After 45 years of almost continuous conflict with every Labour leader from Harold Wilson to Ed Miliband, the veteran left wing MP Michael Meacher was at last serving under an ideological soul mate when, suddenly, he died.
He was one of that tiny band who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership this summer because they wanted him to win. His death in hospital this morning means that Labour will now have to fight its first parliamentary by-election under Corbyn’s leadership, Given that Meacher held Oldham West and Royton in May with a majority of 14,738, with UKIP coming second, Labour should regain the seat comfortably.
Meacher was on the party’s left throughout his long career, though this did not prevent him serving as a junior minister in the late 1970s. After 1979, when Tony Benn was running a campaign to pull the Labour Party to the left, and had his sights on the party leadership, Meacher was so important to the cause that he was awarded the nickname ‘Benn’s vicar on earth’. In 1983, he ran unsuccessfully for the deputy leadership as the left’s standard bearer, while Benn was temporarily out of Parliament.
Though he was beaten in that contest by Roy Hattersley, Meacher’s prominence secured him a place on Labour’s shadow cabinet, which in those days was elected by Labour MPs. He was re-elected every year from 1983 to 1996, an indication that he was more popular among fellow MPs than with successive party leaders.
Neil Kinnock was obliged to give him a senior job, but in 1988 removed him from the politically sensitive post as shadow employment secretary, to bring in the younger and more junior Tony Blair. In 1997, Meacher’s status as the longest serving member of the shadow cabinet should, under party rules, have guaranteed him a job in the first Labour cabinet, but Tony Blair ignored the rules and made him a middle ranking environment minister instead.
Despite the humiliation, Meacher refused to resign even when his position as a minister obliged him to go through the motions of supporting the Iraq war. He was sacked in June 2003. His re-election in May this year made him, at the age of 75, one of the four longest serving MPs in the Commons
In July, as a Corbyn victory loomed, Meacher wrote: “The arrogance and intolerance of the Blairites is breathtaking. Faced with the prospect of a runaway victory for Jeremy Corbyn who has come from repudiated outsider to front-runner in scarcely more than a month, their sole response is to prepare a coup against Corbyn if he is elected.”
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