THE CONSERVATIVE Party conference at Bournemouth stood briefly in silence yesterday in memory of John Blackburn, a staunch party man who had been MP for Dudley West since 1979, the beginning of the present period of Tory government. Blackburn died in the early hours of yesterday morning following a heart attack he suffered while leaving the House of Commons.
When Blackburn won Dudley West, in the West Midlands, from the Labour Party it was with a slim majority of 1,139 votes. By the time of the 1987 election he had increased this to 10,244. The margin was reduced in the 1992 general election to 5,789, a swing to Labour of 3.8 per cent. Dudley West had been lighted on as a pivotal seat in the campaign by pollsters, who predicted that a Labour victory there would have been accompanied by their reaching the 325-seat threshold for taking up Government. As it is, the seat remains a key one, and the coming by-election will be crucial for both Labour and the Tories.
Blackburn was born in Manchester in 1933, attended Liverpool Collegiate School, and took a degree at Liverpool University, and later a PhD in Art at Berlin University. He served as a regular soldier with the Military Police from 1950 to 1954, becoming a staff sergeant in its special investigation branch. He then joined the Liverpool City Police, and became a detective sergeant. He left the police to be regional sales manager with Solway Engineering in 1965, and was also regional sales manager for the Armitage Shanks group. He became involved in local government, and was elected a member of Wolverhampton Council in 1970.
Blackburn was a hard-centre Tory: loyal to the police and the Armed Services; pro-Israel and pro-Europe; in favour of the death penalty, and against abortion. He was a member of the Select Committees on Home Affairs and the Services. Locally, when he became an MP in 1979 the heavy engineering industry in the West Midlands was already in decline, facing fierce competition from the Far East, and he campaigned in vain for the survival of the Round Oak steelworks, which closed with more than 1,200 redundancies. To every one of his many activities, both inside and outside Parliament, he brought unstinting energy and enthusiasm, and this despite the fact that he suffered a serious heart attack in 1983, which for a long period prevented him from speaking in the House. He was National Chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel for five years and became a Freeman of the City of London in 1980, and of Tel Aviv in 1981. Though he never achieved ministerial office he did have an active interest in business and was chairman of Kudos Inns Ltd.
Blackburn also cared about Britain's relations with Europe and served as a member of the Council of Europe talking shop in 1983-84. He kept pet fish and painted very delicate seascapes, was an avid yachtsman and Commodore of the House of Commons Yacht Club. He studied church history, took a great interest in ecclesiastical matters in the Commons, was a leading figure in the parliamentary Christian Fellowship and often chaired the all-party MPs' prayer meetings.
When I last saw Blackburn he was chairing a speech I gave to the Anglo-Israel Association, in London two years ago. He demonstrated his usual bonhomie, hospitality and acute intelligence. It seems to me a great pity that he did not achieve ministerial office, for he would have greatly enlightened a somewhat dull political landscape. His wife, Marjorie, gave him great support. Her sense of humour mirrored his own, and she willingly bore with him the vast range of his interests.
Not long ago, he repeated the old saw that a man whose desk was clear was a man with a sick mind. Blackburn's desk was never clear, and his house in Dudley was littered with paper - whether letters, memos, or reports. The Conservative Party will find it hard to pick a candidate for Dudley West to match him for energy, enthusiasm, and knowledge.