Tom Ellis: Politician whose disillusionment with the Labour Party led him to the ranks of the Liberal Democrats

Sunday 23 October 2011 00:12

Tom Ellis, the Labour MP who defected to the Social Democratic Party soon after its formation in 1981, played a prominent part in the creation of the Social and Liberal Democratic Alliance which became, in turn, the Liberal Democratic Party. His decision to turn his coat was prompted by a belief that the Labour Party had fallen prey to "the loony left" and that a new party was needed to seize the centre ground of British politics.

Elected as the Labour member for Wrexham in 1970, Tom Ellis served that constituency well until 1983, latterly as a member of the SDP, but lost his seat at the general election of that year and was never again returned to office, despite contesting Clwyd South West and standing as an Alliance candidate in other parts of Wales. The nadir of his electoral fortunes was at the by-election in the Labour stronghold of Pontypridd in 1989 when he received a derisory 1,500 votes, about four per cent of the number cast.

From 1975 to 1979 he served as a nominated Labour member of the European Parliament, an institution of which he approved because, unlike Westminster, it was not in thrall to any hegemony and held out hope for such national communities as Wales, Brittany and Catalonia. In his thinking about the nation-state and the smaller nations of western Europe Ellis was influenced by the French anthropologist Yves Person and the Scottish writer Tom Nairn, author of The Break-Up of Britain.

He found it hard to stomach the "ideological delusion" which he detected in the Labour Party's dithering over whether Britain should join the European Economic Community. At the heart of its dilemma, he believed, was the unitary, centralist, British State and the two-party system that is one of its buttresses. His rigorous critique of the Labour Party and its failure to put people and community before pragmatic skulduggery was based on his profound scepticism towards the British State and his desire to see new, democratic institutions taking its place in the life of the peoples of Britain.

Tom Ellis had become unhappy with the Labour Party almost as soon as he entered Parliament, mainly due to its adherence to outmoded economic theories, its Euroscepticism and what he saw as its English/British nationalism. He found himself in hot water with his constituency party over more than one issue, particularly after it was infiltrated by the Militant Tendency. The cynicism of some Labour members and the simplistic dogma of others awakened dormant doubts. Labour, he thought, had become "a doctrinal party without a doctrine".

The final blow came in 1979 when some Labour MPs, with Leo Abse and Neil Kinnock foremost among them, declared themselves against the measure of devolution which their government was proposing for Wales and Scotland. Tom Ellis was one of the seven Welsh Labour MPs who voted (with Liberals and Nationalists) in favour of the Bill and campaigned for a Yes vote in the referendum that followed. He was appalled that so many of his fellow MPs sat on their hands and allowed the government's proposal to be roundly defeated in Wales.

Neil Kinnock's failure to lead the Labour Party to victory later in the year confirmed Ellis in his view that a new radicalism was needed. He decided to leave Labour during the week of the party's annual conference in the autumn of 1980, an occasion marred by bitter altercations between rival factions that led, even, to a display of fisticuffs on the floor of the hall. He resigned from the Labour Party in the year following, shortly after his father, a party stalwart since the 1920s, had done the same.

Ellis's contribution to John Osmond's symposium The National Question Again: Welsh Political Identity in the 1980s (1985) describes his disillusion with Labour and his conversion to Social Democracy. Few MPs could set down with such clarity of conviction the principles by which they claim to function. The chapter is also a document of uncommon percipience, wide in its references and still uncannily relevant to the governance of the United Kingdom today.

Ellis was prepared to sacrifice his Labour career for his vision of a decentralised Britain. In autumn 1980 he attended meetings called by "the Gang of Four" – David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams – who drew upon his memorandum on the creation of a social democratic party when writing the Limehouse Declaration of January 1981. By that time Ellis was perhaps nearer to the Liberals than to the Social Democrats, insisting that whatever the new arrangements might be, they would have to allow for a federal approach to party organisation and policy in Wales. He also found it difficult to work with the fractious David Owen, though he was elected President of the Social Democratic Party's Council in Wales.

At the General Election of June 1983 the fledgling Alliance won 25 per cent of the votes and 23 seats, two of which were in Wales, but Ellis lost his seat to a Conservative, whose party was returned to power under Margaret Thatcher – the worst of all outcomes in his judgement. He was cast down by this result, and not only for personal reasons, but – describing himself modestly as a man "of mildly contemplative temperament" – he continued to think, write and speak eloquently about what he wanted for Wales and Britain. Why he was never attracted to Plaid Cymru remains a matter to which only a few of his close associates were privy.

