by Kevin Meagher
Betty Boothroyd famously said she was Labour because she was born with coal dust under her fingernails. It wasn’t a metaphor with Harry Harpham, the Labour MP for Brightside and Hillsborough, who sadly died yesterday.
Harry was a proud former coal miner, an all-too-rare breed in the modern Labour party, and had participated in the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5. An MP for the first time at 61 when he was elected last May, Harry was about as far from the identikit modern Labour MP as it was possible to be.
As a mature student, he graduated from the University of Sheffield and was elected to Sheffield Council in 2004. By the time he stood down last year, he had become one of the city’s civic fathers, ending up as deputy leader of the council.
As the cabinet lead for housing, Harry oversaw the implementation of the £700 million Decent Homes programme in the city, a massive undertaking as Sheffield has twice the national average number of council homes, and successfully brought council housing back under municipal control from an arm’s length company.
Loyal, hard-working and well-liked, Harry was a natural fit to succeed his friend and mentor, David Blunkett, when he stood down from the Commons last May. For Brightside and Hillsborough, the quintessential northern working class constituency, Harry was a round peg in a round hole if ever there was one and his victory was widely welcomed.
The shock of his death is amplified because of the matter-of-fact way he continued working after receiving a diagnosis of cancer shortly after last year’s Labour conference. Harry threw himself into his new responsibilities and most people simply had no idea how poorly he was.
When he did confirm his illness before Christmas, he was typically understated, not wanting to make “a big song and dance about it”. He was full of praise for the NHS treatment he was receiving.
The additional tragedy of his untimely death is that he would have certainly gone on to play a bigger role in the Westminster party. He literally personified the party’s working class roots.
Never forgetting where he came from, or the struggles he and people like him had overcome, Harry was also intensely practical and had quickly been appointed parliamentary private secretary to Lisa Nandy as shadow energy secretary, despite his illness.
Harry died peacefully surrounded by his family and his friend and colleague, Councillor Bob Johnson, described him as a “brave working class man to the end.”
He leaves a wife, Gill, herself a Labour councillor in Sheffield, and children Annie, Kieran, Dan, Emily and Victoria and grand-daughter Layla Grace.
Harry Harpham, Labour MP for Brightside and Hillsborough (21 February 1954 – 4 February 2016)