Lord Bilston: Politician who championed the steel industry and was popular on both sides of the House of Commons
Wednesday 12 March 2014
When that great socialist Bob Edwards, 81 years old and friend of Trotsky, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, told us that he had decided to retire after 32 years in the Commons as MP for Bilston – against the wishes of his constituency party – he told us: "the CLP will choose an ideal, local, working-class successor, Dennis Turner."
For the next 18 years Turner more than fulfilled Edwards' expectations and was hugely popular, not only in the Parliamentary Labour Party but across the political spectrum. This was partly because Turner was uninhibitedly and charmingly politically incorrect.
In 1986 Edwards invited me to Bilston to speak on the Westland Affair. As I was going into the hall, a Party officer told me, "If I were you I'd put money on Dennis's horse tomorrow in the 3.30 at Chepstow." It is not normal for solemn Labour candidates to have a stake in a racehorse. But Turner was not solemn. His Party colleagues loved Dennis; he exuded an infectious warmth and good humour.
The son of a furnace-man in the Bilston Steel Works, Turner attended local schools. Soon after his arrival in the Commons there was much talk of Grunwick and Wapping. "I was a strike leader," Turner volunteered. "When, Dennis?" "When I was 12 years old – of choirboys."
He had us in stitches – he was a wonderful raconteur – as he recounted how he and his fellow choristers had gone to the vicar, who had initially refused their demand of more than one shilling for weddings. "Our strike triumphed – we got two bob." Dennis was fun to be with.
From Stonefield Secondary Modern School, some of whose teachers would become lifelong friends, Turner became an apprentice at Bilston Steel Works. In his spare time he worked as a market trader – "which gave me an easy confidence in public, and the gift of the gab, to make housewives laugh" – and as a bingo caller, an experience which gave him the capacity to drown out any heckling when he asked a question of the Prime Minister, which he frequently did. Turner's was the most booming, stentorian voice I ever heard in the Commons. And it was earthy, streetwise good sense that came forth.
A Wolverhampton councillor at the age of 22 in 1964, Turner was rocketed to prominence 10 years later when – under the Labour government – the new chief executive of British Steel, Robert Scholey, decided to close the Bilston plant. Turner organised the picket line, but they failed to save the plant. Years later, Turner was still bitter that Bill Sirs, general secretary of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, had not supported the Bilston workers.
On 3 December 1987 the Industry Secretary Ken Clarke made a highly charged statement to the Commons. I vividly remember Turner bellowing with passion: "Will the Minister ... reflect on the fact that we have lost more than 70,000 jobs in the steel industry? When he tries to reconcile the turn-round of the steel industry, will he look at the other side of the balance sheet – at the social costs in payments of unemployment benefit to those thousands of people? ... We have lost a massive market share in British Steel in the last eight years. What are we producing in this country today?"
In 1974 Turner stood for Halesowen and Stourbridge at the February and October elections, losing to the Conservative backwoodsman John Stokes. He had hoped to succeed his friend John Horner, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, in Oldbury and Halesowen, but suffered from disadvantageous boundary changes.
From 1993-97 he was an Opposition Whip; like many colleagues, I found him a first-class, if candid listener to any misgivings we had about Party policy. With the coming of the Blair government he served with devotion, first as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Clare Short and then to Valerie (now Baroness) Amos. "He was a fabulous PPS," Short told me, "totally committed and loyal to my objectives as International Development Secretary. Only this month he was due to be on the platform at a fair trade meeting in Birmingham. As a West Midlands MP I know how well his constituents liked him, and particularly those involved in education – he was a champion of education for all."
Turner retired in 2005, and was rightly sent to the House of Lords. It was a time he enjoyed more than most MPs sent upstairs. And his colleagues enjoyed him."We all love Dennis," a Tory peer friend of mine told me.
Eight years as Chairman of the Commons Catering Committee had enhanced his considerable skills in disarming colleagues, and the Commons staff adored him, particularly the chefs – he was their champion. And a champion of traditional ales and fish and chips.
I recently sent a newspaper cutting to Dennis which I thought would make him laugh. I got a cheerful handwritten reply – not a mention of the cancer which meant he had a few weeks to live. His friends salute this brave and engaging parliamentarian.
Dennis Turner, steelworker and politician: born Bilston 26 August 1942; MP for Wolverhampton SE 1987–2005; cr. 2005 Lord Bilston; married 1976 Patricia Narroway (one daughter, one son); died Bilston 27 February 2014.
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