Popular Labour MP and, briefly, sports minister celebrated for his sharp and irreverent wit
Tuesday 10 January 2006
Anthony Louis Banks, trade unionist and politician: born Belfast 8 April 1943; Head of Research, AUEW 1969-75; Assistant General Secretary, Association of Broadcasting Staff 1976-83; member, GLC 1970-77, 1981-86, chairman 1985-86; MP (Labour) for Newham North West 1983-97, for West Ham 1997-2005; Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media and Sport 1997-99; created 2005 Baron Stratford; married Sally Jones; died Fort Myers, Florida 8 January 2006.
For many politicians the primary concern is to ascend the greasy pole. For Tony Banks - gazetted last year as Baron Stratford on his elevation to the Lords - it was to do something, rather than to be someone. His ministerial career was brief - he was Minister for Sport from May 1997 until July 1999 - and cut short by his own resignation; but in his responsibilities he had a passionate interest. Banks combined an enthusiasm for sport (he was a fervent Chelsea supporter) with real and considerable knowledge of the arts.
For 20 years, as MP for Newham North West, then, after boundary changes, for West Ham, he added to the gaiety of the House of Commons. There was no one quite like him as an interrupter, sitting on the extreme back bench, either on the government side or on the opposition side. He served a parliamentary function in pinpricking pomp and cant.
Anthony Louis Banks was born in Belfast in 1943, but grew up in Brixton, south London. His father, Albert, was an engineering fitter and Labour Party activist who served as a sergeant-major with the Eighth Army during the Second World War. Tony won a place from St John's Primary School to Archbishop Tenison's Grammar School in Kennington, to which he always paid tribute for his own rigorous education, albeit he was to be a champion of comprehensive schools and the foe of élite further education.
He was one of the first intake of students at York University, where he studied politics and came into direct contact with the founding Vice-Chancellor, Eric James, Lord James of Rusholme, formerly the High Master of Manchester Grammar School. Banks liked him except over one minor issue - James boasted that he had his socks darned by his wife, Cordelia, who had taken a First in Greats at Oxford. Banks became one of the first male MPs to espouse women's rights.
After further studies at the London School of Economics, he began his career as a trade-union researcher. He was elected to the Greater London Council in May 1970, at the age of 27, where he became something of an enfant terrible, along with other Young Turks such as Ken Livingstone and Paul Boateng. His reputation was such that Freda Corbet, the somewhat cantankerous Labour MP for Peckham, exploded to her parliamentary colleagues about the prospect of Banks's becoming an MP. The following month, he was defeated as the Labour candidate in East Grinstead by Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, and again in October 1974 by Bill Elliott in Newcastle North.
In the meantime, Banks had been promoted to the post of Assistant General Secretary of the Association of Broadcasting Staff, which enabled him to leave the GLC, as it turned out temporarily, to concentrate on winning the Watford seat in the 1979 general election. The national swing did not make this possible, and Banks lost with 18,030 votes to the 21,320 recorded by the future Foreign Office minister Tristan Garel-Jones, with 5,019 going to the Liberal and 388 to the National Front.
Returning to the GLC in 1981, Banks became its chairman in 1985-86, the last before it was abolished by Margaret Thatcher, although by that time he had won the safe Labour seat of Newham North West. In opposition, Banks was in danger of getting the reputation of a backbench yob; however, it soon became apparent that his interjections from a sedentary position were to the point and often laced with humour. I will never forget the exchange between Banks (never absent when Parliament was discussing anything to do with London) and the Conservative MP John Wilkinson during a debate on London government. Wilkinson asked:
Is not the purpose of a deposit to eliminate frivolous candidates, and are not mayoral candidates required to pay a £10,000 deposit? Furthermore, who is the minister to decide which candidate is frivolous or not? Is that not a wholly Fascist notion? Should he not be ashamed of himself?
Needle-sharp, Tony Banks interjected, "That is not what the honourable gentleman said about General Pinochet!"
In 1990, the parliamentary leadership recognised Banks's ability by making him an opposition spokesman on Social Security, and then promoted him as a senior frontbench spokesman on Transport in 1992. In those years, perhaps his most telling contributions came on matters of overseas development: in 1975 he had been political adviser to Judith Hart as Minister for Overseas Development in the Labour government.
Banks's passionate interest in animals was nowhere better reflected than on the many occasions on which he would buttonhole his fellow MPs in the lobbies of the House of Commons to sign early day motions to save the whale or the elephant. This was not political posturing, it was because Banks really cared about animal welfare issues. He was at the centre of the struggle against hunting and was a vice-president of the League Against Cruel Sports.
However, as for many parliamentary colleagues, my main memory of Tony Banks will be of canvassing with him on behalf of the Labour Party, in elections up and down Britain. I remember in particular the Newham North East election in June 1994 when the Labour candidate was Stephen Timms. To witness Banks with electors on an east London doorstep was a marvel to behold. If they showed the slightest hesitation about voting for the Labour candidate he would address them, male or female, as "sweetheart", and give them a load of patter that was funny and disarming. He would leave dubious constituents with gales of laughter and massive goodwill - which way they voted, if they voted at all, was another matter.
I only saw Banks get his come-uppance once on the political hoof, and that was at the same June 1994 by-election, next to his own constituency. A huge man came to the door, and, as soon as he recognised Banks, launched into a tirade:
You have a damn cheek, Banks, coming here. You are a bloody Chelsea supporter. I see you on the telly, on the terraces at Stamford Bridge. Why is the club of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters not good enough for you? Shame on you!
To no avail Banks tried to explain that he was brought up in Brixton and loyal to the club of Roy Bentley and his other Chelsea childhood heroes.
Timms, who was duly elected and is now the Minister for Pensions, recalls Banks's popularity in Newham:
Tony moved to Newham in 1983 when none of the previous MPs had resided in the borough, and continued to live in Newham after entering the House of Lords. That he was mugged at Forest Gate tube
station, that he found out that the rail-link for the Channel Tunnel was to pass under his house and that he helped bring the Olympic Games to Stratford meant that we locals felt he was "one of us".
In May 1997, Banks professed himself "gobsmacked" when he was offered the position of Minister for Sport, saying: "To be offered the Minister for Sport by the Prime Minister was rather like being offered a place in heaven without having to die first." The only previous Labour Minister for Sport had been Denis Howell 18 years before - difficult footsteps in which to follow. One of Banks's tasks was to oversee the distribution of National Lottery funding, and he became an advocate of the lottery to his Labour colleagues, partly because he came to realise that neither sport nor the arts would in any other way be able to winkle sufficient funds out of the Treasury. He resigned as minister in 1999, in order to head a taskforce hoping to bring the 2006 World Cup to Britain, although the bid was unsuccessful.
In 2001, Banks took over from Sir Patrick Cormack as chairman of the Works of Art Committee of the House of Commons. Cormack, who was friendly with Banks since they were rebels together against the abolition of the GLC, recalls the "passionate showmanship" that he brought to the task and his acquisition of a number of significant works, notably a portrait of Wilberforce.
Banks fought for selection as Labour's candidate for the 2004 London mayoral election, but was defeated by Nicky Gavron, who in turn stood down to make way for Ken Livingstone.
At the end of 2004, Tony Banks announced that he would stand down at the next general election. His friends will regard it as a huge pity that Lord Stratford was unable to satisfy their curiosity as to how his brand of irreverence would go down in their Lordships' House.
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