, racial prejudice against Palestinian Arabs and general unfitness for high office. As brave as true, it was a splendid defiance of the standard smear from virulent Zionists that that Jews criticising Israel are “self-hating”. Kaufman was Jewish, Leeds Jewish, Polish immigrant Jewish, even a Zionist, of a civilised and deeply troubled sort. He spoke as a proud Jew, but not proud of Israel under Sharon.

As a parliamentarian, Kaufman represented with real passion ill-served and unprivileged people and newer racial minorities in a hard part of a hard city; genuinely devoted, yet leaving no small point unscored, Gerald Kaufman was always a class act, if, on occasion, something of a strain.

Sir Gerald Bernard Kaufman, born 21 June 1930, died 26 February 2017