James Wellbeloved: Labour MP admired and feared for his sharp tongue and forthright views

He joined the SDP amid much bitterness, but left them. He was Labour through and through

Wellbeloved: never can a politician have had a less apt surname, at least in the eyes of many of his Parliamentary colleagues, than Jim Wellbeloved. "How in heavens name did Jim manage to acquire that name?" murmured the softy-spoken, left-leaning chief whip John Silkin. "Who the hell in a bleeding month of Sundays," stormed the right-wing dockers' MP Bob Mellish, "gave our Jim that name?"

For swathes of the Parliamentary Labour Party well beloved he was not. He was many other things: greatly respected, admired, courageous; brutally honest with people senior to him and junior alike; the least toadlike politician in Westminster of his day. Jim Wellbeloved mattered. We all knew he spoke for the overwhelming majority of Labour voters in Outer London and the South-east of England.

There were two areas in which he was well beloved. First, by discerning members of the PLP who appreciated his candour, albeit from time to time, like me, suffering the sharp end of his razor-like tongue. Secondly, by most of his Erith constituency party, and by most of his constituents. In 1967 I was invited as a guest speaker to the Erith and Crayford constituency party. The treasurer told me, "we all know Jim's one of nature's bastards, but he is our bastard, and we'll work our pants off for him on the doorstep."

A few months after the 1964 election, Norman Dodds died. All by-elections were crucial but Erith and Crayford, given the government majority of one, really was crucial, and a galaxy of well-known hopefuls expressed interest. But unlike nowadays it was up to the local party to choose their candidate, and Transport House was told to mind its own business.

Wellbeloved, to use the dreadful current expression, "ticked all the boxes". From 1946-50 he had laboured in the building trade then turned his hand to marketing electrical appliances, becoming active as a union branch officer. In 1942 he volunteered as a boy seaman and after the war was on the joint management committee of London County Council, coming to the notice of Docklands Labour leaders.

He had served on Erith borough council, as chairman of their all-important establishment committee, and from 1956 to '65 was the first leader of the new Bexley borough council, winning golden opinions from local government officials for his decisiveness and clarity of purpose, and his willingness to confront pressure groups demanding this, that or the other. "Wellbeloved would bollock us if he thought we were in the wrong, but he would back us to the hilt when he deemed us to be in the right," one official told me. His book on local government is still worth reading.

There was another box he ticked, important in those days - he had a wonderfully sparky, tactical, forthright, left-wing and locally popular wife in Mavis Radcliff. Most by-election winners are reticent and shy at their first meetings of the PLP. Not so Wellbeloved. He voiced the concerns of part of the country which was significantly short of Labour representation, and he was listened to.

Two years after his victory, on the basis that one toughie appeals to another toughie, he was chosen by Roy Mason, then Minister of Defence (Equipment) under Denis Healey to be his Parliamentary Private Secretary. Lord Healey told me yesterday that he was particularly sorry to hear of Wellbeloved's death because he had the clear recollection of an extremely effective minister and a loyal friend.

In the dying embers of that Labour government, Wellbeloved was appointed PPS to the Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart. During the Heath government he was a whip, but when Labour won in 1974, despite the entreaties of his friend Albert Murray, Harold Wilson's PPS, the PM balked at provoking the left by giving a ministerial post to a right-wing disciplinarian. Truth to tell, he was pretty robust. I remember an occasion in 1975 when he eyed me - he was 6ft 3in - and snorted, "I'm pissed off with you, Tam, for being so dewy-eyed about those bastards in the Militant Tendency!" My offence was to have become a member of the long-forgotten Keep Calm Group of Labour MPs.

When James Callaghan succeeded Wilson in 1976 he and Chancellor Healey, both of whom cared about the Forces, had no such inhibitions. Partly on account of his no-nonsense approach and partly because, as a UK representative to the Nato Assembly, Wellbeloved had impressed the Americans, they appointed him Under-Secretary of State for Defence (RAF). They reckoned his style would appeal to the air marshals. It certainly did. The late Sir Michael Quinlan, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, told me: "Wellbeloved was certainly well beloved by the RAF of all ranks; when I accompanied him on visits to bases it was clear he had a great rapport with the aircrews". One of this deep interests was the health of servicemen, particularly those who had been invalided out.

Wellbeloved joined the SDP in 1981 amid bitterness and recriminations. After he lost his seat in 1983 he lost his appetite for party politics, though he did rejoin Labour. I stayed in touch on account of our interest in organ transplants. I asked him, "If Denis Healey had become Labour leader rather than Michael Foot, would you have stayed?" "Of course I would," he replied. The SDP was not his cup of tea; he was Labour through and through.

He served as Director-General of the National Kidney Research Fund (1984-1993), was a member of the Unrelated Live Transplant Regulatory Authority and President of the British Transplant Organ Donor Society. Sir Roy Calne, Professor of Surgery at Cambridge (1965-98), said, "Without the work of Jim Wellbeloved and his colleagues, quite simply there would be no organs to transplant."

Sometimes MP's hobbies mesh with their political activity. Jim and Mavis Wellbeloved were enthusiastic and skilled campers; he attributed his skill to his training as a boy seaman. In 1967 he had breathed life into the nearly defunct All-Party Camping and Caravanning group.

 

James Wellbeloved, politician and public servant: born Lewisham, London 29 July 1926; MP Erith and Crayford 1965-83; Under-Secretary of State for Defence 1976-79; married 1948 Mavis Radcliff (two sons, one daughter); died Bexley 10 September 2012.

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