Obituary: Baroness Lestor of Eccles

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The Independent Online
THE LABOUR Party Conference has loved our flaming red-headed girls - the diminutive Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Castle, Jo Richardson, and the not so diminutive Joan Lestor. Joan - no Labour MP could call her Miss Lestor - was, in her own estimation of descending order of importance, a Labour Party member, a member of the NEC, a Member of Parliament, and a Minister of the Crown.

Devoid of sense of position, let alone pomposity, she was an authentic "darling of the conference" for the very good reason that she was an authentic representative of the conscience of the party. Undidactic, Lestor mused to her many friends and agonised over issues, where good socialist conscience did not match what was deemed by the leadership of the party to be politically feasible. Michael Foot did not exaggerate when he said that Joan Lestor gave her heart and soul to the Labour Party. It was a stout heart and wholly decent soul.

Politicians usually like to gossip about their backgrounds, parents and grandparents. Not so Joan Lestor; she resolutely declined to be drawn. Once, however the curtain did lift. Shortly after the 1966 general election when, anointed by her venerable predecessor, the anti-colonialist champion Fenner Brockway, she took over his seat in Eton and Slough, she said to me: "I've had an invitation to go to speak to the Eton College Political Society in my constituency. As the only Old Etonian in the Parliamentary Labour Party, Tam, give me some guidance. Should I accept?"

"Certainly, Joan, you go," I said, "and you'll be well received." She was. It happened that I was a guest of the Eton Political Society some months later. All the 16- to 18-year-olds could talk about to me was how wonderful (and how dishy!) Joan Lestor had been. She had opened Etonian eyes on the other side of the argument about Rhodesia and created a favourable impression at a time when Harold Wilson was being disadvantaged by Ian Smith in the newspapers read by Etonians.

Lestor was tremendously good both with British Africans, her particular friend being Dr David Pitt, later Lord Pitt of Hampstead (she went to Grenada for his funeral), and with young African politicians from all parts of the southern cone. Along with the late Christopher Rowland and MPs such as Robert Hughes she developed lifelong friendships with those who were eventually to take power not only in South Africa but in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Angola and Mozambique. Unlike many MPs who are interested in foreign affairs, she resisted the temptation to become a universal expert and concentrated her effort through repeated visits to southern Africa.

Curious as to how she had got on at Eton, I asked her. She replied: "It was a different plant." One thing that had struck her was the confidence of the boys created by family roots which could be traced back into the mists of time. She said with unaccustomed melancholy: "You see, unlike you I'm rootless. And we rootless people need a lot of help in life."

She herself was brought up by her paternal grandmother. Her father, a journalist, was a leading light in the Socialist Workers' Party of Great Britain. I believe it was this sense of the vulnerabilities of childhood she had managed to overcome which propelled her to campaign tirelessly on behalf of children. First, as a nursery teacher, having taken a diploma in sociology at London University, and then after election to the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, characteristically eschewing the easier route, the Women's Section, and opting for the Constituency Section.

In an era, unlike today, when the NEC was not emasculated, and its Home Policy Committee mattered very much indeed, even when Labour was in government, Lestor was effective in the view of those seasoned veterans, her colleagues Ian Mikardo and Richard Crossman. The causes she brought to the attention of the House of Commons were, unblushingly, those of the nursery school teacher.

Without a proper nutritional base in early childhood,she said, people could suffer heart disease later on; that, as we ought to know, was one of the major causes of death in the United Kingdom. An estimated 30 per cent of such deaths are attributed to a wrong or poor diet. The disease process, Lestor continually argued, begins in childhood: thickening of the arteries had been discovered in children under the age of 10. Obesity was on the increase, she said; I think she was the first politician to make an impact on this subject.

In 1968 she was on the list of MPs to be put forward for junior office produced by Roy Jenkins, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, but of a different wing of the party. This was an indication of the regard in which she was held. Eventually, in spite of being turned down once by Harold Wilson as being "too impossible", by which he meant being too much of an uncomfortable crusader, she was given office, with responsibility for nursery education, in October 1969.

With the return of the Labour government in April 1974 she was given junior ministerial office in the Foreign Office. Her relationship with the Foreign Secretary became uneasy, as she was for ever pushing the cause of Africans to a point further than James Callaghan wished to go. So in 1975 she was given a sideways move back to the department of Education and Science.

Faced with the cuts of 1976, she resigned on a matter of principle. To the consternation of the Left, who very much supported Lestor's stand, her place was immediately taken by Margaret Jackson, then Member of Parliament for Lincoln, and perceived as being harder left than Joan Lestor, and now Mrs Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Arguably it was this unforgotten action and the alacrity with which she took Joan Lestor's place that reduced the chances of Jackson/Beckett's leading the Labour Party 20 years later.

I well remember this exchange on 19 April 1977 immediately before Jim Callaghan rose at Question Time:

Miss Joan Lestor asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many local education authority nursery schools provided as a result of the urban programme are to be closed as a result of the cuts in public expenditure.

Miss Margaret Jackson: "Local education authorities are not obliged to inform my Right Hon friend of their intentions to close maintained nursery schools. My department knows of only one such closure and the school concerned was not provided under the urban programme."

I remember the apprehensive look on the face of Shirley Williams, then Secretary of State for Education, and the frisson which went round the Labour benches when Lestor rose to ask Jackson if she agreed that schools and classes made available under the urban programme were provided because of a desperate need in areas of special provision. Would Jackson say how she intended to ensure that the statement in the 1976 public expenditure White Paper that areas of special need would continue to have provision was carried out? We all knew that Lestor, as so often, was speaking for the party.

Lestor continued to campaign on a host of important educational issues: day nurseries, maternity services, one-parent families, day-care of pre- school children and maternity provision. One among many of her particular causes was the provision of daytime education for pregnant schoolgirls and schoolgirl mothers. She was a person of infinite compassion towards any, including her parliamentary colleagues, who got into trouble.

On 18 March 1997, for an obscure adjournment debate, a large array of Labour MPs doughnutted Joan Lestor on an occasion where it is normal that one back-bencher and one minister with the odd government whip on the bench occupy the House of Commons. This we knew would be Joan Lestor's last speech. It began:

I have served as a Member of Parliament for 26 years, having entered the House 30 years ago, been rejected for four years by Slough but then been embraced in a love affair with Eccles. During that time I have done many things and had many interests as a parliamentarian, but the issue that has dominated my life has been that of children, both here and abroad, and I wanted to go out on a note that highlighted that interest.

The subject that she had chosen for her farewell after three decades was "child poverty".

Joan Lestor, nursery teacher and politician: born Vancouver, British Columbia 13 November 1931; member, London County Council 1962-64; MP (Labour) for Eton and Slough 1966-1983, for Eccles 1987-97; member, National Executive Committee of the Labour Party 1967-82, 1987-97, Chairman of the Labour Party 1977-78, Chairman, International Committee of the Labour Party 1978- 97; Parliamentary Under- Secretary, Department of Education and Science 1969-70, Foreign Office 1974-75, Department of Education and Science 1975-76; created 1997 Baroness Lestor of Eccles; (one adopted son, one adopted daughter); died London 27 March 1998.