John Rentoul: Tony – principled, brave and ignored

Unlike his former leader namesake, a one-time Midlands MP leaves a blameless legacy. But few know his name

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Tony is my hero. Not Tony Blair – he was merely the finest peace-time prime minister of the democratic age. I mean Tony Wright, who was also a Labour MP. Wright rose to what he described as the "lowest form of sub-ministerial life", as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Derry Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, for a year, 1997-98. Then he was chairman of the Public Administration select committee from 1999 until 2010, when he stood down as an MP.

Wright was never very famous. He tells the story of looking himself up in the index of Alastair Campbell's diaries to find only one reference: "Got message to Tony Wright to shut up." We never found out if he would have made a good minister; although he was cleverer, more loyal and right about more things than many people who were ministers. Partly, this was his own fault, as he admits in a short memoir that prefaces a collection of his writing, Doing Politics, which was published last week. He was too innocent, or idealistic, or academic, to endure the compromises and humiliations of total dedication to the pursuit of ministerial office.

Yet in the different career that was half chosen, half forced upon him, he left a monument. It was because of him that the House of Commons now has more power to hold the Government to account. There is now a Backbench Business Committee, which gives MPs – and through them, the general petition-signing public – more of a say over Commons debates. And the party whips no longer choose who chairs select committees. These may not be changes that are well understood outside the Palace of Westminster, but they have shifted the constitutional balance appreciably from the executive to the legislature.

I first became aware of Wright on reading his book, Socialisms, when it came out in 1986. It is the most elegant exposition of the confusion that had long beset the British left of two distinct ideologies, social democracy and Marxism. It was the argument for New Labour before that phrase was invented. Tony Wright was the intellectual precursor of Tony Blair.

Wright realised the contradiction between two kinds of leftiness when, at the London School of Economics, he was handed back an essay on Lenin with the comment, "The trouble with you, Wright, is that you are basically a liberal." That was Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed.

Wright's first attempt to get into politics was unsuccessful. He applied to be a researcher for the Labour shadow cabinet in the early 1970s. His interview, with Roy Jenkins presiding, seemed to be going well until Tony Crosland, theorist of an earlier version of social democracy, and "through a fog of cheroot smoke", asked a question: "So tell us, Mr Wright, how would you solve the problems of the British economy?" Wright was runner-up, and the job went to Matthew Oakeshott, now a Liberal Democrat peer.

The way he tells it, Wright became an MP in 1992 almost by accident, but, typically, in a way that prefigured the future. He turned up at the selection meeting for Cannock and Burntwood, where the local party had adopted the one member, one vote principle earlier than the rest of the Labour Party. As an academic, he impressed. "Nobody had ever talked to us like you did," one elderly member told him, years later. Eager to hear more about his compelling oratory, he asked what she meant. "You were like a lecturer, walking about." Now every party leader does it.

He was the first MP publicly to back Blair for the leadership when John Smith died, saying on television that it would be "an indulgence" to choose anyone else. As leader, Blair used him as an outrider and asked him for help with speeches, especially on Labour history. Once, Blair phoned him about a speech he was giving the next day, and asked: "What is socialism, exactly?" This was, as Wright says, "not a request that could have been made by any previous Labour leader".

Despite his support for the new leader, he was not promoted. He read in a newspaper that Peter Mandelson had said, "He thinks too much," and the worrying label "independent minded" too often attached itself to his name.

Nor was he universally popular with other Labour MPs. In an early debate on MPs' pay and expenses, he described the advice he had been given on his first day on maximising travel expenses. "Leaving the chamber," he says, "I was accosted by a senior colleague who warned me icily that I 'would never be forgiven for what I had just said'. This same colleague, Stuart Bell, went on to preside over the Parliamentary expenses system that, a decade and a half later, exploded over us all." Sir Stuart was on the MPs' committee that supervised expenses, and which resisted disclosure.

Wright was vindicated in the end and played a part in "exploding" the system: he was one of the small number of MPs who pressed for Parliament to be within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, which eventually forced publication of expenses in 2009.

That Act came to be bitterly regretted by Blair, who berated himself in his memoir as a "naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop" for allowing it. But that is the triumph of a parliamentarian such as Wright: he helped to strengthen those parts of the constitution that made life difficult or irritating for people in power.

That is why Wright ought to be recognised as a hero. Everyone knows what Blair and Gordon Brown and their cabinet ministers did, and we have views on the wisdom or folly of their policies. But democracy is about more than ministers making decisions; it is about other elected representatives too, how they can hold decision-makers to account and how they represent their constituents in a more assertive age.

In making democracy slightly but noticeably better, by insisting on high standards of integrity and openness, Tony Wright also served.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/jrentoul

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