Gordon Oakes

Workhorse Labour minister

Gordon Oakes served for a third of a century as a Labour MP, first for Bolton West, then Widnes, and, after boundary changes, Halton, and he was one of my favourite parliamentary colleagues. As one of the brotherhood of parliamentary private secretaries, 1964-70, when he acted as a friend and bag carrier to Frank Soskice as Home Secretary, then his successor Roy Jenkins and afterwards to Tony Crosland at the Department of Education and Science, Oakes was ever helpful to his contemporaries. As a minister, he was a workhorse in local government and subsequently for higher and further education, and claimed to have answered more adjournment debates than any other minister in the period 1974-79.

The former Leader of the House and deputy prime minister Ted Short, now Lord Glenamara, described Oakes as "a kindly, thoughtful man, who was an excellent minister, a good team player" - a most important quality in a middle-rank minister. His approach to political life was that of the Mayor of Widnes and the responsible councillor he had once been.

Unlike many politicians, Oakes's main concern was to search for practical solutions to problems. He went about his work in a quiet way and he doesn't appear in any of the main diaries or political biographies of the period. This was not because he was ineffective, but because he genuinely believed in achieving his object without fuss and bother. He was one of comparatively few politicians who was not greatly concerned to claim credit for himself.

Gordon Oakes was born in 1931 into a professional family and went to Wade Deacon Grammar School in Widnes and Liverpool University, where he gained a degree in English in 1952, the same year when, at the age of 21, he was elected to Widnes Council. Combining council work and the articles involved, he was admitted as a solicitor in 1956. Such was the regard that he was held locally that he became Mayor of Widnes in 1964-65, which he combined with being the new MP for Bolton West.

He had been a candidate in 1959 in Bebbington, which he lost with 33,705 votes going to the Conservative and Oakes taking 23,884. This was considered so creditable a performance that he was chosen as the Labour standard-bearer in the difficult Manchester Moss Side by-election of 1961. The winner was Frank Taylor with 9,533, with the Liberal taking 6,447, forcing Oakes into third place with a total of 5,980. However, such was his performance in the face of adverse conditions for the Labour Party that he was given the marginal seat of Bolton West where in 1964 he ousted the sitting MP, the Liberal Arthur Holt, who had held the constituency since 1951.

My first clear recollection of Oakes was as a new member asking for the re-establishment of centres for prisoners similar to those set up by the National Assistance Board. As a solicitor, he had become deeply concerned about clients in prison who were about to be released and what society was doing to facilitate their return to normal life. I believe that it was partly due to Oakes's consistent pressure that selected long-term prisoners were sent to hostels and had arrangements made for them to work for outside employers. This was at a time when the cause of the treatment of prisoners was less than fashionable; characteristically, Oakes interested himself in matters where there were few or no votes to be had.

In 1970, Oakes lost Bolton West, and with Labour in opposition became a spokesman on local government and the environment. He was the obvious choice for the Widnes seat when his friend James MacColl died, causing a by-election in September 1971. In 1974 Oakes naturally went onto the government front bench as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of the Environment, where the press dubbed him "Minister for Waste". He was the first minister in any British government to take recycling and waste management seriously and in this he was 10 years or more before his time.

Rightly, Oakes gained promotion in 1976 to the position of Minister of State for Education and Science. Among his causes were adult literacy programmes and the establishment of polytechnics. He was especially interested in teacher training. I admired him because one felt that here was a minister who was prepared to take endless trouble, to use modern parlance, on "less than sexy" educational subjects.

After Labour's defeat in 1979, Oakes was the opposition spokesman on the environment, but withdrew from the front bench, becoming somewhat disillusioned about the bitter controversies in the Labour Party at the time. He devoted his energies to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, of which he became a member of the executive, 1979-97, and to the All Party Energy Efficiency Group. I was very close to him in the All Party Chemical Industry Group, which he served as vice-chairman, 1982-90. Following boundary changes, from 1983 he continued as MP for the newly created seat of Halton; after his retirement in 1997, away from Westminster, his health improved.

A special interest throughout his parliamentary career had been the Ordnance Survey and he was an expert on the history of maps and mapping.

Tam Dalyell

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