Walter Harrison: Labour whip whose efforts did much to keep the party in power in the 1970s
Wednesday 24 October 2012
By hook or by crook Walter Harrison, who served as Deputy Chief Whip from 1974 until 1979, was the individual above all others who somehow held together the Labour governments of Wilson, second time round, and Callaghan. No subterfuge was beneath him. Some parliamentary colleagues had their arms twisted, often severely. Others were involved in ferocious rows, which Harrison usually won. Others again, like me, succumbed to his charm in asking for Party loyalty.
His exploits in making arrangements for Irish MPs of Republican tendencies – pub owners minded to tend their own business in Belfast or Armagh – to be transported to Westminster for vital votes, were the stuff of legend. But you can not be Deputy Chief Whip, dealing with majorities of -1 to -3, and allocator-in-chief of accommodation in the Palace of Westminster, without making enemies. Truth to tell, Harrison accumulated a large and distinguished collection of foes, not least in the Labour leadership, who contrived to deny him the place in the House of Lords which he had craved since leaving parliament in 1987.
Walter Harrison was the eldest of 10 children. His father worked in Yorkshire pits, then for a brief period in the coal industry supply branches until 1953, when he died at 53 of what was then classified as a non-industrial disease, emphysema. Throughout his parliamentary life Harrison campaigned for the victims of work-related accident and disease.
His father and particularly his mother were proud socialists. "They were the real people of the Labour movement," he would say. "It is easy to define; they were the salt of the earth." It was their memory that stirred his feelings of deep loyalty, though as my clandestine friend in the arguments about devolution in the 1970s he showed that he had a mind of his own in opposing government plans for a Scottish Assembly. When it came to the vote he bowed to the Party view – and I don't blame him for that.
His mother, he would tell us, didn't have much in her pocket, but she used to make contributions as a guideline to party workers and would give money to any election fund despite her big family. Harrison said with a chuckle that he had five sisters, and his mother would ask the lads who came round if they were members of the Labour Party. Only if they could produce their party card would she give them permission to take her daughters out.
Harrison remembered the 1926 strike, when he saw the women "coal scratting": trying to get coal out of the tips to keep their fires going. A convivial raconteur, he told us that his first political involvement was running with the numbers from the polling booth to the committee room in the 1931 General Election.
Following his father's advice, on leaving school in 1937 he got an apprenticeship in the electricity supply industry which allowed him to attend Dewsbury Technical and Art College. Called up in 1940, he volunteered for the RAF – in Parliament he was one of the most active members of the band of MPs who dined each year to commemorate their RAF service. Squaddies in the army, navy, air force or marines had no greater champion than Harrison.
After VJ Day, he returned to the electricity industry and became a welfare officer, while improving his skills as an electrician. Those skills were sometimes put to good use in the Palace of Westminster, beyond the simple business of changing lightbulbs.
Rising in the Yorkshire hierarchy of the electrical trades union, which was to sponsor him on its parliamentary list, he became a Castleford Borough councillor in 1952 and an alderman in 1959, and served for six years on the important West Riding County Council. The distinguished Director of Education for West Yorkshire, Sir Alec Clegg, told me when Harrison was elected to the Commons in 1964 that he had been a most useful member of the West Riding Education Committee, an accolade that meant something, coming from that particular source.
Harrison came to the Commons motivated by injustices in industry, pointing out that the rate of pay in the trade union movement hadn't altered much. "It was five quid for a 47-hour week; it was three quid when I went away to the war and six years later it was only five quid." He was proud of what the first Labour government had achieved and like many of us was deeply angry towards the end of his life at the way in which Tony Blair was so dismissive of the Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan governments.
After two years he was invited by Ted Short to join the whip's office. His attitude was: "Whips have a bad name, it's true; but it depends how you operate it. I think the whips' function is to help their colleagues: it's like being a contracting foreman" – which he had been for 12 years – "you can't get the best out of the men if you are just flogging them; you've got to have a good working relationship."
After his period as whip ended, Harrison remained a very earthy Member who could say that he got more pleasure out of getting 12 quid for an old lady to replace her dentures than he did when he signed for the repayment of the National Debt as a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury.
When he started he was determined to find out how parliament worked. "It's like working in a power station, it's no good if you don't know how it works," he said when he finished. "There are still a few mysteries that I don't know; the real power is just over the brow of the hill – I've never really grasped it, I've just had a little scratch at it. But it all depends what you call power. I've been in the position to improve things and I think I have."
Harrison saw Westminster not just as a large village; it was a small city and lots of people lived in it, and to live in it reasonably there had to be a code of conduct. It was all right having the odd maverick but there had to be mutual responsibility, irrespective of whether a person was the Prime Minister, a member of the Cabinet, or any other "high-falutin" position, including the person who sweeps the carpet.
When he retired from the Commons in 1987 he had no regrets about his time in Westminster, and no one could wipe the grin off his face. For members of the House in the years 1964 to 1987, the bustling figure of Walter Harrison will remain one of the most endurable and indelible memories.
Walter Harrison, electrician and politician: born Dewsbury 2 January 1921; Labour MP for Wakefield 1964-87; Assistant Government Whip 1966-68; Lord Commissioner of the Treasury 1968-70; Deputy Chief Opposition Whip 1970-74, 1979-83; Treasurer of HM Household and Deputy Chief Government Whip 1974-79; married 1948 Enid Coleman (died 1990; one son, one daughter), 1991 Jane Richards (died 2000); died 19 October 2012.
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