by Kevin Meagher
My favourite anecdote about Gerald Kaufman goes like this. Around twenty-five years ago, following Labour’s 1992 election defeat, there was a move to deselect Kaufman from his Manchester Gorton seat.
He had been Member of Parliament since 1970 and was, even then, knocking on a bit. It was not implausible that a shove would dislodge him. In multi-cultural Gorton, there was a significant Muslim population and they wanted one of their own for the seat.
A friend of mine, who had recently moved into the area and was keen to get a seat on Manchester City Council, thought it would be worth joining in this attempted putsch.
The long and the short of it is that Kaufman saw off his would-be political assassins and a few months later my friend found himself shortlisted for a safe council seat in Gorton.
He duly rolled up for what he assumed was a shoo-in. The other candidates were no-hopers and he had done his homework and buttered-up the key activists. Only it didn’t quite go to plan.
There were more members at the meeting than expected and they were hostile. Briefed on what to ask him, my friend struggled with their questions, fluffed it, and duly lost the nomination.
Somewhat perplexed at what had just happened, he was leaving the meeting venue when Kaufman, attired in one of his immaculate chalk-striped suits and flanked by two aides, passed my friend on the way in, greeting him with a condescending smile.
“Now then sonny,” Kaufman said icily and without bothering to stop, “let that be a lesson to you”.
My friend got the message. Gerald Kaufman was old school. As comfortable with the low skulduggery of politics as he was dwelling at the top of the Westminster tree.
His remarkable career in British politics spanned six decades, starting off as a staffer for the Fabian Society and Daily Mirror in the mid-1950s.
Longevity, it seems, became his aim. It was always said that he wanted to die in office and would not countenance retirement. He was still a force to be reckoned with in his 80s.
Perhaps the frustration of having his ministerial career curtailed by Labour’s long period in the political wilderness in the 1980s and 1990s meant that he simply wanted to outlast his political enemies?
As Labour crashed to its fourth consecutive defeat in 1992, Kaufman, who was shadow foreign secretary at the time, must have tasted bitter disappointment that he didn’t get the chance to sit in government again. After all, he published his famous user guide, ‘How to Be A Minister’ as far back as 1980.
He had previously served in the Callaghan government and then loyally on the opposition frontbench throughout the Kinnock period, helping drag the party back to the political mainstream. If it wasn’t for that service, for the thankless slog of people like Gerald Kaufman during Labour’s darkest years, there would be no party today.
I dealt with him in various roles over the years and although he was of a generation of MPs that didn’t bother with a constituency office, he was always on-the-ball as a local MP.
His Westminster office was lined with rows of books, most of which seemed to be about showbiz and the golden age of Hollywood.
He would explain that Harold Wilson, at whose knee he learnt his trade, had always told him to keep close to his constituency and take casework seriously. It made a difference. Although it’s trite, Kaufman believed being a Member of Parliament was a reward in itself.
In that respect, his last role, as Father of the House, was entirely fitting.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut