Obituary: George Park

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The Independent Online
George Maclean Park, trade-unionist, politician: born Glasgow 27 September 1914; Coventry City Councillor 1961-74, Leader, Council Labour Group 1967-74; Leader, Coventry City and District Councils 1972-74; MP (Labour) for Coventry North East 1974-87; married 1941 Joyce Stead (one daughter); died Coventry 8 May 1994.

SOME politicians - not very many - are orators on whose every word a public meeting hangs. Fewer can 'hold the House of Commons' and draw their colleagues into the Chamber the moment their name goes up on the parliamentary annunciator. Fewer still can be guaranteed to command the full attention of their own colleagues at meetings of their parliamentary party.

But from his very first contribution to the Parliamentary Labour Party, in 1974, George Park was listened to intently by all present. In a slow, strictly matter-of-fact style, he put a view on industrial relations that mattered hugely, coming as it did from a man fresh from being convener of the shop stewards' committee at the huge Chrysler Rootes works at Ryton, outside Coventry. Indeed, ministers, in considering statements and legislation, were often known to put the talisman question 'Will George Park wear it?'

I never heard Park say anything that was ill-considered, let alone silly. He always meant what he said and said what he meant and I never heard him make a speech or a public statement on a subject in which he was not immersed. He was a man of 'considerable bottom', one of the nicest judgements that one politician can make about another.

Why then if he was such a heavyweight did he not become a minister of the Labour government? Because he entered the House of Commons when he was over 60 years of age and was thought too old to embark on a ministerial career. When Richard Crossman heard that Park was to be his successor in the boundary- changed constituency of Coventry North East, he said what a pity it was that Park was so old and they ought to have chosen a younger man. On the other hand, Park told me that he felt Crossman should have retired in 1970 and allowed him into the Commons four years earlier. With hindsight, I believe that that is what Crossman would have wished.

George Park came of a Glasgow engineering family. His father, James Park and his maternal grandfather were both fitters on the Upper Clyde. After attending Onslow Drive School in the Dennistoun district of Glasgow, and Whitehill Academy, George Park went with his family as part of the Scottish diaspora to Coventry before the Second World War, in search of higher wages and better living conditions. Park joined Rootes as a fitter and quickly worked his way up the hierarchy of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, which was later to award him its Medal of Merit.

I first met Park at the Labour Party conference in Brighton in October 1966 when a vast gathering of shop stewards assembled outside the main conference hotel booing and shouting. Each member of the National Executive of the Labour Party had to run this gauntlet after lunch. Harold Wilson came out of the front door of the hotel, seized the microphone from one of the demonstrators and asked three of them in, giving them a couple of hours' reasoning and hearing their side of the case. One of the three was George Park, who rendered considerable service to the Labour government by cooling the situation.

A month later in Coventry with Crossman, whose PPS I was, I attended a meeting of the senior shop stewards in the city. Park was extremely authoritative, explaining that they had been patient but telling us bluntly that if an election was to be held there and then all Labour representation would be swept away. In June 1967 Crossman noted in his diary that the Coventry Labour group 'have now elected George Park as their leader and Peter Lister as their vice-leader. They are by far the two best of the younger generations of councillors.'

When eventually in 1974 Park arrived in the House of Commons, he used his maiden speech to warn that legislation on unions would be a 'paradise for lawyers and frustration for workers'. He was the first to warn the Labour government that workers on boards would lead to all sorts of industrial relations problems, particularly on thorny issues such as phased redundancies. Ever a realist and courageous, he was the only backbencher publicly to back the Labour government in delaying the uprating of child benefit in June 1976 at a particularly fraught moment when cuts were being introduced on Labour sacred cows.

When James Callaghan became Prime Minister in 1976 there was no more difficult issue than secondary picketing. Park was chosen to oppose a Bill put forward under the 10-minute rule by Nicholas Ridley, to outlaw picketing, and said:

Ridley takes no account of the difficulties faced by pickets and does not deal with the question of communication with occupants of vehicles trying to get into premises that are being picketed. Bearing in mind Ridley's concern for the police, he should recognise that his proposals would make their job more difficult by restricting their discretion in dealing with delicate situations. Nor do the proposals deal with new methods adopted by special police groups for dealing with mass picketing which on occasions have amounted to provocation.

Park was a leading participant both on the floor of the House and in committee in the passage of the first Employment Bill brought in by the Thatcher government. He argued that there had been a conflict between theory and practice. Justice before the law was a laudable objective but the problems were those in practice which should be dealt with long before the legal stage was reached.

The flavour of Park's contribution can be encapsulated in one of his statements:

I wonder what the reactions of Conservative members would be if in their anxiety to please one or possibly two out of thousands of employees in a given factory, they found that the vast majority were saying, 'We do not want to work with those who do not want to belong to the union.' That is precisely the reaction that one meets. In my experience closed shops are not set up arbitarily. They are set up after full consultation and with the agreement, expressed by a majority, of the employees in the establishment. There is the opportunity for individuals to advance their points of view.

Park lived and breathed the motor industry and as the MP representing the huge BMC/British Leyland truck and tractor division at Bathgate, I frequently went to him to ask advice as to how to handle delicate motor-industry situations. He never failed me. He was deeply concerned too that the industry was continuing to be eroded while other countries reached agreement or were able to tell Japan about the percentage of vehicles which they would allow into their country.

Time and again Park brought to the notice of the Commons how countries such as Japan and Spain, most vociferous about free trade, had nurtured their car industries behind high tariff barriers. He championed coherent industrial strategies and the cause of workers who found that not enough effort had gone into determining whether there would be an outlet for the increased productivity. Nobody put more eloquently the case of people who believed that extra effort would simply work themselves out of a job.

Park was a champion of fair- wages resolutions which had often meant that matters which would otherwise have erupted into industrial disputes had been taken to the arbitration committee and settled quietly. He made major contributions on unfair dismissal and I will never forget after midnight in May 1985 Park snapping at Douglas Hogg: 'The Member for Grantham has got on his feet. Never in his life has he been sacked on the spot and had to go home to reveal the news to his family.' Park, most courteous of men, believed that the law and tribunals should not get mixed up.

Rolls-Royce did not have a doughtier champion in the Commons. In his last speech Park said:

One of the principal concerns about privatisation proposals concerns the continuing need for high levels of research and development. It is a dilemma that faces all the principal engine makers - General Electric and Pratt & Whitney as well as Rolls-Royce. To ease off on research and development means facing the prospect of losing position on radical technology and consequent sales.

George Park may have come to Parliament late in life but he is one of whom it can truly be said, he gave to Parliament more than Parliament gave to him, at any rate in terms of ministerial office. In terms of influence, he was a considerable success. He brought knowledge of the outside world into a House of Commons which is ever more dominated by professional politicians whose apprenticeship is more likely to have been as researchers in the offices of MPs than as apprentices on the floor of an engineering factory.

(Photograph omitted)