Lord Orme

Formidable left-winger who was accused of selling his soul on becoming a minister
Click to follow

Complex, deep-thinking, more than a little secretive, often suspicious of his colleagues, prone to answer questions by posing another question in reply, intensely ambitious, Stan Orme was a significant member of the House of Commons, of the Parliamentary Labour Party and of the Labour and trade-union movement from the day he entered Parliament in 1964, and for the next third of a century until in 1997 he was made a life peer.

Stanley Orme, politician: born Sale, Cheshire 5 April 1923; MP (Labour) for Salford West 1964-83, for Salford East 1983-97; Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 1974-76; PC 1974; Minister of State, DHSS 1976; Minister of State for Social Security 1976-77; Minister for Social Security 1977-79; Chairman, Parliamentary Labour Party 1987-92; created 1997 Baron Orme; married 1951 Irene Harris; died Sale 28 April 2005.

Complex, deep-thinking, more than a little secretive, often suspicious of his colleagues, prone to answer questions by posing another question in reply, intensely ambitious, Stan Orme was a significant member of the House of Commons, of the Parliamentary Labour Party and of the Labour and trade-union movement from the day he entered Parliament in 1964, and for the next third of a century until in 1997 he was made a life peer.

He was ever cautious of most of us - including his close friends. I liked him. But few, if any, MPs, with the possible exception of Merlyn Rees and James Callaghan, were ever at ease with him. Not even Eric Heffer, with whom he seemed to be twinned on the third row below the gangway, glowering at Harold Wilson and George Brown and other members of the Labour front bench for falling short of socialism as he saw it. Doris Heffer, Eric's widow, recalls:

Eric had huge respect for Stan and they worked closely in the Tribune Group before entering the House and up to and during the time that they were critical of the industrial legislation both of Labour and Conservative governments. In this they were not alone with the left. Brian Walden in one of the most memorably eloquent speeches that the Commons ever heard supported Stan and Eric. Later Eric and Stan drifted apart, as Stan began to believe that ministerial office was more effective than being uncompromising in his old beliefs.

She is right there were two Stan Ormes. The first was the formidable left-winger forged in Bomber Command, the maelstrom of shop- steward politics at Trafford Park and strong alliances with his parliamentary neighbour in Salford, Frank Allaun, and the General Secretary of the AUEW Hugh (later Lord) Scanlon. The second Stan Orme was the disciplined government minister and the disciplining chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party from 1987 to 1992.

Stan Orme was born into poverty, in Sale in 1923, and brought up by his mother. He was never to forget the hardship of the people from whom he sprang. Owing his education to the WEA and the National Council of Labour Colleges, he volunteered for the RAF. His friend Robert Sheldon remembers:

Stan used to recall his time as a navigator in the Bomber Command from 1942 only very rarely. In fact, it was an absolutely perilous assignment as a Pathfinder. But one joke he did repeatedly enjoy. "If I had known that Richard Crossman had responsibility for psychological warfare, I would have been even more apprehensive."

I know from friends in the RAF who have nothing to do with politics that they had a great regard for Orme's skill as a warrant officer and his sheer courage as an aircrew leader. Throughout his life he was to feel that in view of the number of sorties that he took and his repeated postings that he was lucky to be alive and survive the war.

In 1947 on demobilisation he returned to the huge Metro-Vic plant at Trafford Park and soon became a prominent shop steward, working closely with his lifelong Mancunian friend and regional organiser Hughie Scanlon but at odds with Bill (later Lord) Carron, the President of the AEU, John Boyd, the General Secretary, and most of the leadership of his union.

Having joined the Labour Party in 1944 Orme served on Sale Borough Council from 1958 to 1965; his first attempt at Parliament was when he was candidate in the then unwinnable seat of Stockport South. In 1962 he was the odds-on favourite to win the selection conference at Ashton-under-Lyne but lost out to his friend the businessman Bob Sheldon. This proved a blessing in disguise for Orme. He was far more suited to the left-wing Labour Party and ambience of Salford.

His colleagues realised from his maiden speech devoted to industrial issues from the point of view of a skilled engineer that here was one who really mattered. I vividly remember the evening of 30 June 1965, when I was Richard Crossman's PPS, sitting behind him on a very contentious issue relating to housing legislation. Crossman in his diaries records,

I took the precaution of going downstairs afterwards to have supper with Stan Orme and Norman Buchan (MP for Renfrewshire West), two prominent left-wingers. The resistance to this clause was one of the few rebellions on a home issue under this government.

Can you imagine these days a Secretary of State in the Blair government in the formidable position of Dick Crossman deciding to take the precaution of going down to the cafeteria in order to have supper with dissenting MPs? My view at the time was that my boss was very wise to have gone to make his peace with Orme on a personal level. He was capable of providing a great deal of trouble, but he never made trouble for the sake of making trouble. He was far too intense and serious about his politics and the interests of the working-class people who were (and continued to be until his death) his considerable concern.

