Obituary: Lord Mellish
Monday 11 May 1998
Mellish had been the cement that prevented the Labour Party from being split asunder over entry into the European Common Market, when 69 pro- Europe Labour MPs (of whom I was one) went into the same lobby as Ted Heath, on 28 October 1971, and the government won entry into the European Common Market by 356 to 244 votes. A convinced pro- marketeer himself, he operated loyally on behalf of the party policy, which at that time opposed entry to the EEC.
It was a remarkable feat of political management, matched only by his wheeling and dealing in government on such delicate issues as the pounds 6 limit on wages agreed by Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, the closed shop, the Dock Labour Scheme, and compulsory introduction of comprehensive schools.
He did this with a mixture of natural guile, disguised as Cockney plain- speaking, and earthy assessment of character and motive, laced with the humour of the Den - the ground of his beloved Millwall Football Club. He was the authentic voice of working-class Dockland London, and speaking in the docks on the day he gave up his job he explained to the British Leather Federation that he had held the job for seven years but it had seemed like seventy.
On his appointment in 1969 it was thought that he would be a bully. Indeed, on the evening that news of it went like wildfire round the corridors of Westminster, the conventional wisdom was that Wilson had lost his prime ministerial marbles. "Bob Mellish! Chief Whip? Christ!" One can only use his own favourite expression.
A bully he certainly did not turn out to be. What he could not abide were those "bleedin' bastards" who voted against the party either without warning him or for some kind of perceived self-advantage within the party.
Mellish had a multitude of difficult people with whom he had to deal - the late John Stonehouse, and John Ryman, the fox-hunting Labour MP who failed to vote for five months, were only two examples. Yet go to Bob Mellish and talk to him sitting down at his desk once owned by Disraeli, surrounded by portraits of his predecessors as Chief Whip or "King's Man" since 1750, one could not find a better or more understanding doctor for human failings. Ian Mikardo, his constituency neighbour but veteran of the National Executive and the Left who had been quite appalled at Mellish's original appointment, later described him as "to a perfect degree a round peg in a round hole."
Robert Mellish was born in 1913 in Bermondsey, the 13th of 14 children (of whom only six survived) of a docker. His father had taken a prominent part in the 1899 dock strike and that of 1912 led by the legendary Ben Tillett. Much influenced by the family circumstances where scarlet fever and meningitis had accounted for more than half his siblings, Mellish devoted time to the work of East End hospital boards throughout his life.
Through his father's influence he started work at the office of the newly formed Transport and General Workers' Union at Stratford on the very evening he left school.
He was called up in the Second World War as a sapper. On sheer nous and energy he worked himself up to the rank of major in the Royal Engineers. At the end of the war he was in South East Asia taking part in the battles against the Japanese. One of the reasons for his good relations with the Tories was that they thought he was exactly the type of London patriot who should be the quintessential working-class Labour MP. But another part of the Tory acceptance of Mellish was the recognition that he and they had fought in the same war, side by side against the same enemy. Danger together on the battlefield mellows criticism of others with whom one disagrees politically.
In 1946, out of the political blue, the Rt Hon Sir Ben Smith, Member of Parliament for Rotherhithe from 1923 until 1931 and again from 1935, resigned. At the by-election on 19 November 1946 an electorate of only 22,000 gave Mellish 7,265 votes to the 2,821 of the Liberal Ed Martell and 1,084 for the Conservative candidate Freddy Burden, later Conservative MP for Gillingham.
Mellish gave his maiden speech on 16 December 1946 on the Transport Bill:
I said I have a mandate to support the Bill, and I wish to make this very clear to the Minister and Honourable Members opposite. I recently fought a by-election in a constituency in which 60 per cent of the male population are engaged in transport.
It is a rather noticeable feature that very seldom do we talk of the people who work in the industry. Usually we are only concerned with stock- holders, or people who own various interests, but never of the people who work in the industry. They are a very important factor. In the division I represent, more than 60 per cent are actually employed in transport, in some form or another. I made it very clear to them in my election address, and in speeches on the platform, that I was in favour of the Government's proposals to nationalise transport, to nationalise their industry.
I was opposed in this by-election by a Conservative (Freddy Burden), a charming man who fought a clean fight. But he was batting on a sticky wicket. He made it equally clear that he was opposed to the nationalisation of transport in any way at all. To use his own words, he wanted the industry to be unfettered and free. The result we know. I was elected a Member of Parliament and he lost his deposit, and was at the bottom of the poll. So I have a right to say that I come here as a supporter of this Bill in its entirety, and with a mandate that gives me the right to go into the lobby and indicate my support.
Mellish told me that he was a bit lost at first and this was why as Chief Whip he took a lot of trouble to be kind to new members. In 1950 he became Parliamentary Private Secretary to George Strauss, the Minister of Supply, and then, backed by Herbert Morrison, still boss of London, PPS to George Isaacs, Minister of Pensions between January and November 1951.
The tiny electorate of Rotherhithe - 21,952 as a result of the Blitz - was expanded in 1950 to the new seat of Bermondsey with over 40,000 electors. In the opposition years Mellish tried to distance himself from both the Bevanite and the Gaitskellite factions of the party by supporting the "keep calm" group which was established as a balance to "keep left". However his real activity in those years was inside the London Labour Regional Party, of which he was to chair committees and of which he was to become the Chairman in 1956.
