Lord Burlison: GMB and Labour stalwart
Friday 23 May 2008
Lord Burlison was the first professional footballer to sit on the benches of the House of Lords. He was better known as Tom Burlison of the giant GMB trade union and as a Labour Party stalwart, treasurer and negotiator. He was known in the trade-union and labour movement as "the Fixer", because his fingers were in most pies.
The phrase "modest and unassuming" could have been invented for Burlison and he could easily get lost in a crowd of three, in spite of his red hair. For a quiet, softly spoken and shy man, however, he was one of the best known figures in union, labour and industrial circles.
In his beloved north-east homeland, the stocky ex-footballer was "Mr Tyneside" and he lived in the desirable area of Rowlands Gill, Tyne and Wear, for at least 20 years. He chose Rowlands Gill for his parliamentary title when his friend Tony Blair invited him to take a seat in the Lords as a working Labour peer in 1997.
Burlison was a tough individual who held the respect of almost everyone he encountered and it was difficult to find anyone who had a harsh word to say against him. Even the hard left liked and respected him, almost a miracle in itself. When I joined the Daily Mirror as an industrial reporter in 1975 and union activists heard I was from the North-east, they always said: "You must know Tommy Burlison. Or if you don't, you should."
I made it my business to know him, because it became clear that doors would open for me if I had his blessing. He was, in fact, the right wing or moderate's equivalent of Arthur Scargill. Hacks like me needed King Arthur's approval before standing on a lump of coal in Yorkshire. Similarly, most enquiries about background politics in Labour and TUC circles led to the offices of Tom Burlison. But he was no Godfather, just a working guy dedicated to his party and his union. His enthusiasm rubbed off on others, and he was probably the best General Secretary the GMB never had.
It was because of his low profile that he failed to beat John Edmonds for the job of GMB leader in 1985. His defeat was not a shattering blow, because he continued pulling the strings of Labour Party policy behind the scenes in the North. His ballot-box failure was the North-east's gain and he ran his regional domain like a well-oiled machine. He scrapped against the left and was given credit by Neil Kinnock for keeping Militant out of the public eye.
Burlison was born in Edmondsley, near Durham, of typical working-class stock, in 1936. He was a panel beater and welder from 1951 until 1957 and did National Service with the RAF. During his teenage working days he developed a taste for trade-union negotiations and willingly became a loyal member of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union (later GMB). He never liked the the shortened GMB and its £30,000 logo, which he joked meant "Gimme More Bread" but accepted that "something had to be done" about the former GUMBATU, a dreadful mouthful.
Burlison was a staunch Newcastle United fan and was a professional footballer from 1953 until 1965, playing for Lincoln, Hartlepool and Darlington. He used to joke that when his doctor told him to stay away from football he would go to watch Newcastle's rivals Sunderland. He played almost 200 games for Hartlepool and 30 for Darlington. Always self-effacing, he dined out on the story of the day Hartlepool lost 10-1 at Wrexham. He said: "That was the day when I knew I would never play for England."
Like many socialists of his generation, hard work took him up the ladder of union hierarchy. He became his union's regional officer, regional secretary, then deputy general secretary, 1991-96, treasurer of the Labour Party 1992-96 and spent nine years as northern region TUC chairman. Labour Party chiefs in London realised that to beat Margaret Thatcher, they needed grass-roots support from regional union chiefs who knew what their members wanted, and Burlison had his ears to the ground. He became a key member of the party's national executive committee and helped in policy-making.
One of his protégés, the GMB official Alan Donnelly, who became a Euro MP and leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, said that Burlison was one of the modernisers who helped make Labour electable. His influence helped stablilise the party and laid the foundations for Labour's massive success in 1997.
He was a staunch Kinnock and Blair supporter and Blair once said of him: "You could not wish to meet a nicer man." Burlison once let it be known, however, that he was not impressed with some of Kinnock's backroom staff, whom he described as a "liability". Events backed his judgement.
He had a knack of helping others progress in their careers, and used his influence whenever and wherever he could to help people reach their goal. With that familiar twinkle in his eyes he told me once over lunch that he would "have words in the right ears" should I ever want to become a Euro MP. He said: "You work for Bob Maxwell so you may need a parachute." When he entered the Lords his own peer group said it was an honour well-deserved. Burlison said: "I will not pick and choose my debates. I intend to be there for everyone. I am going to be a working peer, which is how the job was put to me when I accepted the honour."
He enjoyed the nickname "Hurlyburly Burlison" and was a good friend to the media at a time when it was fashionable in some circles for unions chiefs to distance themselves from the "hostile press". He even took journalists to lunch and paid the bill, a rare gesture from a trade-union leader. Burlison knew that good relations with the media were a key to electoral success in the trade unions and politics.
He was always proud to be a Geordie, never lost his accent, and promoted the cause of Newcastle and the North at every opportunity.
Thomas Henry Burlison, panel beater, footballer and trade unionist: born Edmondsley, Co Durham 23 May 1936; Regional Officer, General and Municipal Workers' Union (later General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union, later GMB) 1965-78, Regional Secretary 1978-91, Deputy General Secretary 1991-96; Treasurer, Labour Party 1992-96; created 1997 Baron Burlison; a Lord in Waiting 1999-2001; married 1981 Valerie Stephenson (two sons, one daughter); died Gateshead, Tyne and Wear 20 May 2008.
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