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'He inspired deep and genuine affection.' Baroness Smith pays tribute to Lord McKenzie

3 min read

As I read the tributes to Bill on social media and various WhatsApp groups from Labour colleagues and others, it struck me that this decent, honourable, and kind man would never have realised just how much he meant to people. Yes, he was hugely respected in every corner of the House, but more than that, he inspired deep and genuine affection.

Bill’s lifetime of service and commitment to the Labour Party and to Luton are well documented. In addition to a highly successful professional career, he touched the lives of many as a long serving councillor, council leader, and twice parliamentary candidate. Having stood in both 1987 and 1992 he didn’t seek election in 1997 but Luton remained his home and the council has spoken of the “deep, lasting affection” in which he is held. Being instrumental in its 2011 attempt to gain city status, Bill referred to “raising the aspirations” of local people and “encouraging them to strive to be the best whatever they do”. He really was Mr Luton.

The Commons’ loss was, however, the Lords’ gain. It was obvious when Bill took his seat on the red benches in 2004 that his expertise, commitment and experience meant he was going to make a major contribution. From 2005 onwards he served in the Labour government initially as a whip and then as a minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, adding the Department for Communities and Local Government to his responsibilities in 2009.

In the chamber, Bill was a force to be reckoned with. He was an unassuming, modest man – with nothing to be modest about. His gentle, courteous approach was no cover for his formidable and principled approach to legislation.

His professional expertise as an accountant and economist meant he brought an intellectual rigour alongside his deep convictions. He was deeply principled with an insightful political sense. Many of us recall one particular policy issue where Bill was concerned that our approach as a party was inadequate and too weak. With his customary polite but forensic approach he made a convincing, coherent, and radical case that everybody realised was the fairest and most just.

To those of us who joined the Lords in 2010 he was an inspiring mentor. Generous with his time and expertise, Bill was always happy to offer advice and support, and could quietly encourage you to get involved in debates. On the 2012 Welfare Reform Act he was both a leader and a teacher in the most effective way possible. He was a joy to work with.

The Commons’ loss was the Lords’ gain

When he referred to his illness in a debate in October, we didn’t really appreciate how serious it then was or how little time Bill had left. In recent months, even in the week before he died, he would come into the Lords to play his part – though he had to bring his oxygen in with him. He was totally dedicated.

Bill’s friendship was something to treasure. It was always a delight to be invited to have a drink with him and the “Libation Club” – a jokey name for the serious business of a glass of red before heading for the train back to Luton. Bill and friends would chat over the day, exchange stories and generally just enjoy the company of good colleagues. That’s when the warm and witty side of this lovely man would come to the fore.

It is rare that you can say that you’ve never heard a bad word spoken about someone. But this time it is absolutely true. For those of us in the Labour Lords Group, we are proud that he was both a colleague and a dear friend. But we miss him terribly.


Baroness Smith of Basildon is a Labour peer and shadow leader of the Lords.

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