Sardonically, the Mellish school of chairmanship was described to me by the late councillor Ellis Hillman of Hackney:
Mellish's conduct went like this. You turn the bloody mike off and then row with your left-wing opponents from the Chair and you finally get the conference to take a vote to move yourself from the Chair and put the motion from the Chair. All those in favour - half a dozen hands. All those against - woof, see! Get off the bloody platform and then bring the stewards in.
From other people's descriptions this was not wholly unfair.
On gaining power in 1964 Harold Wilson had the inspiration of teaming up the London docker with the Oxford intellectual Richard Crossman at the Ministry of Housing. At first it seemed like fire and water, but in fact Mellish came quickly to have an affection and - with reservations - a high regard for Crossman who gave him charge of the important first bill, "Protection from Eviction", which was about the Rachmanism of the time. Speaking on the report stage, Mellish said:
In a case where the deceased tenant has left no widow but has left more than one member of his family who were residing with him at the time of his death - say, two daughters - the owner cannot enforce his right to possession without a County Court order as long as either daughter remains in occupation or in residence. The owner, in applying to the court for an order for possession, would name both daughters as defendant to the proceedings.
This was the kind of issue that mattered to Mellish. He recalled his own mother as soft and very gentle. "I haven't a complaint about the conditions of my childhood," he told me. "I lived in a slum, I suppose, but it didn't seem like it then." However he didn't want the conditions his mother had had to face to be the lot of anybody in the second half of the 20th century. He was immensely concerned about issues such as dampness and slum clearance and was determined to do everything possible to bring the work of the building research station to the attention of local authorities.
Indeed it was his concern about local authorities which created the bond between Mellish as Parliamentary Secretary and the formidable Dame Evelyn Sharp, who was Permanent Secretary in the department. Early in his career at the Ministry on 18 November 1964, I remember sitting behind Mellish, whose PPS I was, as he said:
I can do no better than quote from two letters which I have received consequent on the introduction of the Protection from Eviction Bill. The first letter is from a tenant who lives at Bow in East London. "As tenants who have been so threatened with evictions as to be nearly driven out of our minds and made ill with worry, I cannot say how thankful we were to see the present Government's laws to stop evictions; it is like a hideous nightmare coming to an end." Another letter comes from Chelsea. "We were all so happy to hear of the new Bill being passed to stop tenants like ourselves being made homeless . . . many families in this road are over 60 and received quit notices from our new landlord after being here for two to three generations. The passing of the new laws means everything to tenants here and the relief from tension can be seen in their faces."
Mellish observed that if the Labour Government had done nothing else this bill would give relief to the sort of people who were wide open to pressure in their homes.
The development of the relationship between Crossman, the upper-class ideologue from Oxford, and Mellish, the working-class pragmatist from London's Dockland, grew and was fascinating. In 1967 when Crossman became Lord President of the Council, Mellish was promoted to Minister of Works, where he got on very well with the building industry. From personal experience over the controversy of materials to build the runway at the staging post atoll of Aldabra in the Indian Ocean I know how painstaking he was in questioning officials as to whether the brief given to him constituted the full story.
A book could be written about Mellish's seven years as Chief Whip from 1969 to 1976. He was, however, true to his word that he never sneered or jeered at the Conservatives "because I know how frustrating Opposition is". Mellish was a team player. It was a question of my government right or wrong. His loyalty to Harold Wilson was unshakeable. "The Prime Minister is a soft and very decent man, almost too gentle. Some say it's a weakness. I believe it's a strength. He is very loyal to his friends. His division record is as good as most back-benchers. I am not a sycophant, but I do respect and admire him."
On several occasions Mellish asked Wilson to release him from what seemed at times to be the purgatory of the Chief Whip's office and send him back to the Ministry of Housing. Wilson's sudden resignation in 1976 upset that apple cart. Mellish wept at the news.
In the subsequent contest for the party leadership he threw in his lot with Michael Foot partly to repay the loyalty he believed Foot had shown the government in the difficult days since February 1974. Perhaps too he remembered James Callaghan's failure to show the same loyalty to the party leadership in the 1969 crisis over In Place of Strife.
Part of Mellish's strength was his political "forgetory" - his ability not to maintain grudges - but there was always a frisson between him and the new prime minister and it was not surprising that he left the government after a few months. Ever constructive, in 1981 he became the Deputy Chairman of the London Docklands Development Corporation.
I will never forget two days canvassing with his successor as Labour candidate in Bermondsey, Peter Tatchell, and finding the extent to which, particularly among older people, Bob Mellish was quite simply loved.
His friends in the Labour Party would like to draw a veil over the reasons he joined the SDP. Having had lunch with him last year in the Members' Cafeteria to which he drifted down from the House of Lords (which he didn't like), it was quite clear that he regretted having left the Labour Party. The SDP was not his mileu. His solace in later years, as throughout his life, was his wife Anne and his family.
Robert Joseph Mellish, trade union official and politician: born London 3 March 1913; MP (Labour) for Rotherhithe 1946-50, for Bermondsey 1950- 82, (Independent) 1982; Chairman, London Regional Labour Party 1956-77; Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Housing 1964-67; PC 1967; Minister of Public Buildings and Works 1967-69; Parliamentary Secretary to Treasury and Government Chief Whip 1969-70 and 74-76; Opposition Chief Whip 1970- 74; Deputy Chairman, London Docklands Development Corporation 1981-85; created 1985 Baron Mellish; married 1938 Anne Warner (five sons); died Sompting, West Sussex 10 May 1998.
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