The inaugural Victor Grayson memorial lecture in Saddleworth was a great success, reports Paul Fryer
It took two years to put together, but in November 2004, members of the Saddleworth Labour Party organised an event to celebrate one of the area’s most famous MPs, Victor Grayson. The memorial lecture was held in one of the villages of Saddleworth, Denshaw.
The idea was to encourage some political debate in the district. It was also to try to reassure those with left wing views in Saddleworth who were thinking of flirting with the Liberal Democrats. A public lecture on radical Labour politics, under the auspices of Victor Grayson, was felt to be a way for the Labour Party, locally, to take back the agenda.
The first person to be invited to the event was Frank Dobson MP, the former Health Secretary. Frank had unquestionable left wing credentials and had been critical of the government since leaving office. He had voted against the war in Iraq. Phil Woolas, the current Saddleworth MP, was invited to make the introductory remarks. This was important for Phil as he is often seen locally as a Blair loyalist, even though his background is on the left.
Dobson – critical of Government
So, on 12 November 2004, the Victory Grayson memorial lecture was launched to an audience of 60 in the new village hall of Denshaw. Most were from Saddleworth, but there were some from Oldham, Huddersfield and Ripponden.
Phil Woolas opened the lecture by praising Frank Dobson, whom he described as a great stalwart of the party. He said Frank had been a leading campaigner right through the 1980s and 1990s, and had been a moderniser bringing the Labour Party back to a position where it could take power.
To provide some background, Phil told the meeting that Saddleworth had often been at the heart of radical change in the country. Before Victor Grayson’s great by-election victory on a revolutionary socialist manifesto, many Saddleworthians had marched down to Peterloo in August 1819. Their banner had read ‘Suffrage or Death’, and was black with a skull and crossbones decorating it. Unfortunately, seven of those who left Saddleworth never came back from Manchester.
Phil remembered how he was asked by Tony Blair to help secure Frank’s selection as Labour’s candidate in the first London mayoral election in 1999. He told of the time in the voting lobby when Tony Blair came up to him and asked whether he was sure Frank would win the selection. Phil reassured the Prime Minister. Tony Blair asked again – he had been convinced by his advisers at Number 10 that Frank was going to lose. Phil repeated his reassurance. Then Tony Blair pulled Phil up by his lapels and, while other MPs looked on in horror and speculated about what the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth had done, asked him again to say if he thought Frank was going to win. Phil survived and managed to set the Prime Minister’s mind at rest.
Phil talked about the investment in public services, including the Royal Oldham Hospital, which began when Frank was health secretary. He particularly praised Frank’s work against the BNP in Tower Hamlets in the 1980s when the Liberal Party’s housing policy opened up an opportunity for the racists.
Finally, Phil talked about his personal friendship with Frank, and how he saw him as one of his personal mentors. He welcomed Frank to the lecture.
Frank Dobson opened by saying that as a Yorkshireman, through and through, he was pleased to be in the Saddleworth corner of the country. He was also honoured to be the first speaker at the Victor Grayson memorial lecture. Victor Grayson made a tremendous impact on the Labour movement and on politics, despite having only been an MP for two and a half years. Some MPs are quickly forgotten after two and a half decades at Westminster, having made no impact whatsoever.
Frank emphasised his opposition to wind turbines. This was particularly relevant in Denshaw, where United Utilities have proposed to build seven turbines, over 300 feet in height. It has become a hot topic in the village, and the local Labour Party has led the opposition.
Frank talked about the world of 1907, the year of the famous by-election, when there was no unemployment benefit, no NHS, no state pension, and in that election not all men had the vote, and absolutely no women. Things have changed dramatically since then, and the progressive changes had all come about either through Labour governments or pressure on other governments by the Labour Party.
These changes have all been based on the underlying principle of socialism. The foundation has been co-operation between people. In the 1980s, Thatcher believed that the way forward was for everyone to compete with each other, and the tragedy was that she convinced the country of that. We now know that that was wrong, you cannot run an institution like the NHS on the basis of competition. You would think it wrong for every member of a family to compete against each other. The same is true of the wider community.
In Victor Grayson’s maiden speech he talked about the problem of unemployment and its human consequences. When John Smith was Labour leader he made an historic commitment to full employment for the next Labour government. This was at the 1993 TUC Congress, which both he and Phil Woolas attended.
The present Labour government has come close to achieving that aim. Unemployment has fallen by a million. In large parts of the country unemployment is below 3 per cent, in other words below the Beveridge definition of full employment. This has been a great achievement. It has been done in the teeth of opposition, not just from the Tories but from the Liberal Democrats who opposed the windfall levy on utilities to pay for the New Deal on the basis that it was ‘illiberal’.
Frank went on to talk about globalisation. He wondered whether it should always be seen as inevitable, and as a good thing. In China, where there is a brutal tyranny, we are now seeing the worst excesses of capitalism. If it is of such benefit to the Chinese people, why do they still flee abroad? Why is picking cockles on the beach at Morecambe preferable? Unrestricted market forces, combined with no social or civil justice, leads to the worst of all worlds.
