by Peter Watt
My good friend Tony Gardner died this week, aged 84 years old. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years, but I kept in touch with how he was. He was the man who first really got me active in Labour politics and was a friend, mentor and supporter for many years. I know that I will miss his friendship. But I will always have fond memories of the pints of beer and conversation we enjoyed in The George and The Blue Boar.
We sat, supped, reviewed that evening’s canvassing and planned our assault on the political citadel of Poole borough council. His advice has stood me in good stead over the years, even if we never quite managed to take the borough chamber.
Tony was the Labour candidate in Wolverhampton South West in 1964, losing to Enoch Powell. He was elected to the House of Commons for the Rushcliffe constituency in 1966 and served for four years before losing to Ken Clarke in 1970. He stood again, unsuccessfully, in the two elections in 1974 in the Beeston constituency. He moved to Poole on the south coast and over the years he stood in countless local elections and then was Labour’s candidate at the 1994 European elections in the Dorset and East Devon Constituency. He once told me that he’d joined the Labour league of youth because its parties attracted the best girls.
But to be honest, a CV of his candidatures does him no justice. I first met him in 1992, just after Labour had lost another general election to the Tories. I was feeling guilty at my lack of effort in the election, and so decided to become a bit more active. Within weeks I had become secretary of the Harbour and Parkstone branch Labour party in Poole. Tony was a member. He asked me if I fancied meeting for a pint and I agreed. I was 23 years old and he was 65 and I was slightly concerned about what we would have in common. But I was keen to consolidate my position as branch powerbroker and needed allies. Well, to be honest, the reality was that I needed someone to tell me what to do as branch secretary. I needn’t have worried, because when I discovered that Tony had been an MP I was a bit awestruck. I’d never met a real one before. In fact I had only ever met a couple of councillors.
We spent the evening with Tony telling me how he was frustrated at Labour’s lack of success in taking any seats on Poole borough council. He said that what was needed was some new blood and new ideas. I thought he meant me – he actually meant him.
Over the next few weeks we discussed how we could up the activity levels across the constituency. He explained that we needed to start campaigning then for the elections due in 1995. That was three years away. To prove the point he had a simple A5 black and white leaflet prepared that asked people’s views and copied it so that we had a couple of hundred copies. He then said that we would use it to go canvassing and arranged to pick me up the following Sunday morning at 10.00.
Tony was hard of hearing, those who said that he used this occasionally to ignore something he didn’t want to hear were harsh but spot on. He smoked like a trooper and was the worst driver that I have ever encountered. So that Sunday morning, I was waiting for Tony, feeling nervous about my first canvass and whether we would actually get there and back in one piece.
On the way to the Rossmore estate, in the north of Poole, he explained how to canvass, record voter responses and handed me leaflets. All while driving, smoking and navigating. We parked and Tony lit up. There was only the two of us. He had a clipboard with names on and I had one with leaflets clipped on. He called it division of labour. He stood outside a house and gave me a name and I knocked on my first door. “Good morning, my name is Peter and I am calling from the local Labour party…”. It was the first of many doors knocked over the years. After ten minutes, Tony retired to his car with the window rolled down and he drove slowly up the road calling names to me. It was all very efficient.
Over the next few years Tony was a key part of the renaissance of Poole Labour party. We got an office at the Labour club and decorated our meeting room. We devised leaflet rounds and instead of meetings we sometimes went leafleting. Meetings became better attended, we even had lively debates and there were several small groups out canvssing.
Tony was, I realised, a passionate Labour man but also a pragmatist. He knew that politics was all about compromise and that we were nothing without power. And I agreed with him. He taught me something else as well: how to win people over. He didn’t feel the need to be aggressive when he discussed things, and if he lost the argument then he moved on. I suspect part of it was that he sometimes switched his hearing aids off so that he really couldn’t hear people he disagreed with.
Anyway, it meant that people liked him and that in the long term he was generally able to bring people with him. He was also happy working with, and talking to, local Tories on things we agreed on, if it meant that something got done. And of course, he worked harder than anyone else. He pounded the streets, attended the meetings and arranged fundraisers. His summer parties became legendary at making money and being good social events.
In short, the party in Poole became lively, hardworking and optimistic. In 1995 he was elected as a councillor for the Alderney ward. He was one of five Labour councillors elected that year – the first in over twenty years. He was a proud man and rightly so. For Poole Labour party it was a massive break through.
It was Tony who persuaded me to pursue a career in politics. He followed my career with pride and he phoned me in tears when I became general secretary. Something he repeated when I resigned. But for me, Tony represents one of the most precious commodities in politics: a passionate, committed and hardworking activist. Someone who understands the importance of campaigning, of people and of localism. He believed in social justice, of working together and of the power of politics as a force for good. He was also, like all of the best activists – a bit eccentric. But most of all he was my friend and I will miss him.
Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.