Obituary: Ivor Clemitson
Tuesday 13 January 1998
When I was the Labour Member of Parliament for Luton, from a by-election in 1963 until 1970, I got to know Ivor Clemitson fairly well. He was then a well-liked and respected local clergyman and industrial chaplain and an active member of the Luton Labour Party.
But there was more to Clemitson than that. He had a solid political pedigree. His father, Daniel, a building trade worker, was a prominent trade unionist and was a Luton borough councillor of some note. In fact, he was one of the last batch of aldermen before that senior office was abolished. So Ivor was sleeped in the politics of socialism and trade unionism from an early age. Coupled with his sincere Christianity, that background was to shape his life. He was, in large degree, something which was not greatly fashionable in the 1960s but which has since enjoyed a revival - a Christian Socialist.
Educated first at the local Harlington Primary, he won a place at Luton Grammar School. From there, he went on to the London School of Economics from which he graduated with a BSc in Economies. But Clemitson was not intent on a career in economics or commerce, and he trained for the Church at Bishop's College in Cheshunt. He was then ready to emerge into the world as a model worker priest: which is really what he remained for the rest of his life.
Clemitson's first appointment as a curate was in 1958 at St Mary's, Bramall, in Sheffield. There was already an industrial mission in Sheffield, led by a bishop, Leslie Turner, and Ted Wickham, later to become a suffragan bishop. Shortly afterwards, when Turner retired and Wickham was promoted, the Sheffield Industrial Mission declined and, in 1962, Clemitson returned to Luton, as curate at Christ Church. This was a stroke of good fortune.
For Luton was, and still is, unlike the other nearby towns in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. While these are in character with other towns in south- east England and the outer Home Counties, Luton is not. Although there have been settlements at Luton since Saxon times, the town has doubled in size since the First World War and has changed out of all recognition. If it was still the centre of its traditional hat trade, it had become an engineering and industrial town with its local economy based on motor cars and their components and the manufacture of such things as ball-bearings, pumps and water meters. To an outsider, Luton looked like a south Midlands town which had slipped down the map.
Clemitson's return to Luton suited him a many ways. It was, after all, his home territory. His family background and his credentials in politics and trade unionism were impeccable. And there was one other great advantage.
Luton already had an established and thriving industrial mission, and the town's industrial culture was amenable to the idea of the worker priest bringing his social message to the factory floor. What is more, the mission was run by the redoubtable Bill Gowland, a minister with many of the qualities which had made Donald Soper renowned. Gowland was an inspirational figure to aspiring young worker priests including Clemitson. It was no surprise when, two years after coming to Christ Church, he became the industrial chaplain to the diocese of St Albans. He retained that post, apart from a year's absence directing an industrial mission in Singapore, until 1971, when his eyes turned towards Parliament.
Politically, I found Clemitson to be on the left of the local party, which was not in the 1960s inclined that way, though it became so in the 1970s. It was a traditional Labour party then, and Clemitson, as a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was on its more radical side. But his leftishness was never, that I can recall, exaggerated: it was always moderate and well-mannered.
The Luton seat had been slightly altered by the Boundary Commissioners after 1970 and, with the prospect of four years in Conservative hands, Labour needed a new champion. Clemitson must have appeared tailor-made to many of the selection committee, and he duly won the nomination.
The southern part of Luton, in various parliamentary configurations, has been something of a swing seat. In its 16 parliamentary elections since 1945, Conservatives have won nine and Labour has won seven. Labour's turn had come in 1974, and Clemitson won both of that year's contests, the first by a slender 1,425 majority and the next by a more comfortable 3,677, the kind of majority Luton had not seen for the previous 10 years. But Clemitson's grip did not survive the 1979 election, when he went down to defeat by a narrow 847.
Clemitson's appetite for elections had not wholly abated and he fought once more in 1983, which was a famously bad year for his party. None the less, in an enlarged constituency he achieved his highest ever vote. That was unavailing, however, since his Conservative opponent, Graham Bright, put his vote up as well and a Liberal polled over 13,000, which must have been disheartening for Clemitson. That brought his political career to an end.
How is it to be assessed? First of all, in a Parliament of over 600, subject to electoral swings and roundabouts, many Members are there for only a few years, in Clemitson's case a little over five. And only a few are destined to star. Clemitson was not one of these. Like most of his colleagues, he did a solid job as a backbench Member, serving both his party and his constituents diligently and well.
Preferment never came his way save as Parliamentary Private Secretary to a cabinet minister (Albert Booth), a post he resigned on a matter of conscience. But, I think his greatest disappointment came when he decided to stand for Parliament in the first place. As an Anglican clergyman, he had to renounce his orders to stand at all. What is more, he was unable to return to his priesthood when he left Parliament.
In each case, the trade union movement provided a refuge. In 1971, the National Graphical Association made him a research officer and later on, he was employed by the Transport and General Workers' Union. Early last year, on retiring, Ivor Clemitson and his wife, Jan, went to live in a farmhouse in France.
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