Veteran Labour MP and father of the House of Commons
Obituary: Gerald Kaufman
Gerald Bernard Kaufman, politician: born June 21st, 1930 – died February 26th, 2017. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA Wire
In Gerald Kaufman, who has died aged 86, the Labour party had not only one of its longest-serving MPs, but also one of its loyalest, if most waspish, members.
He supported a succession of leaders from Harold Wilson onwards through all vicissitudes, regularly coming high in MPs’ polls for the shadow cabinet through his earlier years in the Commons, and was a committed and outspoken frontbencher. He was described by an ally as “a politician’s politician, a sublime operator, brilliant in committee and at persuasion”.
But he never achieved full cabinet rank when the party was in government. This was mainly due to the accident of timing, which saw Labour out of power during his prime, but partly also because of a certain unclubability. “He does not inspire warmth and trust,” wrote the political commentator Alan Watkins. “He puts people’s backs up – in fact, he is a perfectly nice chap, but there it is.”
Kaufman, small, bald and often dressed in pastel-coloured suits, set off by patterned ties, was a distinctive figure in the Commons. “Gee, here comes the mayor for Miami Beach,” exclaimed one startled American reporter.
He had a sharp tongue, as often deployed against leftwingers such as Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone on his own side as against the Tories, or regular betes-noires such as the BBC, modern journalists and the Israeli government.
This was despite the fact that he was both Jewish and a former journalist – his satirical skills honed on the Daily Mirror and writing sketches for the BBC’s That Was The Week That Was in the early 1960s – and that he also classed himself as a leftwinger. It was he who coined the memorable line about the Labour party’s lengthy and disastrous 1983 general election manifesto; that it was “the longest suicide note in history”.
Kaufman was born in Leeds, the seventh and youngest child of Louis and Jane, Jewish refugees who had escaped the pogroms in Poland to settle in Yorkshire; there Louis, a tailor, worked making suits at the Montague Burton factory.
Gerald won a scholarship from his primary school to the fee-paying Leeds grammar school. He often rubbed people up the wrong way, not least when, on winning a school prize, he asked for a copy of Das Kapital. He won a scholarship to Queen’s College, Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) and chaired the University Labour Club.
On leaving Oxford, he initially failed to get a job in journalism, becoming instead an assistant secretary at the Labour party, before subsequently joining the Daily Mirror, under the editorship of Hugh Cudlipp, as a researcher to the MP and journalist Richard Crossman.
When Crossman edited the New Statesman in the early 1960s, Kaufman followed him to the magazine as a political columnist, and he soon entered the so-called kitchen cabinet of Wilson, the new Labour leader, notionally as a political press officer, but also as a speech writer and phrase-maker, alongside the prime minister’s other aides, Joe Haines and Marcia Falkender.
Kaufman had fought his first parliamentary election in 1955, in the hopeless cause of Bromley, against Harold Macmillan, then the foreign secretary – who he accused of “political peacemaking” because he was absent on international business for much of the campaign. He was also defeated in 1959 at Gillingham, before finally achieving election in 1970 to the safe inner-city Manchester seat of Ardwick, and subsequently Gorton from 1983. He held the seat until his death, winning a 24,000 majority in the 2015 general election, after which he became Father of the House: the MP with the longest unbroken service.
Under Wilson, Kaufman began an ascent up the ministerial ladder as a junior minister at the Department of the Environment, then industry and, following his friend Eric Varley, to minister of state in the same department. That he was not made a cabinet minister was attributed to the fact that James Callaghan, succeeding Wilson in 1976, mistakenly – and bizarrely – assumed he had supported Michael Foot instead of himself for the leadership.
This was the extent of Kaufman’s ministerial career, ending in his late 40s with Labour’s defeat in 1979, though he did claim successes in office, including the securing of US landing rights for Concorde and the repeal of the Tories’ Housing Finance Act, which had reduced subsidies for council house tenants and allowed local authorities to charge “fair”, not controlled, rents. Perhaps more substantially, out of Kaufman’s brief time in office came his book How to Be a Minister (1980, reissued 1997), a witty and acute dissection that has been read by government incomers on both sides ever since.
In opposition, under Callaghan, Foot and then Neil Kinnock, Kaufman served as the party’s spokesman on the environment, then shadowed the Home Office and latterly foreign affairs for five years from 1987 until he stood down from frontbench positions after the election defeat in 1992. Despite the popularity of his spirited attacks on the Tories with his fellow MPs – Thatcher was a “female Mussolini” and her cabinet “dim second-raters” – he failed repeatedly to win election to the left-leaning national executive. He succeeded only belatedly in 1991, at the 11th attempt.
Instead, as the party tore itself apart, he became a vehement critic of the left for wrecking Labour’s chances of election. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade Foot to stand down just before the disastrous 1983 campaign and was a vituperative opponent of Benn in Labour’s internecine struggle.
Kaufman told the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart: “I once got a letter from a constituent saying that whenever he saw my face on television he could reach the set and switch me off in two seconds. Well, whenever I see Benn’s face, I can switch it off in half a second, because I have a remote control.”
It was a sense that his appearance and manner alienated voters that led to accusations in 1992 that the over-cautious party managers were keeping its foreign affairs spokesman away from the cameras. Whether true or not, and whether he would have maintained the portfolio if Labour had won, were never tested. His outspoken and long-standing opposition to the policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians would have made him an awkward choice for the Foreign Office.
“The sufferings of the Jewish people cannot be used as some sort of justification for what Israel does to the Palestinians,” he said in 2012. “I find it degrading that the sufferings of Jews in the Holocaust should be used as a kind of justification for persecuting Palestinians.” Such comments caused trouble in the British Jewish community – confrontations at the St John’s Wood synagogue and a promise by a rabbi that he would refuse to conduct his funeral – which perturbed Kaufman not at all and certainly did not deter him.
He was a loyal supporter of Tony Blair – claiming credit for persuading him to stand for the leadership against Gordon Brown in 1994. However, when Labour returned to power in 1997 Kaufman was nearly 67 and considered too old to join the cabinet. He supported the war in Iraq, though he was privately opposed to it, and rallied to Brown when he became leader. He was knighted in 2004.
From 1992 until 2005 he chaired the select committee on culture, media and sport (formerly national heritage, 1992-97). It was something of a dream job. Not only did it allow him to lead an investigation requiring a trip to Hollywood, but also to pronounce on high profile issues, repeatedly denouncing the “shoddy” BBC and its unnecessary board of governors and, at one stage, claiming that digital broadcasting was a blind alley and a waste of resources: “It will not be the way of the future.”
It did not stop him receiving bad publicity during the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009 for trying to claim an £8,000 (€9,280) television set some time after he stood down from the committee.
Kaufman dated his love for the cinema from being taken to see Disney’s Three Little Pigs cartoon at the Rialto, Briggate, as a child in Leeds and he became a notable film buff, with a particular enthusiasm for musicals. For the British Film Institute, he wrote Meet Me in St Louis (1994), a study of the making of the 1944 classic, for which he interviewed many of its stars; he also published a memoir entitled My Life in the Silver Screen (1985).
He is survived by two nieces and four nephews.