22.7.14 – Retirement Speech
I have decided not to stand at the next General Election. I will be 75 by then and I do not think I could do the job properly much longer. Since the Camden New Journal started carrying suggestions that I was considering retiring, I have been both flattered and surprised by the number of people who have stopped me in the street, on the bus, at meetings and my advice services to say they hope it’s not true. Janet has pointed out that this must be the time to go rather than waiting until people stop me to say it’s time I went.
Since I was first elected in 1979, I have tried hard to represent the people who live in our area, together with the hospitals, colleges, schools, other public institutions, trade unions and businesses and the people who work in them. I recognised long ago that you can’t agree with everybody – particularly in a constituency like ours with its vast range of communities, loyalties and opinions. So I have always tried to be straight with people about where I stand on any issues while usually trying to respect the opinions of the people with a different point of view.
For me, sticking up for local people and local communities is the main job of an MP. Some self proclaimed ‘opinion formers’ say MPs shouldn’t put so much emphasis on local issues. They miss two vital points. Firstly, that general, national and even international issues don’t exist in a vacuum, they have massive impacts where ordinary people live and work. Secondly, if elected MPs do not stand up for local people, who will? It won’t be the bankers, bureaucrats, global corporations or media moguls. Democracy is endangered when elected representatives get to think they are more important than the people they are supposed to represent or forget the promises they made to the people who voted for them.
Being your MP has been demanding work but I have really enjoyed most of it. I’ve had a lot of fun and enjoyed many privileges. How else would I have met Nelson Mandela? – probably the greatest privilege of the lot. And there is also the privilege of being able to do things, to influence what happens. If I hadn’t been your MP, I wouldn’t have been Labour’s first Secretary of State for Health in eighteen years and ended the NHS internal market. I wouldn’t have been able to save Barts or set up NHS Direct or to have established NICE or set up new medical schools or launch the biggest hospital building and improvement programme in history including the new UCLH, the new Royal London, the improvements at the Whittington. Without your support in elections and the votes of local people, I couldn’t have launched the World’s first Meningitis ‘C’ vaccination campaign, recruited more nurses, cut hospital waiting lists, improved the arrangements for mental health, shifted health resources to the areas most in need and made sure British troops had up-to-date vaccines when serving abroad. I wouldn’t have been able to launch the children’s policy ‘Every Child Matters’ and lay down that the basic test for assessing the provisions for children in care was “Would it be good enough for my child?”
And I can tell you, when I had to make these decisions, Kentish Town always featured in my mind’s eye. My test was ‘could I look Mrs. Jones of Kentish Town in the eye and justify what I had decided?’ Since I foolishly resigned to run for Mayor of London and became a back bencher, I have applied the same Kentish Town test. Could I justify top-up fees for college students? Could I justify invading Iraq? Could I agree to lock people up for weeks without charge? Could I go along with Foundation Hospitals and re-introducing the NHS internal market? The answer was always no. I believe loyalty is very important so I did not enjoy being a rebel. But on these issues I couldn’t look myself in the face, let alone the face of Mrs. Jones of Kentish Town. The 1997-2O1O Labour Governments have massive achievements to their credit. In the midst of all the current generalised criticism of Tony Blair I feel I must put on record that we should not forget that he achieved the Good Friday Agreement which has meant so much to the people of Northern Ireland, of Ireland as a whole and to all of us in the UK.
During the time I have been active in our area, there have been massive changes, most for the better, some for the worse. Most of the improvements have involved the local Labour Party and local Labour people and I am proud to be able to say I have had a hand in many of them. New play areas and open spaces including, Talacre, Castlehaven and Plot 1O, were laid out when I was a councillor. When I was Leader of the Council, with Geoffrey Bindman as Deputy, the late Roger Jowell as Chief Whip and John Mills as boss of housing, we were building 5OO-7OO new flats a year often on former railway land like at Coopers Lane and Elm Village. We bought up 6,OOO flats from private landlords ranging from Lissenden Gardens in Highgate to Hillview in King’s Cross. We fought off the plan to totally redevelop Covent Garden and saved the area in front of the British Museum from demolition. Labour played a major role in getting St. Pancras International developed, in the building of the British Library and the Crick Institute. After decades of dither, I was privileged to get work started on the new UCLH.
As an Opposition MP, in the Thatcher era, it was hard going. But even then I managed to pile on pressure after the King’s Cross fire. As Shadow Health Minister, through a national survey, I exposed the gross failure of the Government’s cervical cancer screening arrangements. Another survey conducted with help from Professor Robert Winston showed up the shortcomings of infertility treatments nationwide and I played a part with Kenneth Clarke in making sure the Warnock Report on infertility and embryo research was implemented. Later surveys in other shadow posts exposed the price racketeering by the oil companies and the shortcomings of the profiteering private water companies. So it is possible to achieve things in opposition. But we need to be in Government. We win need the next General Election. To do that we need to remember the timeless lesson of Lena Jeger’s canvassing in Crowndale Road in 1953. Many of you will have heard of it before, but it is worth repeating. She goes to the top of a block and when ‘Mrs. Smith’ comes to the door, Lena launches into the great left-wing issue of the day – German rearmament and its threat to international peace and security. Lena paused for breath and ‘Mrs. Smith’ asks: ‘Did you come up in the lift?’ ‘Yes’ says Lena. ‘Stinks of piss don’t it?’ says the woman. ‘Yes’ says Lena. ‘Can’t you stop ‘em pissing in our lift?’ asked the woman. ‘I don’t think I can’ said Lena. ‘Well’, says ‘Mrs. Smith’ ‘if you can’t stop them pissing in our lift, how can you expect me to believe you can stop the German’s rearming?’
We have to show people that we can have a better country and we have got to spell out the practical improvements that we want to see, that people want and that are possible. And I am confident that Ed Miliband can lead us to election victory by doing just that. He has changed things already as leader of the Opposition. No one before him dared to take on Murdoch or to challenge the electricity and gas companies. By blocking the bombing of Syria he changed world politics. No previous Leader of the Opposition ever did that. In the run-up to the General Election, the Lib Dems, trying to avoid their doom, will come over all cuddly and kindly and try to emphasise how dreadful the Tories would have been without their restraining influence. The Tories, to suit their own extremists, will respond by saying ‘Too right – just you wait – see what a real Tory Government would be like’. Now at least two thirds (66 per cent) of the country don’t like that one bit. Fertile ground for us to cultivate.
So I hope you will choose my successor in a comradely contest and all get behind whoever wins. I personally will not get involved in the selection process – not publicly and not privately. I hope it will be someone who lives here. That is part of our tradition and I hope it will be someone who also subscribes to the radical traditions of our local party. A party that fought racism when racism was rampant. A party that fought for equal pay and women’s right to choose when such ideas were mocked. A party that campaigned against apartheid from the day in 1959 when the British anti-apartheid movement was founded in a meeting room at Holborn Halls and distributed its first leaflets a fortnight later at Camden Town tube station.
And that brings me back to you. The Holborn & St. Pancras Labour Party – with 1,318 members. You the active people working with your neighbours to make our area a better place. You, active in tenants’ and residents’ associations, in running youth clubs and sports clubs, serving as school governors, helping voluntary services for elderly and disabled neighbours. Campaigning on climate change or for equality and against poverty. Without you and people like you I would never have enjoyed the privilege of being an MP. I first joined the Holborn & St. Pancras constituency Labour party in 1959, collecting subscriptions, delivering newsletters, recruiting new members from when I was 19. Through all the long years since then our local party has stood for all that is best about our country. We have gone through bad times and good times. We have been awkward and opinionated but we have usually managed to pull together when we have had to. We have recognised that individualism doesn’t work. That we can only survive by working together – not just for electoral success. But much more importantly, working together is the only way to look after the interests of the people we are here to represent. And that is what I have tried to do.
It’s been an honour and a privilege to be chosen by you, and through you to be elected and re-elected in turn by the people in this area. What more could a democrat want?
Thank you for everything.