On public services, Frank said he opposed the creeping privatisation in the NHS. It is said that there need to be changes to encourage innovation. Yet it was just down the road in Oldham that the first test tube baby in the world was born – in an NHS hospital. Where was the private sector then? The NHS has been a constant breeding ground for development and progress. What can those from small private hospitals, often no bigger than the ICU units in large city hospitals, give to NHS managers and staff who are moving care and treatment forward every day? The British public support the NHS because they believe that healthcare should be provided for the community, by the community. This is socialism in action.
Speaking of the forth-coming white paper on public health, he said he hoped to support it but fundamentals need to be addressed. It is no good urging people to eat more healthily, to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, if they cannot afford such items, or they are working such long hours that they haven’t got time to prepare meals when they get home. While Frank welcomed the investment in the NHS, with more doctors and nurses, there was still a long way to go.
Frank ended by saying whatever disagreements people may have with the present Labour government, it had made astonishing progress, especially on issues connected to work such as the national minimum wage – and on this he was sure it would have Victor Grayson’s support. The Labour government deserved to be kept in office and it was still the only hope for progressive politics in Britain.
Before Frank was rushed to Huddersfield station to catch his train home, there was time for some questions.
Tyranny and terrorism
On the issue of Iraq, Frank said that he had voted against the Iraq war in 2003. He had no doubt that the Saddam regime was vile but the world missed its chance to remove him in 1991. He was doubtful about the motives for the war. Tyranny and terrorism are rarely bedfellows, as tyrannies are often as worried about the dangers of being overthrown as of using terrorists to attack their enemies. Iraq had since become a terrorist training ground.
On the poaching of doctors and nurses from other countries, Frank admitted that it had been a problem when he was health secretary. He had tried to come to some sort of agreement with other countries, although he did say that if doctors and nurses wished to move to another country, they should have the freedom to travel. South Africa was facing the same allegations of poaching staff from countries around it, but he believed that a rich country like Britain should do better.
On religion, Frank disagreed with those politicians who used it for their own purposes. Bin Laden is not a devout Muslim, he is a rich playboy who got religion. This extends to the evangelical Christians in the USA. All are dangerous.
Frank was then presented with a CD of brass band music from the Delph village competition in Saddleworth’s world famous Whit Friday band contest.
The lecture was deemed a success. It was completely new, and no-one had any idea how many would come. The fact that 60 attended showed that the public’s interest in politics is not as diminished as the media would like to portray.
It has certainly made the name of Victor Grayson known to a wider audience in Saddleworth and the surrounding area. In a seat where the Liberal Democrats are the main opposition it will not have done Phil Woolas any harm. What it did was help to re-establish the Labour Party as the left wing choice in the area.
This year the local party hopes to build on this good start, as we look forward to the centenary of Victor Grayson’s historic by-election win in 2007.
Finally, even the Victor Grayson memorial lecture had to accept corporate sponsorship from a multi-national. £70 was received from United Utilities. But before panic sets in, it should be noted that this cheque came from the customer services department following a complaint about poor service by councillor Ken Hulme, joint leader of the Labour group on Saddleworth Parish Council. Ken kindly donated the money to cover the cost of the meeting – a re-distribution of wealth that I am sure Victor Grayson would have approved of.
Paul Fryer is chair of Saddleworth Labour Party
The mysterious Victor Grayson: 1885-19??
Born in Liverpool on 5 September 1885, Albert Victor Grayson discovered his talent for oratory at a young age and became a Sunday school teacher and lay preacher. Despite training to be a minister, it was a course in political economy at Manchester University that set him on his career as a public speaker. He would travel the country in a horse drawn van sponsored by the socialist newspaper, The Clarion.
Grayson’s candidature for the 1907 by-election was opposed by the Labour leadership who had a pact with the Liberals, so he and the Colne Valley Labour League fought and won without official Labour Party support. It was a brilliant campaign, supported by socialists from across Britain and Grayson entered parliament with a majority of 153.
But being an MP was frustrating for Grayson who faced hostility from Liberal and Tory MPs. On 31 October 1908 he was suspended and removed from the House for denying the Speaker and demanding a vote on unemployment. Still a hero to the socialist movement, he spent more time touring the country, but in January 1910 he lost his seat at the general election. He lost again that December and after problems with drink and epilepsy he broke from Labour and founded the short-lived British Socialist Party.
Within a few years, Grayson and his actress wife Ruth were living in abject poverty. In 1916 they travelled to Australia and New Zealand where Ruth was offered a tour. Grayson had surprised many on the left by supporting the war and he was soon challenged to act on his pro-war views by joining up. He joined the New Zealand army, was sent to the western front in July 1917, and was wounded at Ypres that October. By the time he was given an honourable discharge in March 1918 Ruth had died of childbirth.
The mystery of Victor Grayson surrounds his disappearance two and a half years later. Having been involved with some ‘very dubious characters’ for a year or two, Grayson is known to have left his flat in London with two suitcases and two men at the end of September 1920. The last time he was seen was getting off a boat at Ditton Island in the river Thames.
There have been many theories about Grayson’s disappearance – that he was working for British intelligence; that he was murdered; and that was the son of an aristocratic family, to name just three. In 1939, someone collected Grayson’s service medals from the New Zealand High Commission in London, and a close friend claimed to have traced him to a furniture shop in London, but respected his wishes to remain anonymous.
Others swear he is buried in Melbourne.