There was one other issue in which Orme immersed himself in the 1960s: Northern Ireland. Kevin McNamara, the MP for Hull who has just retired from the Commons after 40 years, recollects:

Stan was a pioneer in the small group of MPs, Russell Kerr, Maurice Miller, Paul Rose and myself, who tried to bring Northern Ireland issues into the political mainstream, because we sensed that if they were not addressed seriously by British governments we would follow the example of the unrest of the southern states of America on the streets of Belfast and Londonderry. Along with Jock Stallard, Orme and myself organised the vote against internment in the Commons.

However, when Orme became Minister of State for Northern Ireland in 1974, he started by signing detention orders - which caused a breakdown in relations with Paul Rose, myself and others. Having being opposed to internment, he was in the position as a minister of putting people behind the wire. Albeit that he and Merlyn Rees phased out internment, he was never trusted again.

I would not personally have subscribed to the judgement of more than some of my parliamentary colleagues that he sold his soul for office. I think that he felt himself humiliated by the Protestant working class spurning the attempts by the General Secretary of the TUC, Len Murray, and others to reach a compromise. He was very loyal to Merlyn Rees, but perhaps he misread the situation. What he did do was a considerable amount of good work as the Minister of State for Northern Ireland responsible for industry in keeping the great shipyard of Harland and Wolfe in existence. My impression is that in 1976 he was thankful to wash his hands of Northern Ireland and move on to being Minister of State and subsequently Minister for Social Security and a member of the Callaghan Cabinet.

During the Heath government, although he was not part of the frontbench team on industrial relations, Orme's speeches were brilliant and forensic in opposing what he saw as anti-working-class legislation. Barbara Castle writes in her diary for 7 May 1975:

As Brian O'Malley and I were eating Stan Orme joined us and we drifted into one of those philosophical discussions one tends to get into over a carafe of wine at the end of a busy day. Brian and I confronted Stan squarely with the dilemma that we were in. He wriggled defensively, but has learnt a thing or two in government and he didn't hit back very hard. Indeed, he went out of his way to pile on kind things about me, saying no one had ever doubted my motives over In Place of Strife; that I had a raw deal in having to operate the prices and incomes policy; and so on. I told him I personally thought there was only one way out. We could have a statutory policy, but that hadn't worked. We could have a voluntary policy, but that wasn't working either. All that was left was a voluntary-statutory policy, and I reminded him of Hughie [Scanlon]'s heart cry at the Liaison Committee meeting a month or so ago: "We in the trade-union movement must do something about it." When would the unions face reality and have the guts to stand up and be counted? He had no reply.

As Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party at the time, I was a member of the TUC Labour Party Liaison Committee and spoke to Stan Orme, who was in agony between his previous beliefs and his loyalty as a member of the Callaghan government. The interests of the Government won.

After Labour's defeat at the polls in 1979 Orme was prominent at meetings of the parliamentary party and was elected by MPs to the Shadow Cabinet every year until the general election of 1987. On the front bench, he was Shadow Health and Social Security Secretary from 1979 to 1980, Shadow Industry Secretary, 1980-83, and Shadow Energy Secretary, 1983-87, where he used his position bravely to tell the party that whether we liked it or not we had to build more nuclear power stations; he did not flinch on the issue of civil nuclear power as many others have done.

In 1987 he was elected in the face of strong competition to the chairmanship of the Parliamentary Labour Party. When I was first elected to the House of Commons, Hugh Gaitskell himself as leader of the party chaired the PLP. Wilson decided that as Prime Minister he wanted someone else to occupy the chair. Manny Shinwell was first to be elected, followed by Douglas Houghton, Ian Mikardo, Cledwyn Hughes, Fred Willey and Jack Dormand; then came Stan Orme, Doug Hoyle, Clive Soley and recently Jean Corston. The chair gave them a place in the Shadow Cabinet and in government a vitally important role as being the link between government ministers and backbench MPs and especially the Prime Minister or leader of the party. In a mighty difficult period for Labour Orme was one of the best in this important role.

In his sunset years Orme did valuable work on the Commons Committee of Privileges and then in 1996 on the Committee on Standards in Public Life. When I visited Salford Labour Party in the 1980s it was clear that they thought that, not only was he a superb representative, but his joint stewardship with Frank Allaun for the benefit of the city of Salford was a model for two MPs who represented adjoining constituencies - a situation in which there could be jealousies (of which Orme, it has to be said, was not normally devoid) but the two worked in complete harmony.

No obituary of Stan Orme would be complete without reference to two paramount concerns in his life. The first was Irene, the daughter of Vernon Harris to whom he was married for 54 years and who gave him unstinting support. The other love of his life was Manchester United Football Club. The most wonderful night of his life, he used to say, was at the Nou Camp Stadium in Barcelona when Manchester United beat Bayern Munich in the European Cup - after they had won the English FA Cup and the Premier League, so completing an unprecedented treble. It was also characteristic of him that he would never make a boast about Manchester United without a sad reference to the "Busby Babes", particularly Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor, who were killed in the Munich air disaster of 1958.

Death in the air perhaps made him the sombre, powerful man that he was.

Tam Dalyell