Alan Williams: Politician who did sterling service for Labour but was kept out of high office when Neil Kinnock was elected leader

He took trouble to seek out back-benchers to make sure that any promise he had made to the floor of the House was implemented

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The Independent Online

For 41 years Alan Williams was my close parliamentary colleague and friend. From 1964 until 2010 he represented Swansea West, succeeding me as Father of the House in 2005. Until 1990 he was one of the workhorses of Labour's front bench, and from then until his retirement he was a workhorse of Parliament, serving as a pivotal member of the Public Accounts Committee, the oldest and most effective of the Select Committees since it commands all the resources of the National Audit Office.

The son of a miner, Emlyn, in later life he would express irritation when, as a Labour right-winger he was harangued by left-wing extremists in the PLP and his constituency, pointing out that his working-class credentials were as impeccable, and often more impeccable, than their own; in the politically turbulent 1980s he could not abide Tony Benn.

Winning a bursary to Cardiff High School, he progressed to the Cardiff College of Technology and thence to University College, Oxford. A major influence was Sir John Hicks, Professor of Political Economy and expert on budgetary reform and the trade cycle, and his wife Ursula, an authority on public finance.

Embarking on National Service at 25, Williams was commissioned into the RAF. Within months of demobilisation he was chosen as candidate for Poole, losing by 11,371 votes. Working as a lecturer in the Welsh College of Advanced Technology, his energetic campaign in deepest-blue Dorset qualified him to be selected as a candidate for Swansea West, then held by Conservative whip Hugh Rees. The Labour gain of 2,637 votes was crucial to Harold Wilson's wafer-thin majority in October 1944.

Unusually, the occasion Alan Williams chose for his maiden speech in February 1965 was a censure motion. He made a good early joke: "My favourite recollection of the House so far is that, within the first five minutes of my sitting on one of these benches I turned to one of the largest standing members of my Party and said to him, looking at the Government benches, 'After 13 years it must be wonderful to be sitting on this side.' He replied, 'It is wonderful. The sun gets in your eyes on the other side.'"

Piling statistic on statistic, he proceeded to savage what the Tory government had done to industry and housing in Wales. Winding up, the Deputy Prime Minister George Brown referred to Williams' "very distinguished debut."

I recall two other heavyweight speeches, the first, on 26 January 1966, on grants to universities and colleges, the second, on 28 February 1966, on leasehold reform. Williams started by declaring his interest as a lease-holder, and it was clear he knew what he was talking about.

When Ted Short was promoted from Chief Whip to Postmaster General, he chose as his PPS Williams, who was soon on the ministerial ladder. He first worked for the mercurial George Brown and then the ice-cool Michael Stewart as the ill-fated Department of Economic Affairs. Years later he told me that he had learned that it was a hopeless nonsense to suppose that a rival department could be set up to challenge the Treasury.

The last two years of the second Wilson government were spent working reasonably well – but only reasonably – with Tony Benn. "He was very imaginative, but I did detect signs of incipient lunacy!" he told me.

Few ministers can have replied to as many late-night Adjournment Debates as Williams. He took trouble to seek out back-benchers to make sure that any promise he had made to the floor of the House was implemented.

A Party loyalist in the tempestuous arguments about Common Market entry, Williams thrived as Minister of State for Prices and Consumer Protection under Wilson (1974-76) and Minister of State for Industry under Callaghan (1976-79), with whom he was particularly close. In the Thatcher years he did thankless front-bench service on Industry, the Civil Service and Consumer Affairs, and as deputy shadow Leader of the House. "They've made me a dogsbody," he told me.

After 20 years as a constant presence on the Front Bench, his chances of promotion to the Cabinet rank he deserved evaporated when Neil Kinnock became leader. There was a widespread view in the PLP that if we had to have a Welshman, we would have done better with John Morris, Denzil Davies, Ted Rowland or Alan Williams.

But Williams had expressed his disdain for Kinnock, partly because he had declined the offer of a junior ministerial post from Jim Callaghan; Williams was contemptuous of a colleague who aspired to lead the Party and did not want to allow his reputation with the Left to be spoiled by accepting the responsibilities of office. Like many others, he felt Kinnock was putting personal ambition, being the "darling of the left", before Labour's best interests.

In 1966, when I came off the Public Accounts committee to become a founding member of the Science and Technology Select Committee, John Boyd-Carpenter, chairman of the PAC, asked me, "Which young Labour member should I ask your whips to give me as your replacement?" My immediate suggestion was Alan Williams. However, he served only a briefly until he joined the Government.

He returned to the PAC 23 years later after Kinnock had made it clear that he had no ministerial future. The PAC is always chaired by a senior member of the Opposition, and from 1990 Williams worked with Robert Sheldon, who told me that he hugely valued the pertinence and concision with which Williams questioned accounting officers and Civil Service mandarins. "Alan Williams," he told me, "is the very antithesis of a Welsh windbag!"

William's last service was in the unglamorous position of chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, which since 1983 has overseen the National Audit Office, examining its estimates and appointing non-executive directors from outside. Those who think that politicians are simply in it for themselves should consider Alan Williams' contribution. He enhanced the profession of politics.

Alan John Williams, politician: born 14 October 1930; MP for Swansea West 1964-2010, Father of the House 2005-2010; married 1957 Patricia Rees (one daughter, two sons); died 21 December 2014.

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