Norman Atkinson: Labour politician who was never afraid to take his own party to task

Norman Atkinson was one of those rare politicians who was offered a ministerial job and declined, without public fuss, on the grounds that he could not endorse some of the flagship policies of his prime minister. It speaks volumes of good, for James Callaghan – whom Atkinson had unsuccessfully fought for the treasurership of the Labour Party, as standard-bearer of the Left – that the post was offered; and for Atkinson that he, in the circumstances, was not tempted by office.

In the House of Commons Atkinson was a grave and intense colleague. On occasions he would pass along the green benches a cartoon he had drawn, to the object of his sophisticated wit. Once, after I had spoken, a piece of paper was passed to me, the source of mirth. It was Atkinson's cartoon comment on what I recognised as a rather silly observation I had made. He coined the wonderful and much repeated phrase about the activities of Harold Wilson's security minister, the infamous and colourful Colonel George Wigg: "walls have wiggs!"

Norman Atkinson was the son of George Atkinson, a bus driver and shop steward with the Manchester Corporation who died young, in the Fallowfield district. It was near Maine Road, then the hallowed turf of Manchester City. Some neighbourhood housing was allocated to the club, and Atkinson would recall how "the whole of the England forward line, almost, was living all around us." The children of these demi-gods were at his elementary school, and as a result, Atkinson would chuckle, "none of us could count or write, but we were magnificent athletes." His best friend was Alan Badel, who became a well-known actor: another contemporary was Pat Phoenix, Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street.

Atkinson left formal education at 14 and went, "to the greatest industrial finishing school", an apprenticeship with Metropolitan-Vickers; it was a great centre of revolutionary activity. He started as a tool-maker, became a draughtsman and then designer, joined Manchester University School of Engineering, where he remained until elected to Parliament in 1964. The Langworthy and other famous laboratories of Manchester University only employed the talented and hard-working. For his part, I heard Atkinson say several times to young incoming MPs, "If you are going to rebel against anything, what you have got to do is to ensure you have a professional qualification, something to sell."

One of Atkinson's strengths as a politician was that he knew he could command a suitable post in engineering if he were to come to grief in public life. Another was that in 1948 he married Irene Parry, who proved to be a soulmate and no less dedicated to the Party. Like his close political friends Eric and Doris Heffer and Stan and Irene Mary Orme, they had no children and devoted themselves to politics.

He was elected to Manchester City Council at the tender age of 21, though there was little tender about Atkinson, a stormy petrel in City Hall. Two views have stuck in my mind. Alderman Sir Leslie Lever, Lord Mayor of Manchester at the time of the Munich Disaster in 1958, and MP for Ardwick, sidled up to me, as was his wont, and told me, "Look out for that new boy Atkinson, he's a pain in the arse!"

Yet Leslie's brother Harold, MP and later a millionaire six times over, had no hesitation in inviting "the talented Councillor Atkinson" to parties at his opulent house in Eaton Square. Ken Easton, later deputy leader of the Council, chairman of the Manchester Education Committee and MP for Blackley, told me "Harold Lever was right about Norman, and the short-tempered Leslie was wrong."

In 1955, Atkinson contested Wythenshawe, losing to Evelyn Hill, the sitting MP. In the run-up to the 1959 election Labour believed mistakenly that Wythenshawe was winnable (it was to be won in 1964 by Alf Harris) and eschewed Atkinson in favour of a more emollient candidate, placing Atkinson in Altrincham and Sale in a losing battle against Freddy Erroll, President of the Board of Trade. However, the Amalgamated Engineering Union found a berth for Atkinson with the left-wing Tottenham Labour Party, which was incandescent that their MP, Alan Brown, had crossed over to the Conservatives within six months of being elected.

At his first opportunity, after the Queens Speech on 6 December 1964, Atkinson made one of the five most thoughtful maiden speeches I have heard (though brevity was not his strong point). He reminded us that most of the wood-carving in the Palace of Westminster was done by Tottenham craftsmen. "This building," he said, "is a monument to some of the craft of Tottenham."

Atkinson then embarked on a robust championing of engineers, a cause he espoused throughout his parliamentary life. Rebuking both front benches for referring only to scientists and technologists, he complained, "We never get any reference to engineers, who are neither scientists nor technologists in that sense. We were at one time, people say, the finest engineers in the world. They refer to all kinds of people, from Sir Joseph Whitworth onwards... We still have some of the finest engineers in the world today, and we ought to refer to them as such. I make this point because it is of tremendous importance."

His cri de coeur for more engineering apprentices was well received (22 years later he was to publish a well-regarded biography of Whitworth). Less well received was the second half of his maiden speech, on the subject of restrictive practices – of which he was to be called "apologist-in-chief" by an irritated Barbara Castle.

Atkinson, never one to beat about the bush, asserted that restrictive practices were the result of class conflict. Only a classless society could eliminate restrictive practices, and the root cause of restrictive practices was insecurity. As a shop steward he had been deeply involved in negotiations over piece-work, and in the mid-1960s estimated there were some 9 million workers paid by the hour. They had no other security, and their only pay was for the length of time shown on their clock cards. Atkinson's view – the basis of a 20-year crusade – was that unless we did something about changing these kind of conditions we would not get workers to change their ideas about restrictive practices.

Atkinson made speeches exceedingly critical of his own Government. I remember 21 December 1976 vividly, when Atkinson made a 25-minute intervention on the economic situation. "The Right Honourable Member for Farnham [Harold Macmillan's son, Maurice] suggests that the Government's policy is the result of the appeasement of some trade union leaders. There seems to have been little evidence that any attempts which might have been made to appease trade union leaders have succeeded, for there is great dissatisfaction among most trade union leaders about the direction in which the Government is going."

He became angrier: "The grotesque policies of the cuts and massive unemployment being used as an economic regulator are abuses of Labour Party membership. The Chancellor [Denis Healey] is abusing his membership of the Labour Party." Atkinson, as usual, put his vote where his mouth was, and declined to support the Government.

It was a matter of irony – and sadness to many of his parliamentary friends – that his membership of the Commons should have been prematurely terminated by a challenge from the Left. In the 1983 election, when he enthusiastically supported the Labour Manifesto, memorably described by Gerald Kaufman as the 'longest suicide note in history", Atkinson defeated the Conservative, Peter Murphy. But, although he was an assiduous member of the Select Committee on Immigration and Race Relations, and took a genuine interest in the problems facing immigrants, the demographic changes in Haringey and Tottenham paved the way for a coup in which Atkinson lost out to Bernie Grant, who had come to national and international prominence in the wake of the Broadwater Farm riots.

He was deeply hurt, but it was typical that he did not make public complaint, since it might damage the Party. He devoted himself to his work as Governor of Imperial College of Science and Technology, and to his hobby of painting. On the last occasion on which I spoke to him, he told me how touched he was that the University of Manchester should have bestowed an Honorary MA on him.

Norman Atkinson, engineer, draughtsman and politician; born Manchester 25 March 1923; MP for Tottenham 1964-87; Treasurer, Labour Party 1976-81; married 1948 Irene Parry; died 8 July 2013.

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