Memoirs of a moderate man

Those of us of a certain age may have some recollection of John Grant as a Labour MP who defected to the SDP but he was much more than that.

In his book Blood Brothers: Division and Decline of Britain’s Trade Unions he paints a vivid picture of a life in the Labour movement, part history, part autobiography. Born in 1932 in Finsbury Park Grant became a journalist eventually working for the Daily Express as its Chief Industrial Correspondent. In that role he covered a number of high profile strikes, the political climate in which they occurred and rubbed shoulders with a host of prominent union leaders.

Moving on to be a Labour MP his media skills were utilised both by Harold Wilson and  his successor James Callaghan. In the 1974-79 Labour government ministerial office came his way as a Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department of Employment. In that job he played a part in piloting the 1976 Race Relations Act through parliament, increased wages council enforcement  and introduced measures to help more disabled people into work. He was also the minister who authorised work permits for Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa when they signed for Tottenham Hotspur.

His personal relationships with union general secretaries were often utilised to good effect. On one occasion he was asked by Wilson to make an urgent phone call to Ray Buckton leader of the train drivers union ASLEF urging the postponement of a rail strike in the middle of a General Election campaign.

Following Labour’s defeat in 1979 Grant became increasingly disillusioned with the shift to the left in the party assisted by the big union leaders and what he saw as a failure by some of his fellow moderates to fight back. By 1981 he saw Labour by then committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EEC and wholesale nationalisation as unelectable. His local constituency party in Islington was by then dominated by the hard left so he joined neighbouring MPs George Cunningham and Michael O’Halloran in the SDP. Despite being a popular local member he was defeated in 1983 by a young Jeremy Corbyn and found himself out of work.

Fortunately he had strong links with the electricians union the EEPTU an organisation led by men who had wrestled control from ballot rigging Communists and they invited him to be their new Head of Communications. There he found himself a central player in the union’s role in a number of high profile clashes with the TUC over the print dispute at Wapping and the trend towards single union agreements with employers. The latter of which led eventually to the EETPU being expelled from the TUC.

Grant was a social democrat who witnessed at first hand the once powerful unions humbled by Thatcher and as a result he was part of a movement to build a modern more cooperation style of workers organisation. In politics he advocated electoral reform as the route to progressive centre left government.

As an active trade unionist during the 1980s and 90s I lived through many of the same struggles. I wish I had met John Grant; it would have been an interesting discussion.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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6 Comments

  • John Marriott 2nd Apr '20 - 4:58pm

    According to Wikipedia, after losing his seat and joining the SDP, Mr Grant was a member of its negotiating team during merger talks with the Liberals, ‘whom he regarded as “not ready to move from the politics of protest towards power” ‘. He resigned and eventually returned to Labour. I guess that not much has changed in the past thirty or so years, has it?

  • Tony Greaves 2nd Apr '20 - 7:54pm

    John Grant was indeed one of the SDP negotiating team and, I think, one of the more “difficult” members for many on the Liberal side (and not just for the more stroppy members like me). But he engaged with he process to the end and had been involved in some of the work to thrash out the Preamble (statement of principles). But when it came down to it he was one of the right-wing Labourites who found it hard to come to terms with Liberalism. But unlike Michael O-Halloran and some others in the SDP I don’t think we ever thought he was in the wrong party.

  • David Warren 2nd Apr '20 - 11:34pm

    Michael O’Halloran’s selected in Islington for the 1969 byelection was controversial and he was not often heard in the chamber of the House Of Commons following his victory.

    As a former rail worker his main interest was transport.

    By the early 1980s his constituency party had changed out of all recognition and was controlled by the left. He like a lot of right wing Labour councillors in the borough joined the SDP rather than get deselected.

    In the 1983 General Election O’Halloran actually stood as an Independent Labour candidate not for the SDP.

  • Toby Keynes 3rd Apr '20 - 8:51am

    It would be a shame if this tribute to John Grant were to be sidetracked into a discussion of the merits and history of Michael O’Halloran.

    However, as an SDP member and (very junior) ward organiser in John Grant’s constituency of Islington Central at the time, I think it would be fair to say that O’Halloran was never “in the wrong party”, because he was never truly in the SDP.

    For him, and for a fair number of councillors who came over at the same time, we offered no more than a flag of convenience.

    The local Labour party had been run down by his own hard right faction, to the point where it had been ripe for takeover by the hard left, which had duly happened, and he had no future there. So he and his faction jumped ship, in the hope that they could dominate the local SDP as they had dominated Labour for so long. It didn’t happen.

    To come back to John Grant, John was selected as our candidate in the following General Election of 1983, and O’Halloran stood against him.

    Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn won and John came third, but still with a creditable 22%, twice as many votes as O’Halloran.

  • Toby Keynes 3rd Apr '20 - 8:56am

    Clarification: John Grant was Labour MP for Islington Central when he transitioned to the SDP in 1981. He was selected as our candidate for Islington North for the 1983 General Election.

  • David Warren 3rd Apr '20 - 1:01pm

    Thanks for that Toby. It must have been really interesting being involved in Islington politics in the early 1980s. A number of constituencies in London had Labour MPs who were very much from the traditional right of the party, Arthur Lewis in Newham who was deselected and replaced by Tony Banks supported capital punishment!

    I was in Newbury back then where the SDP never really featured probably because the constituency had a very active local Liberal association with a strong group on the local council.

    In his book John Grant comes over as a thoroughly decent man on the progressive wing of politics who saw quite right that fundamentalist left positions were going to condemn Labour to permanent opposition. Eventually Labour understood that and as a result we got Blair. Then came Corbyn and in a way history is repeating itself.

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