On 14 December 1955, Hugh Gaitskell was elected leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party in succession to Clem Attlee, having obtained an absolute majority of votes, 157 to the 70 of Aneurin Bevan, and the 40 of Herbert Morrison. The predicament of Robert Woof, whose by-election campaign was in full swing at the time, epitomised the dilemma of many impeccably working- class trade-union MPs in the mid-1950s. Their hearts were with the Left and the Bevanites; but their heads told them to take a deep breath, hold their proverbial noses, and vote for Winchester and New College, Oxford, in the shape of Hugh Gaitskell.
I once had a long conversation with Woof about the Labour Party and his attitude to class. I asked him, how could it be that, with your views which led to your being one of the 10 MPs at the start of "Victory for Socialism" (the left-wing group organised by Stephen Swingler and Sidney Silverman), you could on every critical vote cast in favour of Hugh Gaitskell and the leadership? Woof was nothing if not candid. "Tam, I do what Sam Watson tells me to do. I know at the end of the day which side my bread is buttered."
This was a far from dishonourable attitude. Sam Watson was an extremely serious man who not only, as the omnipotent (in the North-East) Secretary of the Durham Miners, but as a national figure and Chairman of the International Committee of the Labour Party, commanded the respect of many throughout the country. Dennis Skinner said: "At meetings of the Miners' Group we all knew that Bob Woof's natural inclinations were with the Left, but we all equally understood that he had to do what Sam Watson wanted."
Robert Woof was born into the mining industry, though he would always tell us that his great-grandfather on the distaff side - he enjoyed using unusual words; most people would have left it at "my mother's side of the family" - was a cabin boy in Nelson's victory and took a salt-cellar of Bristol cut glass from the ship, a relic that the Woof family showed to anyone who was invited to their house.
On his 14th birthday, Woof started at Chopwell Colliery in County Durham and in 1943 became Treasurer of the National Union of Mineworkers' "Little Moscow Branch" and a popular and trusted check weighman. He was elected to Durham County Council in 1947, where he spent nine years as a cog in that legendarily disciplined, and indeed in many ways far-seeing, organisation. Woof was a passionate defender of what now would be termed an archetypal Old Labour council, but which nevertheless could boast a magnificent record in school-building and advancement of primary education.
When Attlee's formidable Chief Whip William Whiteley unexpectedly died in the autumn of 1955, Woof easily beat off the challenge of the former Bevanite MP Geoffrey Bing QC, who promptly went off to Accra and became Nkrumah's virulently hated Attorney- General. And on 2 February 1956, Woof was elected with 18,791 votes over the 8,077 of the Conservative candid- ate, J.M. Reay-Smith. His maiden speech on 21 February charmingly began:
In rising to make my maiden speech which, in my part of the land, is tantamount to saying "gannin' o'er me dooks", I crave the indulgence of the House to extend to me its customary courtesy, and I want to avoid being controversial.
I have known an economic crisis every pay day since I was married, but my justification for intervening in this crucial debate on the economic situation is the knowledge I have acquired by reading the Second Report on the Selection Committee on Estimates, dealing with the development areas. The people of my constituency take a very keen interest in this matter as Blaydon is part of the North East development area. More roads lead to Blaydon than just "gannin' " along the Scotswood Road. Many of the roads lead from mining villages where a great anxiety for the well- being and welfare of the population is being created by the inevitability of the fact that pits are slowly dying a natural death.
Albeit that Woof would generally speak only when the House was empty, after a Chancellor's Budget statement, or on the day of the Queen's Speech, the influence of Woof and his Durham friends Bill Blyton, Tom Urwin, Charlie Grey and others, was not to be underestimated and was one of the imperatives which led the Wilson government to bring in Nicholas Kaldor's Regional Employment Premium, which was so beneficial to areas such as Blaydon.
Woof was the Hansard reporter's nightmare, speaking in the broadest Durham lingo. However, somehow he made his point on the coal industry, and his points were sound. The last time I heard him speak in the Commons was on 2 March 1977: "Naturally we could never conceal our deep concern on the cutting back of valuable coal production." There was muttering on the Opposition benches and Woof flashed with anger:
I hope that the Right Honourable Member for Orkney and Shetland, Mr Grimond, is not laughing at that. If he is, I will tell him that on looking back on the conduct and standards we have tried to set in this House with great respect to you, Mr Speaker, we might as well have got down on our bended knees and talked to the cows in the field, for what notice anyone took of our
pleas. Many times we tried to reach
a common agreement and understanding.
I often approach other Members, both inside and outside the House, only to be told: "Sorry, Robert, old chap; you must understand the trend of market forces." Of course, we knew what was meant by the trend of market forces. We knew the claims of different kinds of fuel. We knew the pressures from the oil lobby and we knew what they were getting at, as to a considerable extent it was the effect that cheap oil would be obtainable ad infinitum.
Woof loved the odd Latin tag!
Maybe Robert Woof is not the sort of man whom the pundits think should be elected to a modern House of Commons. I passionately and vehemently disagree. The House of Commons should reflect the mosaic of Britain and Bob Woof represented a most important element and strand in the society of the 1950s and 1960s. His presence was important.Reuse content