Obituary: Ian Mikardo
Friday 07 May 1993
HAD IAN MIKARDO been made Minister of State in the Department of Trade responsible for the docks and shipping in 1965, the whole history of the 1964-70 Labour government would have been different.
Along with Andrew Cunningham, leader of the General Municipal and Boilermakers Union (GMB) in the North-east, John Hughes, of Ruskin College, Oxford, Jack Jones, later general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union then directly responsible for dockers, Michael Montague, later of the English Tourist Board, and Peter Shore MP, I was a member of the Mikardo Committee on the docks set up by the Labour Party. Had that committee's proposals been put into practice by a minister with Mikardo's grip of the detail, the seamen's strike and its crippling effect on the economy, and the sourness engendered in the Labour movement by 'prime ministerial' Reds- under-the-bed, would not have created the conditions for Labour's defeat in 1970.
The report produced in March 1965 exposed the ills of the docks industry by delving with a 'scalpel deep into its intestines' (as Mikardo put it). The report recommended a total restructuring of the docks under public ownership and with a system of decentralisation and of workers' participation in management much wider than had ever been envisaged for any other industry. It was vintage Mikardo thinking. The 1966 Cabinet accepted the report and George Brown fought hard for it against the resistance of timid ministers. But the Labour government were unable to produce the Ports Bill until the last session of that parliament and the Bill when it came was something of a disappointment because it fell a long way short of implementing the imaginative proposals.
Wilson may prove to be a much-underrated Prime Minister. But not to have given Mikardo ministerial office was a profound mistake and seen as an outrage by Labour activists up and down the country.
Mikardo was a glitteringly witty and authoritative chairman, be it of the select committee on nationalised industries of the Parliamentary Labour Party and its executive, of the National Executive Committee of the party, or of the party conference itself - and an expediter of business to boot, which does not always go with an authority.
The abiding memory, however, of many thousands in the Labour and trade-union movement must be the tour de force which Mikardo provided year after year at conference and at party rallies as a fund-raiser. Never was money - notes not coins - extracted with more elegance, style, wit and Cockney good humour from the pockets of an audience. Mik - no one called him Ian - was sui generis. 'The Latin we all use in the pubs in Poplar,' as he would quip.
Both Mikardo's parents came to Britain in the massive Jewish exodus from the Tsarist empire in the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th. His mother, Bluma, came from a village called Yampol in western Ukraine. His father, Morris, Anglicised from Moshe, arrived at the time of the Boer War from Kutno, a textile-manufacturing town to the west of Warsaw. When Morris disembarked in London his total possessions were the clothes that he stood up in plus a little bag containing a change of shirt and underclothes, his accessories for prayer and one rouble. They went to the East End of London, which their son was to represent in Parliament with such distinction from 1964 until 1987.
His parents left the East End and set up home in Portsmouth in 1907. Mikardo was born a year later. He recalled that the language of the family in those early days was Yiddish. When Mikardo went to school at the age of three he had only a few words of English and that put him at a disadvantage in relation to his classmates. He used to tell his many friends in the House of Commons how when he became a Member of Parliament for a constituency containing many Bangladeshi families whose young children had only a few words of English, and saw them harassed by having to study the usual range of school studies whilst they were unfamiliar with the language of their teachers and textbooks, he well understood what they were up against.
His mother's ambition for him was that he should become a rabbi and therefore he went to the Aria College in Portsmouth which had been set up 'for the training and maintenance of young men, natives of the County of Hampshire as Jewish divines on orthodox principles'. However he transferred to Portsmouth Grammar School and in the 1920s shuffled from job to job. He used to tell of how his greatest pleasure was to go and watch Pompey playing football. My wife's great-uncle Jimmy Nichol was one of the Portsmouth half-backs of the decade and I can bear out Mikardo's encyclopaedic knowledge retained after half a century and more of Pompey's games in those halcyon days.
In 1930 he met Mary Rosette, to be his lifelong partner for over 60 years, and as he put it 'found a new family in hers'. He joined the Labour Party and at the same time Poale Zion, the Zionist Workers' Movement which was affiliated to the party. For most of the time he was engaged in little political activity because as with so many others during the Great Depression the mundane grind of earning a living left little time or energy or resources for anything else. By 1935 he had returned to Stepney, where both his daughters were born.
