Richard Heller: Gerald Kaufman set the standard of hard work and principle

Sir Gerald Kaufman, who died this week.Sir Gerald Kaufman, who died this week.
Sir Gerald Kaufman, who died this week.
THE death of a major political figure produces a regular cliché: we shall not see his or her like again. For Sir Gerald Kaufman, who died last Sunday, the cliché is true.

I worked for him for three years in the 1980s. He was sometimes irascible, more often inspirational and is now irreplaceable. We will not see another MP offer such long and unstinting service to his constituents.

We will not see such a superlative Parliamentary operator, particularly in opposition. I very much fear that we will never see another senior Labour MP who shares – and applies throughout political life – his vision of the Labour party.

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Gerald rarely spoke of his childhood in Leeds, the youngest of seven children of refugees from the persecution of Jews in the pre-war Russian empire. In fact, he spoke more often of the movies through which he escaped from it. However, I believe that it gave him a lifelong empathy for the people who need a Labour government to improve their chances in life.

That was the foundation of his long relationship with his Manchester constituents. I soon discovered that they were his highest political priority – everything else a long distance behind.

In modern times, following Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, David Cameron and a host of lesser lights, most recently Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed, MPs routinely desert their constituents to pursue power or money or glamour. Gerald Kaufman served his for 46 years, until his death at the age of 86. He had some aberrations during the expenses scandal – but he never took a job outside the House of Commons in those 46 years and earned all his additional income from writing.

There are still many diligent constituency MPs but surely none as fanatical as Gerald Kaufman? He enjoyed showing off his total recall of constituency cases of past decades. Anyone who treated a constituent unfairly, from a Cabinet minister to an office clerk, could expect sustained grief from him until the injustice was righted.

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Gerald was a minister for every day of the Wilson and Callaghan administrations in the 1970s but Labour’s long exile from power denied him a Cabinet post. He should have been given one in Tony Blair’s first government, but Blair treated history as an endless parade with himself taking the salute and believed that he had nothing to learn from Labour’s past. He made his incoming ministers attendsome dreary management seminars. He should simply have sent them Gerald’s witty and incisive guide How To Be A Minister.

When I joined him in 1985, Gerald faced years in opposition. Some MPs in this position coast in the House and put their energies into another life. Gerald threw himself into the role of Shadow Home Secretary (it is painful to compare him with Labour’s present incumbent.)

He was tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime long before anyone else had the idea, and generated policies to make it more than a catchphrase. He was a master in opposition of creative obstructionism, blocking government Bills just long enough to secure worthwhile concessions.

This has become a vanished art: governments have taken more control of the legislative process and MPs in general have become more lazy and acquiscent. Gerald took seriously his responsibilities as a legislator. In opposition he mastered the detail of any government measure as thoroughly as the minister concerned or even the draftsmen.

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In the thickets of a 100-clause Bill he could spot a misplaced comma at twilight. Few MPs, if any, match his efforts today, which is probably why so much legislation leaves the House of Commons as drivel and has to be tidied up in the Lords.

I fear most that we shall never see another minister of Gerald’s ability and outlook in another Labour government.

Gerald was genuinely grateful to Tony Blair for returning Labour to power and bringing improvements to the lives of his constituents. He never joined Blair’s party critics and was often withering about them. But he never shared New Labour’s mindset, least of all its servility towards wealth and power.

Gerald believed that Labour governments existed to shift wealth and power towards those who had none, in British and global society. Therefore, it
was sometimes necessary to confront the rich rather than wheedle them into behaving nicely. Blair and New Labour liked to express their belief in “what works” – policies which make everyone better off. 
For Gerald, there was no such thing: politics always involved choice.

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We may never see Gerald’s kind of Labour government again because his kind of Labour party is disappearing – crushed between the wheels of Blairism and Corbynism. Blair infested the Labour party with cheesy careerists and timeserving toadies mouthing managerial mush to order. Corbyn, like his mentor Tony Benn, wants to make it a home for every hard-left sectarian crank ready to squat in it.

Neither Blair’s party nor Corbyn’s is a happy home for people like Gerald Kaufman – a man with a powerful mind who was never afraid to speak it.

Richard Heller was political adviser to Gerald Kaufman from 1985 to 1987, and previously to Denis Healey from 1981 to 1983.