Albert Booth: Principled Labour MP who served as Secretary of State under James Callaghan

Tam Dalyell
Thursday 11 February 2010 01:00

If I had to choose the most principled politician of my time in the House of Commons – I don't say the best, because he would neither claim to be that, nor was he – it would have to be Albert Booth.

Who else, knowing in 1983 that he was likely on account of his action to lose a safe Labour seat which he had held since 1966 in the Vickers Naval shipbuilding town of Barrow, would dream not only of sticking to his unilateralist nuclear disarmament views but of physically leading a march through the town?

This was the town where many of his constituents earned their bread and butter from naval shipbuilding within a stone's throw of where Booth was leading those who believed in disarmament. His friends – he had many right across the Labour and trade union movement – were aghast at his recklessness. Some were annoyed that he seemed to throw away a safe Labour seat; many, many more people were lost in admiration for a patently honest man. Booth was profoundly honest.

Albert Edward Booth was born in Winchester to a craftsman father and educated at St Thomas' School, Winchester; the family moved to South Shields and Booth went to South Shields Marine School and Rutherford College of Technology. He became politically active as a 15-year-old and precociously became a member of the National Consultative Committee of the Labour League of Youth, and an election agent in 1951 at the age of 23.

The following year he was Secretary of the Constituency Party in Tynemouth and became a member of the Borough Council from 1962 to 1965. As chairman of the local trades' council he was selected to be Labour standard-bearer in the 1964 General Election against that most formidable Tory lady, the legendary Dame Irene Ward. Booth lost by 33,342 votes to 25,894. However, this was thought such a creditable performance as to give him Labour's nomination for the safe seat of Barrow-in-Furness on the retirement of Walter Monslow.

Booth saw off the Conservative candidate Richard Rollins, an oil company negotiator with strong local connections, by 23,485 votes to 15,453. He became a conscientious member of the Tribune Group which represented the serious, if non-extremist Left of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He and his wife Joan became extremely close to Michael Foot and his wife Jill Craigie. This was a genuine meeting of minds and a natural affinity.

Booth had been a draftsman, and perhaps his profession contributed to his great interest in detail. A mastery of detail was a huge asset in dealing with the unglamorous but often important Parliamentary actions which are called Statutory Instruments. After only four years in Parliament he was chosen as the chairman of the select committee on Statutory Instruments, a position traditionally held by a politician from the opposition like the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee. He was also invited by Harold Wilson on to the Front Bench as a spokesman on trade and industry.

After Labour's unexpected victory in February 1974, when Edward Heath had triggered an election on an issue of "who ruled", Booth was a natural choice to go with his friend and mentor Michael Foot, the Secretary of State for Employment, as his deputy and Minister of State. Booth was an ideal foil for Foot, who was excellent in dealing with the great issues on the floor of the House of Commons and at Labour Party conferences but not famous for his mastery of detail. In one sense Foot would be the first to admit that Booth carried the department.

There were a myriad subjects of which I remember his having to deal – building workers, the caravan industry, counter-inflation, employment protection, the fishing industry, industrial disputes, London Airport, maternity leave, marriage allowance for public servants, Newmarket stable lads, occupational pension rights, retail prices, trade union elections, unfair dismissal, wages and salaries, the wool textile industry, to identify just a cross-section in alphabetical order. I will never forget Booth's patience in dealing with so clever and formidable an opponent as the young Leon Britton, leading for the Conservative Party on the Employment Protection Bill.

In April 1976 Harold Wilson suddenly resigned as Prime Minister and Foot, having been a serious candidate, supported by Booth as his campaign manager, was appointed by Callaghan as Leader of the House of Commons. Tony Benn asked the Prime Minister for the Department of Employment, but Callaghan, perhaps using the excuse that Foot had promised employment to his Minister of State, who had been the workhorse of the department for the previous two years, went along with his own instinct that Booth would suit him and his government far better than Benn.

Callaghan found that he had no more loyal supporter in and out of cabinet than Booth for his social contract incomes policy with the TUC; Booth's loyalty was the more impressive because he was sponsored by AUEW (TASS), the hard left section of the AUEW that had taken over the draftsman's trade union and which was deeply opposed to the Callaghan-Dennis Healey policy. Booth was also loyal to the case for cuts in public spending, though in his heart I know that he was deeply unhappy about what he was being asked to do. At a time of huge difficulty for the Callaghan government he filled the pivotal position of Secretary of State for Employment with great good temper and seriousness of purpose, and was an asset, in my opinion, to the government in those difficult days.

When Labour went into opposition after Mrs Thatcher came to power, Albert Booth, to no one's surprise, was elected in a high position to the shadow cabinet and threw himself into being Shadow Transport Secretary (1979-1983). It was during this time that he was the first Labour politician to take on the services of the young Peter Mandelson as a researcher. "I've got a super new researcher who is Herbert Morrison's grandson," I remember his saying to me.

Booth's time was cut short when he was only 55 in the 1983 General Election. The voters of Barrow-in-Furness shook their heads and decided that they wanted an MP who would look after their bread and butter. His majority of 7,741 at the 1979 election evaporated. After his defeat he got a job as executive director of the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. I was told by Yorkshire MPs that, unlike most politicians, he turned out to be an extremely good manager. He did hope to return to the House of Commons in 1987 by contesting the marginal seat of Warrington South, but was unsuccessful. He and Joan retired to Beckenham, where they lived a happy life out of the public eye. Albert Booth had brought credit to the profession of politics.

Right Honourable Albert Edward Booth; engineering draftsman and politician; born Winchester 28 May 1928; Tynemouth County Borough councillor, 1962-1965; Labour MP, Barrow-in-Furness, 1966-1983; Minister of State, Department of Employment, 1974-1976; Secretary of State for Employment, 1976-1979; Opposition spokesman on transport, 1979-1983; Treasurer of the Labour Party, 1984; married 1957 Joan Amis (three sons); died 6 February 2010.

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