Obituary: Ron Leighton
Wednesday 02 March 1994
RON LEIGHTON embodied the industrial and social endeavours of Labour in east London.
The son of an underground train driver on the District Line, Ron Leighton was educated at Bifrons School, Barking - as was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey - and at Ruskin College, Oxford. His political witness was that of the post-war Labour Left and the early Tribune Group, but tempered by a shrewd grasp of political reality. At meetings his tall, spare frame, coupled with well-modulated arm action and powerful voice, were a reliable combination. In the Commons, his well-prepared speeches had the impact of the extempore and, with matching fact and logic, rarely missed their mark.
Leighton's early contributions to Labour were through his union (Sogat), and he first gained national prominence through committees of the party opposed to the Common Market, becoming director of the all-party Common Market Safeguards Campaign. From 1975 until his death he was Chairman of the Labour Common Market Safeguards Committee.
His entry into the Commons in 1979 was unexpected. The Newham North-East candidate selected to replace Reg Prentice resigned a few weeks before polling day, and Ron Leighton, a printer and shop steward at the Sun newspaper at the time, was chosen. In the House he pursued Employment, east London and European Community issues with vigour. After a spell in the Whips' Office, he became Chairman of the all-party Select Committee on Employment. It is in that office that he will probably be best remembered.
His nine years' chairmanship was not uncontroversial: it included his committee's criticism of the Government's decision to ban unions from GCHQ, and on clear evidence it sided with 600 black-listed miners against the National Coal Board. It also looked critically at the claims of the London Docklands Development Corporation to have created employment.
At the end of Leighton's period as chairman, in 1991, a Committee Report doubted the efficacy of the Social Charter in attaining its claimed objectives. Addressing a fringe meeting at that year's Labour Party Conference, quoting the Charter, Leighton dismissed it as a 'mirage'.
His Newham constituency is one of the most multi-cultural in London, and frequent attendance at community gatherings of all types earned Leighton the respect of his constituents of all faiths and backgrounds. This recently culminated in his leadership of the 'Newham Needs Campaign', which highlighted the fraudulent nature of the Government's system of local-authority funding, which left Newham, statistically the most deprived borough in Britain, short of pounds 20m each year.
As recently as last November, he organised a rally of Newham people in Trafalgar Square when all groups within the borough condemned a system which is patently unjust, leaving overcrowded schools with leaking roofs, and insufficient funds for their repair. For all this, Newham will remember him with gratitude.
However, with his east London passion, Leighton was not a Little Englander. As a German-speaker, he regarded himself as a citizen of the wider Europe, of which he had more knowledge than many suspected. He wanted a real community of European peoples, which he believed was unattainable under the Community treaties; indeed, he believed that they prevented it. His life before and after entering Parliament was devoted to the life and welfare of working people everywhere.
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