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

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