Tom Ellis had enjoyed a strong personal following in Wrexham, based largely on his genial, attentive, earnest manner and his close identification with the coal-mining villages of north-east Wales, an area known as Maelor. He had been born, the son and grandson of miners, in Pant, a village that is now part of Rhosllannerchrugog and within five miles of the border with England.

Rhos was a close-knit hillside community of some 10,000 people, mostly Welsh-speaking, but the boy attended an Anglican school which dispensed instruction in English, and his parents were told to discourage the speaking of Welsh at home. The consequent loss of his native language left a deep scar in his personality which started to heal only as he began relearning the language at Ruabon Grammar School. Years later he was to write that he was still struggling "to resist the potentially corrosive quality of that experience".

The boy was familiar with strike, lock-out and explosion: the Gresford Disaster, one of the worst in the annals of British mining, occurred in a neighbouring village when he was 10; his father had been a member of the rescue brigade. Whenever Ellis and I met we would discuss the evergreen mystery of who wrote the ballad that begins: "You've heard of the Gresford Disaster, / The terrible price that was paid, / Two hundred and sixty-two colliers were lost / And three of the rescue brigade". Our other common interest was contemporary Welsh and English poetry, from which he could quote with ease and understanding.

Even as a boy his ambition had been to become a colliery manager. He had trained as a chemist, having taken a degree in the subject at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, but his heart had always been in the coal industry. In 1947, the year the mines were nationalised, he joined his father underground and continued to work at the coalface for another eight years, leaving only so that he could study mining engineering at Nottingham University.

He achieved his boyhood ambition when, at the age of 33 he was put in charge of Bersham, a colliery not far from his home. A popular manager, mainly because he knew how to handle his men in good times and bad, he gave the impression that he loved working in the industry and would swop his job for no other. Safety and good working relations were always at the top of his list of priorities, as he demonstrated in his book Mines and Men (1971). He also published R. S. Thomas a'i Gerddi (2008), a perceptive study of the poet R. S. Thomas.

His autobiography, Dan Loriau Maelor ("Under the floors of Maelor", 2003, published in English as After The Dust Has Settled, 2004) is an insider's account of the coal industry of north-east Wales and the largely Welsh-speaking culture of the villages which depended on it until the pit closures of the 1980s. The book ends with a revealing sketch of how the SDP/Liberal Alliance was brought to birth and of his part in its travails. His rare flashes of animus were reserved for irresponsible NCB officials and politicians who put ambition before service to their electors. But there was something of Dr Pangloss in Tom Ellis's sunny temperament: in his book, all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Meic Stephens

Of the dozen of us – eight MPs and four peers – who formed the first Labour Party delegation to the indirectly elected European parliament in 1976, Tom Ellis was the most enthusiastically committed, writes Tam Dalyell. Ellis looked forward to a United States of Europe, where Brussels would have the powers of Washington. However, it was not on account of his views per se that he provoked such rancour among Labour loyalists. It was widely believed that in the leadership elections in 1980, at a time when he knew jolly well that he was going to defect to the SDP, he voted for Michael Foot and not Denis Healey in the leadership elections to cause as much damage to the Labour Party as possible. All I can say is that he told me differently, and I believed him. He was straightforward and honest in all that he did. He told me, "I voted for Michael because Denis was tepid about Europe and had told us, furthermore, that those like you and me who were against East of Suez had 'tiny Chinese minds'."

"Secondly," Ellis added, "unlike you, Tam, I was vehemently pro-Welsh devolution, and Michael, as Leader of the House had been the protagonist of, and the minister responsible for, the legislation to give Wales an assembly. I personally liked the Great Bibliophile," as he called Foot.

Ellis was a man of iron self-discipline. He had been told by doctors to shed a few pounds so he confined himself to one meal a day, breakfast, which took some doing in Strasburg given the gourmet delights of that City during the asparagus season. As a former coalmine engineer and mine manager, Ellis contributed significantly to the energy committee of the European parliament. Hanna Walz, the chairman of the committee and a distinguished Christian Democrat Bundestag member, told me how much Ellis's European colleagues valued this charmer from Wales. Ellis was superbly good company.

Robert Thomas Ellis, colliery manager and politician: born Pant, Rhosllannerchrugog, Denbighshire 15 March 1924; MP for Wrexham (Labour 1970-81; SDP 1981-83); MEP (Labour 1975-79); married 1949 Nona Harcourt Williams (died 2009; three sons, one daughter); died 14 April 2010.

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