Obituary: Eric Preston 1932-2020

Our friend and comrade Eric Preston, who played a leading role in the ILP for 60 years, has died.

Born into a mining family in Ossett in 1932, he left school at 14 eventually joining the RAF for three years in the early 1950s. The experience of growing up in straitened circumstances combined with his experience in the military made him angry, frustrated and distinctly right wing in his views.

This changed when he met Dennis Towler, a left winger who challenged his conventional assumptions about British society and the world in general. This led Eric to briefly join the Communist Party, although he left in 1956 following the invasion of Hungary.

Seeking a new home for his radicalism he joined the Independent Labour Party which, although it had ceased to be an electoral force of any significance, was nevertheless very active in many single issue campaigns.

Through the ILP, Eric became involved with the Dobbin campaign against capital punishment, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Committee of 100 and Spies for Peace. In 1961, he was arrested with his friend Brian Hawkins at a sit-down protest at Holy Loch, the home of Britain’s Polaris nuclear submarines.

Working with a younger generation of ILPers, Eric set about the difficult task of persuading the organisation to re-join the Labour Party and, after a prolonged debate, his aim was realised in 1974. There followed an intense period of political activity in which he developed his ideas of how the socialist case might be advanced both within and beyond the Labour Party.

His unorthodox approach often challenged many long held assumptions on the left. It was largely down to his independence of thought that the ILP occupied a unique place in left debates. Whatever the differences, however, he always operated with a spirit of intellectual inquiry and comradeship.

As well as numerous articles for Labour Leader, the ILP Magazine and his work on successive ILP perspective documents, his own publications for the ILP included:

  • The Local Counter-Attack: Towards a Strategy for Fighting the Tory Attack on Local Government
  • Labour in Crisis: A Critical but Constructive Look at the Labour Party
  • Youth Training: The Tories’ Poisoned Apple (with Ernie Jacques and Paul Scofield)
  • On the Block: The Future of Labour’s Trade Union Links
  • The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Labour Party
  • Taking the Party to the Cleaners
  • Who Rules? Annual Conference versus the Parliamentary Labour Party (with Barry Winter)

In a 2009 talk called This World of Ours, Eric wrote:

“The left’s critique of the present is of vital importance in the development of ideas and the contribution it can make to the shaping of informed public opinion. It is essential that the incoherence, contradictions and conflict of interests within the system be exposed, and that the consequences and potential consequences of contemporary developments be manifest.

“We need to emphasise the essential nature of an ever expanding global economic system that, driven hard by the profit motive, must forever encourage a pursuit of wealth and a self-centred consumerism, and thereby drive us beyond the limits of the earth’s resources and towards a major humanitarian and environmental crisis.”

Eleven years on we are now embroiled in multiple political, social and economic crises that threaten the existence of humanity itself. Eric saw this coming more clearly than most.

Despite worsening health problems Eric’s tenacity enabled him to attend ILP meetings until very recently when he just couldn’t manage it physically any more. His depth of dedication to the organisation and what it represents was quite remarkable and his passing is a profound loss to us all.

We send our sympathies to his wife Joan and all the family.

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Eric’s funeral will take place in Leeds on 8 October. He asked that any donations in his memory be made to Medicins Sans Frontier or the Red Cross.

A longer obituary will be published at a later date.

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