Obituary: Joan Maynard

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The Independent Online
ETCHED into my memory is the look of pained impatience on Hugh Gaitskell's face as he sat on the platform at the Spa Grand Hall in Scarborough in 1958. The occasion was the Labour Party Conference Rural Areas debate on the policy document Prosper the Plough.

As was her wont at every conference in the 1950s and 1960s, a striking jet-black-haired Yorkshire lass (no gender balance then!) strode to the platform and with no inhibitions whatsoever harangued us all on the urgent need to nationalise the land - every arable acre of it. This was the perennial delegate from the Thirsk and Malton constituency, Joan Maynard.

In 1958, she moved the resolution

that this conference, recognising that socialism cannot be achieved as long as private ownership of the land remains, instructs the National Executive Committee to explicitly accept the nationalisation of land as party policy, without which many agricultural problems have no solution.

What were the economic reasons for public ownership? She maintained that the size of our farms was uneconomic on account of the increased mechanisation of agriculture. It had become uneconomic in many cases to own some of the machinery which was necessary because of the size of our farms. We couldn't hope to change this question of the size of our farms without public ownership. Her own brother, she told the 1958 conference, who farmed a smallholding, would find it uneconomic to have a combine harvester - he needed it only for three or four hours each year.

As a member of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, she argued that their policy statement Health and Wealth Under Your Feet was a much better statement on the agricultural industries than the official party policy of Prosper the Plough drawn up by those farmers Richard Crossman and James Callaghan, among others. Her document, she proudly boasted, had been drawn up by the workers in the industry and amended and agreed by two biannual conferences. I remember her turning towards the pipe-smoking, sedate Alderman Edwin Gooch, a Norfolk MP and long-term Secretary of the Agricultural Workers, and berating him for allowing the party to think that agricultural workers were junior partners:

I would remind the paid officials of our union that they are paid to do what the members decide. We did not carry land nationalisation in my union for fun, but because we believe in it and expect them to fight for it.

Maynard believed that, when we nationalised the land, we should put the workers in control of the industry. "They are the people who know most about it and should decide what the policy of the industry should be." We needed to stop tinkering with Toryism and trying to make the existing system work.

When Joan Maynard arrived in the House of Commons, not for her beloved home town of Thirsk but for the Brightside Division of Sheffield then in the heart of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, she did so in the footsteps of Eddie Griffiths, workers' representative on the board of British Steel, who had been ousted by the local party.

In her maiden speech of 6 November 1974, Maynard said:

I come here not only to represent Brightside, but as the only sponsored Member for farm workers. My background was entirely rural until I became Member for Brightside. I am the daughter of a smallholder. As I come as a sponsored Member for farm workers I speak for one of the lowest-paid groups. At the moment, farm workers are on a basic rate of pounds 25 a week. It would be a mistake to

think that the only people who live in poverty are pensioners, low-paid people and particularly those with families are often living in poverty.

Although I represent an industrial seat, I have the full backing . . . of my constituency to put forward the farm workers' case on an issue of vital importance . . . My constituents understand the human problems brought by the tied-cottage system in agriculture. The system means that a man's home is dependent on his job.

And month in, month out, Maynard was indeed the champion of the agricultural workers, serving without a break on the Parliamentary Select Committee on Agriculture from 1975 to 1987. I was not surprised in the least to be told by aristocratic Conservative friends of mine on this committee that they both liked Joan Maynard and, however quixotic they thought her views, they were impressed by the useful contribution she made.

From the moment she arrived in the House of Commons there was hardly a left-wing cause which she did not ardently espouse: as Chairman of the British Peace Committee she wanted troops out of Northern Ireland; she argued on the National Executive for the lifting of the ban on contact with foreign Communist parties in 1974; she voted against the Prevention of Terrorism Bill in November 1975 and on every subsequent possible occasion.

She backed Tony Benn for Leader of the Labour Party in March 1976 and in July that year invited the official Sinn Fein spokespersons to the House of Commons and demanded to know whether the British army was setting up brothels in Belfast for espionage purposes. She fervently opposed Jim Callaghan's Lib-Lab Pact of March 1977; she rebelled against devolution; she was the first MP to sponsor Ken Livingstone's Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, which created the Labour Herald, Socialist Organiser and London Labour Briefing.

She opposed the sale of Harrier jump-jets to China to avoid damaging Anglo-Soviet relations; on cruelty grounds, she urged a ban on import of pate de foie gras in 1980; she urged an immediate ceasefire in the Falklands in May 1982. She argued for the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people and many other radical anti-Zionist Arab causes.

She co-nominated Eric Heffer for Leader of the Labour Party and Michael Meacher for Deputy Leader in October 1983 and warned Neil Kinnock: "You walk your shoes straight or else." She launched into the defence of the Greenham Common women in March 1984 and criticised the Army for harassing them. Above all, she opposed the one member, one vote by postal ballots in selecting MPs.

As she became older but no less, it seemed to us, energetic, she acquired an assortment of nicknames. The journalist Andrew Alexander memorably described her as "Sheffield's answer to Rosa Luxembourg". Others saw her as Yorkshire's own "La Pasionaria". Most common of all was "Stalin's Grandmother", so inflexible was she in her socialist views.

I once summoned up the temerity to ask her how she fancied the sobriquet "Stalin's Grandmother". Matter-of-factly, she challenged the nickname on the surmise that Stalin's real grandmother was probably a pillar of the Russian Orthodox Church in Georgia, "which might be difficult for me".

Joan Maynard was marvellously unconcerned about self. It was the cause that mattered, the struggle that counted, the advancement of the ideas of the campaign group of MPs which she chaired.

When he was Father of the House to which he had arrived as a young gentleman in 1929, I asked Sir Robin Turton about his view of Maynard, who had been the life and soul of the Labour Party in his Thirsk and Malton constituency:

Actually, I like her and respect her. She is politically utterly Utopian and I might think quite dotty. But she is a good-mannered woman, a kind woman and well thought of by people who regard her views with anathema.

The local regard was the reason why she was made a Justice of the Peace back in 1950. Turton explained that, election after election, all he had to do was to turn up at local shows and ask,

Which is the lesser evil: me or Miss Maynard, who would like to take into public ownership everything in sight and make the broad acres of Thirsk and Malton into a collective farm?

It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle these days than for the likes of Maynard to be selected as a Labour candidate, least of all in a winnable seat. Probably there is not one selection test that she would have passed in the current state of politics. Yet, far from bringing the Labour Party into disrepute, she possessed heart and soul, which inspired many young people to come into politics. Joan Maynard had a real role in the public life of our country and we are the poorer without her like.

Vera Joan Maynard, trade unionist and politician: born Easingwold, North Yorkshire 5 July 1921; Secretary, Yorkshire Area Agricultural and Allied Workers 1956-78; member, National Executive Committee of the Labour Party 1972-82, 1983-87; MP (Labour) for Sheffield Brightside 1974-87; member, Parliamentary Select Committee on Agriculture 1975-87; died Sowerby, North Yorkshire 27 March 1998.

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