Veronica Crichton

Labour Party press officer and woman for a crisis
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The Independent Online

Veronica Lucille Crichton, media adviser: born London 2 March 1949; died London 8 April 2002.

Veronica Crichton made her name as one of the Labour Party's top media professionals during some of the party's most troubled times. In the late Seventies and before the Kinnock reconstruction of the Eighties, the party gave every appearance of having lost its collective reason. Not Crichton. However bad it got, she understood it was part of her job to make it better.

Nowhere were her skills tested more thoroughly than in London. As the 1981 Greater London Council elections approached, Crichton was sent in by Party HQ to make an assessment of the troops' readiness for the fray. In a move that prefigured the arrival of the Folletts, she took in hand Andrew McIntosh, the then Labour leader in London, and gave him some incisive sartorial advice concerning his taste in ties. But her real talent lay with the enduring relationships she struck up with some of the leading political journalists of the day.

Crichton understood politics to be a marathon, not a sprint, and her loyalty was to the Labour Party in perpetuity, rather than to the candidate for the time being. She never budged from her own strong ethical code, but that is not to say Crichton held to any arid or hidebound notions of how to play the game. She was far from averse to deploying the odd sleight of hand.

Following Labour's victory at the GLC elections, Crichton became Press Officer to the council's new leader, Ken Livingstone. On one occasion, Crichton was appalled to hear Livingstone being unusually frank and unguarded with a particular radio journalist on the matter of the impending visit of the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams to County Hall. She deliberately knocked over a carafe of water in the studio, thus causing instant alarm about the possibility of mass electrocution. As the journalist and studio staff ran around looking for mops and cloths, Crichton quietly took Livingstone into a corner and verbally beat him up. To the huge chagrin of the journalist the continued interview was entirely different in character. But that is what was broadcast.

Most press officers are tasked with maximising the publicity for their party's candidates, but in the 1987 general election, when I was chair of the Greater London Labour Party, one of Crichton's main tasks was to keep some of our more exotic candidates entirely out of the spotlight. She succeeded brilliantly. There was only one press conference during the whole campaign and we didn't get a single column inch for our efforts. Perfect.

Veronica Crichton was born in London in 1949, the only daughter of the romantic novelist Lucilla Andrews; her father, James Crichton, a doctor, died when she was five. At Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read History, Veronica became one of the few women ever to edit Varsity, the university's student newspaper. And that is where her love affair with journalism and communications began.

After graduating in 1971, she became a prize-winning journalist, first with a local newspaper in the East Midlands and later in Norfolk, before ending up, in 1975, in the Labour Party's national press office at Transport House. Veronica Crichton had arrived in the Westminster Village and it was to be her home in one way or another for the rest of her life.

At some time or another Crichton must have trained most of today's Cabinet, a near majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party and a large number of the country's Labour local government councillors.

After she left the full-time employment of the Labour Party and the GLC in the Eighties, her professional interests burgeoned. She became "the woman you most wanted to stand by you in a crisis". Veronica Crichton had seen it all and knew how to deal with it. Working with her almost always tipped into friendship. She was mentor to a whole generation of people working in communications in both the public and voluntary sectors. She had a particular passion for working with charities that helped the homeless.

Many of the best Veronica stories are simply not printable in a family newspaper, or while certain fragile political egos are still around. However I well recall an occasion when she was tasked with getting a particularly troublesome and garrulous Labour candidate through a waiting and solidly packed phalanx of unsympathetic journalists. Grabbing two other female party members who were at hand and who, in common with her, were endowed with a more than ample bosom, she instructed them, in best head-girl style, to link arms, put their best chests forward and quick march straight ahead. With the astonished candidate sweeping in behind, an opening immediately appeared and the mission was accomplished.

Famous for not being partisan or involved in the Labour Party's sometimes Byzantine factionalism, Crichton helped the Fabian Society in all sorts of ways for many years. She was not a great attender of committees, but she was always at hand when there was work to be done and acted as an informal adviser to successive general secretaries. Crichton reckoned the "Fabs" knew how to throw the best parties in the Labour movement and she was the original party animal.

Only six weeks ago, Crichton was leading yet another workshop on behalf of the Labour Women's Network, training one more batch of parliamentary hopefuls, as she had done for many hundreds of women before. This was done, as usual, on a voluntary basis and sprang from her deeply held belief that Labour needed more women in Parliament, and everywhere else.

She did not always identify culturally with some of our more militant sisters, but she knew that very often they were right. The women's organisations in the Labour Party have lost a great friend and ally.

Glenys Thornton