Lord Carter

Down-to-earth Labour peer

Denis Victor Carter, farmer and politician: born London 17 January 1932; created 1987 Baron Carter; Chairman, BBC Rural Affairs and Agricultural Advisory Committee 1987-90; Deputy Chief Opposition Whip, House of Lords 1990-92, Captain, Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms (Government Chief Whip) 1997-2002; Chairman, UK Co-operative Council 1993-97; President, Institute of Agricultural Management 1996-97, 2002-06; PC 1997; married 1957 Teresa Greengoe (one son and one daughter deceased); died London 18 December 2006.

Denis Carter was a Labour life peer from 1987 - between 1997 and 2002 holding the office of Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentleman at Arms, in other words Government Chief Whip in the House of Lords. However, it is impossible to imagine a less pompous, more down-to-earth, thoroughly decent and kindly socialist.

He was born in 1932 in Elephant and Castle, London, and never forgot to tell us that he was an Elephant and Castle boy. His father worked in a tea warehouse and his mother was an office cleaner. They were devout Roman Catholics who nevertheless, every morning, somewhat incongruously, took the Communist Daily Worker. Carter's earliest memories were taking part in an election and running up and down the street shouting, "Vote, vote, and vote for Isaacs." The Isaacs in question was George Isaacs, later to be a prominent member of the Attlee cabinet from 1945 to 1951.

After attending six different schools in seven years Carter was sent to Xaverian College in Brighton, where he was to meet his ever-supportive wife of 60 years, Teresa Greengoe; they married in 1957. They had one son who died at the age of 19 from a degenerative disease and a daughter who, although she was blind, held down a professional job, but who also predeceased him. Such circumstances made Carter a sensitive Labour Party spokesman in the Lords on social security between 1988 and 1990.

But his main life was agriculture. He told me that, with absolutely no agricultural connections whatsoever, the idea of making his life in farming came to him when he was doing his National Service in the Egyptian countryside between 1950 and 1952. His experience of National Service and the mores of the officer class towards not only other ranks but also the Egyptians confirmed him in his parental socialist outlook.

On demobilisation he got jobs at a couple of farms in West Sussex and by a fluke, as he put it, became involved in doing the farm accounts, partly because he had trained as an audit clerk between leaving school and being called up. Between 1954 and 1957 he studied at the East Sussex Institute of Agriculture and the Essex Institute of Agriculture.

He then came into contact with a remarkable farmer - Wilfred Cave. I knew Cave because he was a friend of Dick Crossman, a neighbouring farmer in Oxfordshire, whose PPS I was, and equally moved in the circle of Aneurin Bevan. Cave, along with John Mackie, later to be Under-Secretary of Agriculture and a farmer on a vast scale, advised Bevan and his wife Jennie Lee on their own small farm in the home counties.

Wilfred Cave was a very important part of Carter's life. Unknown to Carter when he first came in to contact with him, Cave was the Labour candidate in the Devizes constituency. Through Cave, Carter became the voluntary assistant agent in the Basingstoke constituency in 1964, and was selected by them as their standard bearer in the 1970 general election. In a bad year for Labour, he won 25,664 votes as against the popular Conservative, (later Sir) David Mitchell, who gained 35,138, with the Liberal candidate, Robert Musselwhite, taking 8,183.

Carter became the founder and director of Agricultural Accounting and Management (AKC Ltd), a position he held for 40 years between 1957 and 1997, when he entered government. As he put it to me with a chuckle: "I had many clients in both the House of Lords and in the House of Commons, but they were all on the other side of the House."

His friends could easily see why Carter would be trusted with their own wherewithal even if his politics were anathema to them. He was a sincere and direct-talking, cheerful man with whom anybody could get along. This made him an ideal Opposition Whip for five years from 1987, the year he was made a peer, Deputy Chair of Committees from 1997, and, from 1999 to 2002, Deputy Speaker, where it is vital to get along on friendly terms with all shades of lordly belief in order to get the government business done.

Lord Clark of Windermere, in the 1980s agricultural spokesman in the Commons, and later cabinet minister, recalls:

Denis moved from being a city boy to one of the most knowledgeable people in Britain on agriculture and its problems. When I was a shadow minister he was an excellent colleague and an indispensable member of the team.

Carter's huge contribution to the Labour Party was expert advice in all matters agricultural. Between 1977 and 1979 he had been a member of the committee chaired by Donald Chapman, a Birmingham MP who became Lord Northfield, which inquired into the ownership and occupancy of agricultural land.

The reason that he was chosen was partly that he had taken three sabbatical years at Worcester College, Oxford, to do a doctorate in Agricultural Marketing, which he completed in 1976, as a Senior Research Fellow. Worcester usually demanded that anyone doing such a course should have not only a degree but first class honours - Carter had no degree at all but had impressed the college with the work he had done, not only in his own company but also as a director of United Oilseeds Marketing Ltd, of W.E. and D.T. Cave Ltd, and as a partner in Drayton Farms.

Denis Carter was terribly pleased that in a television profile he should be dubbed "a farmyard socialist". It was in this connection that he first came to know James Callaghan, later Prime Minister, but also Sussex farmer. It was Callaghan who introduced him to John Silkin, later to be Minister of Agriculture, and to David Clark and Brynmor John, who were looking after the rural affairs policies of the Labour Party.

In 1987 Neil Kinnock had asked Carter to be a member of the House of Lords with the injunction that he should be a working peer. He was self-effacing, content that his immense hard work should be credited to other more high-profile politicians in the Commons.

Kinnock, who saw Carter a few weeks ago and found him determinedly cheerful despite months of serious illness, remembers him as "enormously hard-working, a master of detail and completely dedicated to the Labour Party and its values".

I only once saw Denis Carter gloomy. That was when it was announced that Mick Channon, the Southampton and England inside forward, had decided to move from the Dell to White Hart Lane and a more glamorous club.

Tam Dalyell