He told us that his break came when he stumbled on an advertisement for a seminar in 1931 on what was then called 'scientific management'. He had already seen enough in his various jobs in factories, warehouses and marketing and distribution agencies, to satisfy himself that there was plenty of room for improvements in industrial and commercial organisation and management and he was curious to discover whether or not there was, as the term 'scientific management' implied, an established corpus of knowledge, a tested discipline which laid down criteria for devising those improvements and methods of applying them. His enrolment in that seminar led to 60 years of activity with ASTMS, the scientific workers' union, where he was the guiding spirit in the union's co-operation with Members of Parliament at the working lunches which made ASTMS and their general secretary, Clive Jenkins, one of the most effective pressure groups that Parliament has seen.
Mikardo was the moving spirit behind many worthwhile initiatives by the trade unions. For the rest of the war he spent his time in aircraft factories as a designer. His big moment came at the national conference of the Labour Party at Central Hall, Westminster, in 1944. It all started with a resolution devised by the management committee of the Reading Labour Party which had chosen him as the successor to the illustrious Dame Margaret Bondfield. The Reading resolution sought an explicit commitment to extending the publicly owned sector. At the conference the delegates responsible for these resolutions were called together, as always, in a compositing group. The Reading resolution was the one nearest to the choice of some 30 delegates and Mikardo was chosen to move it.
As a humble first-time candidate for a safe Tory seat, surrounded by people who'd been active in the party for many years, many of them household names, as ministers or MPs or trade-union general secretaries, including Harold Laski, Mikardo went to the rostrum. 'If L-plates had existed in those days I would have been wearing one]' He did not have butterflies in his stomach, he would tell us, he had a whole flock of whacking great pterodactyls flapping about in there. None the less he made a rousing speech to the effect that it was high time that the Labour movement restated its fundamental principles. He was supported by Bessie Braddock, whom he described as a rabble- rouser of the far Left who was later to become a tricoteuse of the far Right. Their motion was carried.
As Mikardo moved out of the hall he was still in a daze at the revolution he had unexpectedly wrought, like one of the trumpet-blowers at the walls of Jericho. On the way out of the hall, at the foot of that expansive twin staircase which makes the sedate Methodist Central Hall look like an ornate Habsburg palace, he met Herbert Morrison who had never set eyes on him until he had got on to the rostrum a couple of hours earlier. Morrison put a hand on his shoulder and said: 'Young man, you did very well this morning,' but added, 'That was a good speech you made, but you realise, don't you, that you've lost us the general election?' That misjudgement was followed by Labour's victory in 1945 and Mikardo's election as MP for Reading.
What Mikardo did in 1944 was possibly the single most influential act of a remarkable parliamentary career. In his beautifully written autobiography Backbencher (1988) he ascribes the fact that he did not become a minister in the Attlee government to a meeting of the inner cabinet - described by Ben Pimlott in his biography of Hugh Dalton - which agreed that Mikardo and Austin Albu were unsuitable, Attlee apparently on racial grounds: 'They both belonged to the Chosen People and he didn't think he wanted any more of them.'
As pamphleteer - his most famous were Keep Left (1947) and Keeping Left (with Dick Crossman, Michael Foot, Jo Richardson, 1950) - new Fabian essayist, staunch friend of Israel, a formidably active member of the NEC of the Labour Party for three decades, and as friend and mentor to many in the Labour movement, Mikardo made a vast impact. My own abiding memory of Mik will be those six-hour sessions in 1984 when he was engaged on 'the last proper thing I will do' in his modest three-roomed apartment on an eighth floor in St John's Wood, producing the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs minority report on the sinking of the Belgrano. In open- necked lumberjack's checked shirt, his foul pipe dangling from this mouth, his beloved Mary in the bedroom (no man was a kinder husband to a then disabled wife), Mik would interrogate his group - Nigel Spearing, Dennis Canavan, Paul Rogers and myself - with the sharpness of a man half a century younger.
Let the last word go to a necessarily anonymous and discerning experienced clerk of the House of Commons 'Ian Mikardo was simply the most skilful operator in committee that any of us ever saw.' Mik would have been pleased to have been tagged an operator in excelsis.
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