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Tribute to Baroness McDonagh

Blackpool, 1998: Margaret McDonagh attends Labour Party Conference | Alamy

4 min read

A talented and inspirational political organiser, Margaret McDonagh became the first female general secretary of the Labour Party. Although she could be tough and demanding, my sister's acts of kindness meant so much to many

One year, in the local elections, we managed to secure Labour victories in every ward in my constituency bar one. As local supporters celebrated, Margaret pondered on our sole failure. She devised a strategy to deal with this elusive ward, mobilised members, put the work in and four years later victory was ours.

This was Margaret’s ethos through and through – set your goals, get organised, bring people onside and make determination your watchword. Every election, large or small, was a battle to be won. Nothing was impossible.

We spent our 20s experiencing the rise of Margaret Thatcher, the great Labour defeat of 1983 and the spectre of the loony left, but Margaret was never defeatist. She travelled to the United States to educate herself about the techniques which worked for the Democrats. She came back talking about both rebuttal and attack units with a keen determination to take Labour’s fundraising to a new level in the UK. Famously she introduced the pledge card to British politics. It was a clear, simple policy agenda that was easy for voters to digest and kept candidates on message.

She would return to America for further presidential elections with a willing team of British activists by her side. It said something about the respect that Margaret commanded that all these volunteers would give up their time, and pay their own way, to walk beside her knocking on doors to win support for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Relentless as ever, when dusk fell at 7pm and members of the tired team expressed unease at venturing into unknown territory she told them to buy a flashlight and carry on. Some of these householders were gun owners but we were Margaret’s troops and we had torches!

Her dedication to advance women in public life was unswerving

Margaret was the first female general secretary of the Labour Party and was appointed to the role while in her 30s. She earned her place through hard graft, running the London region and supporting Tony Blair in his zeal to modernise the party. She could be tough and demanding but most who came into contact with her appreciated her strong organisational skills and did what she required. It was all in the name of good order and for the party’s benefit, never hers.

There can be no greater recognition of your talent than to be praised by your political foe. In the words of the Conservative peer, Daniel Finkelstein, “Margaret McDonagh was one of this country’s great political organisers, certainly one of the greatest of the past 40 years.”

Her dedication to advance women in public life was unswerving. She set up The Pipeline, a training programme to help companies develop, promote and retain their female leaders. No glass ceiling could not be smashed.

Tough and demanding, but it was her small acts of kindness that meant so much to so many. When friends needed support, she was there with a helping hand. I’ve had messages about how inspirational she was and praising her talent, drive and integrity. The support has been wonderful for me but would have made Margaret blush and she would have felt the need to move on to her next campaign sharpish.

Her final campaign was the toughest of the lot. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in 2021. Despite the help of some wonderful doctors and nurses, she recognised the NHS had been failing others with glioblastoma and would now fail her. Oncology doctors are being trained in other conditions, not this one. Drug treatment hasn’t advanced for years, and clinical trials are non-existent. For hyperthermic treatments the nearest machine was in Germany. After many tough months, she died at home with friends at her side.

At future elections there will be activists on the ground saying: “Margaret would have insisted we did it this year.” In public life there will be women and men putting their success down to the help Margaret gave them. And when the NHS finally takes glioblastoma seriously, we will be saying that’s because Margaret forced them to do so.

Siobhain McDonagh is Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden

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