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Michael Ward: Labour MP who won the highly marginal Peterborough seat in 1974 and briefly defected to the SDP

After epic struggles, Michael Ward was finally elected to the key marginal seat of Peterborough in October 1974, by 21,820 votes to the Conservative Harmar Nicholls' 19,972 votes. In 1966, after no less than seven recounts and eight and a half nail-biting hours following the opening of the ballot boxes, Ward had lost to Nicholls by 23,941 to 23,944. It was a majority of precisely three votes.

It was sad for Ward, understandably, at the time. It was sadder that he was not to enter the House of Commons for another eight long years, and was not to have embarked on the ministerial career which his local-government background would surely have provided in the Wilson government of 1966-1970.

In 1970, Sir Harmar Nicholls retained the Peterborough seat by 30,227 to Ward's 25,262. It was to Ward's credit that he never tried to get a safer seat. He was an unselfish, un-self-seeking man. However, he was to meet more frustration in February 1974. Harmar Nicholls scored 20,353 to Ward's 20,331, this time a majority of 22 after four recounts.

His opponent, later Lord Harmar-Nicholls, a building-construction manager by background, and Harold Macmillan's Private Secretary at the ministry of housing, had done the work for and laid the foundation of his boss's reputation as a successful Conservative cabinet minister, by playing a crucial role in delivering the famous 300,000 new houses per year promised in the 1951 election manifesto, and he was a formidable debater and politician. Ward was unlucky again in 1979 in that his opponent was another formidable politician, Doctor Brian Mawhinney, who was to become an influential cabinet minister and chairman of the Conservative Party. Ward lost his seat by 27,734 to 22,632, never to return to the House of Commons, though he attempted to do so, unsuccessfully, as SDP candidate for the Kent constituency of Tonbridge and Malling, where he was well beaten by the Conservative Sir John Stanley, by 33,990 votes to 17,561. This was a pity, in my opinion, since Ward proved himself in those four years as an exceedingly able Member with much to offer in the way of imaginative ideas to the public life of this country.

Shortly after he was elected he was chosen by Reg Prentice, then Secretary of State for Education and Science, to be his Parliamentary Private Secretary. Later, after Prentice had left the government, he became parliamentary Private Secretary to William Rodgers, an important Minister of State in the Foreign Office. Had he not lost his seat I don't doubt that Ward would have been chosen, probably, as a minister for the Royal Air Force in the Ministry of Defence since he had served for four years in the RAF and was an expert on aviation history: he also knew and spoke a lot about the problems of the aero-engine and aero-construction industry.

Another of his interests was the detailed operation of the National Health Service. I remember on the floor of the House in April 1976, during the fraught discussions on the Health Services Bill, Ward powerfully making the point that when nurses were taken off duty and put on to private wards there was intense resentment because of the different workload carried out by nurses in the private sector compared with those of the public sector, and the perceived advantage of nurses in the private sector in terms of remuneration. "To give additional payments, as proposed by the opposition, for private work would be a gratuitous insult to the rest of the nurses in the public sector," Ward fumed.

Michael John Ward was born in Romford, the son of a school-board inspector who was also a very prominent member of the British Legion. After attending local schools, he went to the University of Manchester and took his degree in public administration. One of those with whom he came into contact was the professor of history, L.B. Namier. Years later it was on account of Ward's hospitality at a dinner for three of his parliamentary friends that I had my only opportunity of meeting Sir Lewis Namier. Ward, a pupil of Namier's, told me how his students were imbued with the importance of detail in all that they did. If Ward had a hero it would have been the cantankerous and remarkable Professor Namier.

Marrying Lilian Llomas in 1953, with whom he was to have a lifelong and marvellously supportive relationship, he joined the RAF, for which he had a lasting affection and which I saw returned when the RAF had functions in the House of Commons. He was at home with Air Marshalls. On leaving the RAF he earned his bread and butter as a public-relations consultant to major local authorities, including the Inner London Education Authority, and from 1958-78 he was a councillor in the borough of Romford, which metamorphosed into the borough of Havering in 1964.

In his four years in Parliament Ward did something which few other MPs have achieved – pilot a Private Members Bill successfully on to the statute book. Coming top of the ballot for Private Members Bills in December 1976, Ward sponsored the Unfair Contract Terms Bill, which passed through its first reading on 22 December, had its second reading on 28 January 1977, and after an extended committee stage was given the Royal Assent on 26 October 1977.

Based on a careful study by the Law Commission, Ward's bill tackled the problem of exemption clauses in contracts and notices in tiny print which sought to exclude liability for negligence and breach of contract. It was touch and go as to whether it would succeed, and it was thanks to Ward's doggedness and hyper-conscientious application that this measure, so important to many people, did not fail.

The Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews described him as "a good socialist, in the best sense of that difficult word, and he will be much missed personally by me."

Peterborough posed tremendous problems, particularly relating to an anxious Labour party. It was a constituency which I visited for many evening meetings over the years from 1966 onwards (for the practical reason that I could catch the night Scotsman which stopped there just around midnight after an evening meeting for the Peterborough Labour party and arrive in time for my Saturday's constituency surgery near Edinburgh).

Ward and my friend Roy Lake, his full-time Labour party constituency agent, one of the best organisers I ever met, had to reconcile two factions: the blue corner, led by the formidable councillor Phyllis (later Lady) Steadman; and the red corner – and it was deep red – led by Charlie Swift, scion of a family prominent in Peterborough for three generations who had several times been mayor of the city, and was a stalwart of the National Union of Railwaymen.

The Swift family invited me to tea at their house on one occasion and showed me with pride their most treasured family heirloom – the medal which their grandfather had got for attending the First International at which Marx and Engels were present. I could easily imagine the turbulence of Peterborough politics. This partly explains why Ward left the Labour party to flirt with the SDP/Liberals, at one point becoming executive officer in Paddy Ashdown's office. Actually I think the main influence was his loyalty to Bill Rodgers, one of the Gang of Four, whose PPS he had been, and his experience of going through the tumultuous events which had led to the de-selection of Reg Prentice as Member for Newham.

If he was one of the first to leave the Labour Party for the SDP he was also one of the first to return, and he worked exceedingly hard as chairman of the Greenwich constituency Labour party. He took special pride also in the fact that his daughter Alison, now Alison Seabreck, should in 2005 become the Labour Member of Parliament for Plymouth Devonport.

Tam Dalyell

Michael John Ward, politician and public-affairs consultant: born Romford, Essex 7 April 1931; RAF 1953-1957; councillor, Borough of Romford/Havering 1958-1978; MP for Peterborough 1974-1979; chairman, Greenwich constituency Labour Party 1995-2007; chairman, Charlton Triangle Homes Limited, 1999-2004; married 1953 Lilian Llomas (two daughters); died 25 March 2009.