John Tilley

Principled MP strident in his opposition to the Falklands War


John Vincent Tilley, journalist and politician: born Derby 13 June 1941; member, Wandsworth Borough Council 1971-78; MP (Labour) for Lambeth Central 1978-83; chief economic adviser, London Borough of Hackney 1983-88; Parliamentary Secretary to the Co-operative Union 1998-99; Head of the Parliamentary Office, Co- operative Group 2000-02; twice married (two daughters); died London 18 December 2005.

There is little to match a shared adversity to the prevailing view within a political party in bringing together MPs who might not otherwise be close colleagues. Apart from canvassing with John Tilley in the crucial by-election in Lambeth in 1978, in which he triumphed in the most difficult circumstances, when the government majority had dwindled to minus one, I had scarcely talked to him since he had been industrial correspondent of The Scotsman newspaper in the early 1970s. That changed in April 1982 as we both stridently opposed the Falklands War. Thus we incurred the displeasure of the party leader Michael Foot and the wrath of some senior members of the Parliamentary Labour Party who had committed themselves to supporting Margaret Thatcher's military reaction to the Argentine occupation of the Falklands.

Tilley's stance was particularly admirable. After only four years in the Commons, he was already on the front bench and was making his mark in the strong Home Affairs opposition team, powerfully led by Roy Hattersley. But, for Tilley, principle took precedence over parliamentary advancement. Moreover, unlike a number of opponents on the left, he had really thought through the issues, and had mastered the detail, both military and diplomatic.

In fact, had Tilley survived the boundary redistribution in which his constituency, Lambeth Central, was abolished in 1983, I believe he would have become one of the major figures of the Labour Party. This was also the opinion of Hattersley, who came from a very different wing of the party than Tilley's London-left background.

Tilley was born in Derby and had happy memories of his boyhood. He was taken to football matches by his father, who worked in engineering both for Rolls-Royce and for the railway workshops, when Derby County was one of the great forces in English club football. The Baseball Ground in Derby was an unusually compact stadium where the physical circumstances engendered tremendous togetherness. Tilley told me that his passionate belief in community and collective action was conceived, perhaps, in a curious way, at those early football matches.

From grammar school he won a scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he read History. His first job in 1968 was with a Newcastle journal and in 1970 he became industrial correspondent, based in London, of The Scotsman. It is often the case that local MPs develop very close relations with correspondents covering their own area, and thus it was for me and Tilley - my area contained the huge British Motor Corporation truck and tractor division at Bathgate which was then the largest concentration of machine tools under one roof in Europe.

Both Members of Parliament and members of the Joint Shop Stewards Committee received a very fair hearing from Tilley. However, as James Naughtie, his former colleague on the Scotsman and now presenter of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, says: "It was difficult for John, we thought, to combine both the labour and industrial correspondent position of The Scotsman in London with that of the leadership of the Wandsworth Council." Tilley had been elected as a councillor for Battersea in 1968, winning the ward against the trend in that year's Tory landslide. He was made council leader by 1971.

"John had an understanding of the kind of development which was going on in the trade union and industrial world," Naughtie says.

In journalistic terms, we thought that he had accurate and good stories and he was certainly rigorous. He understood as a practitioner how politics actually worked. He also had the capacity to stand back and see, on occasion, what was happening as absurd.

In 1974, Tilley was chosen to stand in the hopeless seat of Kensington & Chelsea. He was then "rewarded", if that is the right word, by being handed what many thought was the poisoned chalice of an extremely difficult by-election in central Lambeth in 1978. However, to the delight and relief of the Labour Party, he got 15,101 votes, to the 9,125 for Jeremy Hanley, later chairman of the Conservative Party, with the Liberal picking up 2,339, the National Front 830, and Corin Redgrave for the Workers Party 152.

No MP could have had a warmer baptism of fire in his constituency. In 1981 came the Brixton riots. Tilley had the great good sense to form a friendship with the distinguished High Court judge Lord Scarman, who was appointed to conduct an inquiry into the riots. Tilley personally took Scarman round Brixton and his contribution was considerable.

Tilley's parliamentary interests mostly centred on London and I will never forget his informed speech of 9 February 1979, made in an adjournment debate initiated by his friend Albert Stallard (now Lord Stallard). He said,

"South-east London, including the Borough of Lambeth . . . is known to have a high proportion of men and women who are in desperate need of help with the problem of alcoholism. Anyone who knows the area must be aware of the large number of people who live, or barely exist, on those streets, usually with inadequate clothing and food and often sleeping rough in all weathers."

Tilley was one of the most eloquent of MPs in urging the government to tackle the problem of down-and-outs and also one of the most prescient in asking Parliament to pay serious attention to the drugs problem, then in its infancy.

Apart from supporting Roy Hattersley, who became something of a mentor as well as a great friend to his junior colleague on the front bench in the diverse but critically important Home Office legislation of the time, Tilley raised a host of pertinent issues. They included British nationality, school meals, asbestos dangers, inner London colleges, training opportunity schemes, fuel costs assistance and the Police Complaints Board. He was a really useful member of the House of Commons and it was Parliament's loss that he ceased to be an MP in 1983.

From 1983 until 1988 he eked out a living in the interesting position of economic adviser to the London Borough of Hackney and between 1989 and 1999 he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Co-operative Union, ending up as head of the Parliamentary Office of the Co-operative Group. Part of his legacy is a really excellent book, Churchill's Favourite Socialist: a life of A.V. Alexander (1995), about the wartime First Lord of the Admiralty who was one of the patron saints of the co-operative movement.

Tam Dalyell

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot