Lord Stallard: Voice of the AEU in the Commons

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The Independent Online

In those seemingly far-off days of the 1970s, when the opinions of individual members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, perceived by their colleagues to know first hand about a subject, actually mattered, Jock Stallard was something of a talisman on industrial relations and prices and incomes policies.

He was the authentic voice in the House of Commons of the Amalgamated Engineering Union – at least as far as the faction led by John Boyd was concerned, if not always that group loyal to Hughie Scanlon. From the day of his election for St Pancras North in 1970, Stallard was an increasingly influential member of the trade union group of Labour MPs, in those days a body that was taken seriously in Downing Street.

As a parliamentary candidate, he was among the first to express dismay at Barbara Castle's White Paper In Place of Strife. I remember how, when he was elected to the House of Commons, he immediately became celebrated for having opined in public "What does that lassie know about the factory floor?" This was regurgitated with glee in the Commons tearoom, where many blamed Castle's stubbornness for having lost the 1970 general election.

Albeit 49 years of age, Stallard came to the Commons as a significant figure in the London Labour Party, with a wealth of council experience in Camden. Sir Gavin Laird, former General Secretary of the AEU, says:

Jock was the first member of the union to be placed on the sponsored panel of financially supported, aspiring MPs, without the requirements of the demanding series of tests, normally a condition of AEU sponsorship. This unprecedented privilege was in recognition of his union work on behalf of the members and his outstanding abilities.

I ought to confess that I think I owe Stallard my last 25 years in the House of Commons. The circumstances say a lot about him. In 1977-79 there was huge pressure from some of the panic-stricken pro-devolution Scottish Labour MPs to withdraw the Labour whip from me, on account of my ferocious opposition to a Scottish Parliament.

At one point, for the sake of party unity, James Callaghan as Prime Minister and Michael Cocks, Chief Whip, were tempted to succumb – which would have meant that I would not be eligible under party rules to stand as a Labour candidate in the 1979 general election. Stallard, by that time a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, i.e. senior government whip, told Callaghan and Cocks not to do "any such silly thing as withdraw the whip from Tam Dalyell".

It was not only that his own broad West of Scotland accent had not prevented him from becoming a London MP and therefore a beneficiary of the unity of the United Kingdom; it was also that his relatives and roots were in Hamilton, where in 1967 Winnie Ewing had won the momentous by-election for the SNP. Stallard detested nationalism, but was all too aware of the grip that the SNP might take. He predicted – a prediction that became true 30 years later – that the Scots would one day turn away from Labour towards whoever was the alternative party.

With heavy heart, and biting his tongue, Stallard voted as a whip must – for the government legislation – but he protected those 34 Labour MPs who defied the whip in 1979 to bring about the defeat of the Scotland and Wales Bill. On the last occasion when we spoke, in 2005, he shook his head and said quietly: "The Labour Party should never have given in to the loud-mouths who out of panic were screaming for devolution".

His colleague Walter Harrison, who served as deputy chief whip from 1974 to 1979, spoke most warmly of Stallard:

He was my line of communication with the Irish Catholic MPs – he used to let me know the situation regarding both Gerry Fitt and Frank Maguire. Their votes were crucial on a number of occasions for the survival of the Callaghan government. The key relationship was, I think, between Maguire's wife and Stallard's wife, who were great friends. And it was Stallard who used to do a detour on his way back to north London to take Maguire home at night on those fairly rare occasions when the member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone actually turned up in Westminster.

The elusive Maguire was the owner of Frank's Bar at Lisnaskea, Fermanagh and generally thought his priority was serving his customers rather than appearing in the House of Commons.

Stallard's wife was a pillar of strength, although it is true that on one occasion, through Stallard's agent in St Pancras, she actually had to book an appointment with her husband, so involved was he in the constituency work of an area with enormous problems.

Albert William Stallard (known by everyone as Jock) was born in 1921, the son of a skilled fitter. From Low Waters primary school he won a coveted place at Hamilton Academy, in those days a well-known establishment drawing the most talented pupils from all over Lanarkshire and from where every pupil was expected to go to university.

For financial reasons Stallard left at 16 to become an apprentice in precision engineering. His was a reserved occupation throughout the Second World War and he worked in the south of England, the family having moved to London in 1937. Years later I remember with colleagues being entranced in the tea-room of the Commons late at night with Stallard explaining to us in fascinating detail the differences between a Rolls-Royce engine and a Pratt & Whitney engine. He was intensely proud of his skill and in the five years before entering Parliament he was a senior trainer of apprentices.

Chosen to be the Labour standard-bearer in St Pancras North, partly on account of his proven interest in the problems of mental health when he was an alderman in Camden, Stallard held the seat until 1983. Because of dwindling population and boundary changes he was forced to contest the seat with his friend from St Pancras South, Frank Dobson. Never was there a contest that did greater credit to the Labour Party: Stallard and Dobson restrained their enthusiastic supporters and when the younger man came out on top, no one could have worked harder for his election than the defeated Stallard. This was typical of the Labour gentleman that he was. Dobson recalls him as "a very committed Roman Catholic, but not entirely sound from the Pope's point of view on either abortion or contraception. It would have been easy for him to wave the papal banner in St Pancras; but he understood far too well the problems of family break-up and homelessness."

Stallard was rewarded by Michael Foot with a place in the House of Lords, where he was a most useful member before being overcome by illness.

He had a range of bêtes noires. Top of the list were middle-class members of the Militant Tendency, who lectured the working class on how they should rise against the system. A second irritant was employees of multi-national companies who had declined to join trade unions and came running for help at the time of the Thatcher industrial cut-backs. A third was the "universal expert" – of whom there are quite a number in the Parliamentary Labour Party – who gave the impression that they knew everything about everything.

Stallard made a point that he would confine himself to one foreign policy issue – Cyprus. It was in the borough of Camden that there resided the greatest concentration of Cypriots in London. Unlike the great Lena Jeger, his neighbouring MP, who espoused the partisan cause of the Greek Cypriots, Stallard made it his business to understand the views of the Turkish Cypriots and to bring the communities together. The fact that so many Cypriots in London used the shops owned by the other Cypriot community is in part due to Stallard's endless mediation. He was a great, rational peacemaker on any issue in which he became involved.

Tam Dalyell

Albert William Stallard, engineer and politician: born Hamilton, Lanarkshire 5 November 1921; MP (Labour) for St Pancras North 1970-83; PPS to Minister of State, Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 1974; PPS to Minister of State for Housing and Construction 1974-76; Assistant Government Whip 1976-78; Lord Commissioner of the Treasury 1978-79; created 1983 Baron Stallard; married 1944 Sheila Murphy (died 2004; one son, one daughter); died London 29 March 2008.