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Tribute to Lord Radice by Lord Robertson

Lord Radice: 4 October 1936 – 25 August 2022 | Image: UK Parliament

4 min read

Intellectually brilliant, loyal and gentle, Lord Radice was also a brave and practical man who leaves a formidable political legacy

Giles was one of the nicest men in politics, but also one of the most quietly effective. His seminal Fabian pamphlet Southern Discomfort in 1992 broke through the fog of conventional wisdom on why Labour kept losing elections. He pointed out that the south was only winnable if the reservations on Labour’s economic competence among white collar and skilled workers were addressed. 

If New Labour – and its successes – started anywhere it was with Giles’ brutal analysis. Small wonder that Tony Blair saluted his death as “one of the unsung heroes of Labour’s long march back to power”.

Now his latest book Labour's Civil War: How infighting has kept the left from power lays out in graphic detail his mastery of Labour’s past and provided him with a unique insight into how his party can again regain electoral popularity and power. Those searching after a radical but practical offering should grab a copy soonest.

Giles’ distinguished public life is well known: Winchester College and the Coldstream Guards  (somewhat rare on Labour benches); Labour MP for Chester-le-Street and then North Durham from 1973 to 2001; shadow education secretary; chairing the Fabian Society; the influential Treasury Select Committee from 1997 to 2001, and the Lords Economic Sub-Committee.

If New Labour – and its successes – started anywhere it was with Giles’ brutal analysis

He was the author of 16 books including a revealing diary of his political years, the husband of the remarkable and crucially supportive Lisanne and father to four attentive daughters.

But that’s not the whole story of a remarkably talented and passionate Labour politician. I provide two illustrations of less documented aspects of his life.

He was head of the GMB union’s research department in the 60s. Seen by superficial commentators as being only a stepping stone to a safe Labour seat, instead it was part of his profound belief in trade unions and their role in society. Not only that, he also had a great ability to spot good people – and three of those who got their start at the GMB are now in the House of Lords: Dianne Hayter, David Lipsey at Esher and myself in Glasgow; all brought in to swell the back-up force for one of Britain’s biggest and most far-sighted unions.

And Giles, a brilliant and literate intellectual in his politics was also tenacious, loyal, and very brave in his politics. These were qualities he brought to bear in that bruising Labour civil war which broke out after the Thatcher victory in 1979. To be on the centre right in Labour at that time was not comfortable. To chair the Manifesto Group of Centre Right Labour MPs, as Giles did, was to get flak from both sides.

When a section of the Manifesto Group departed for the SDP Giles resisted their blandishments – and then their contempt. He faced them down just as he did attempts by the Militant Tendency on the lunatic left to deselect him in Chester-le-Street.

On one infamous evening Giles, Ken Weech – the MP for Ipswich – and myself went to persuade Bill Rogers – an old friend of each of us – not to leave. The resultant vitriol heaped on Giles and Ken might have been the result of Bill’s back trouble but it was still gut wrenching. Giles stayed, he fought on loyally, and prominently, and when Denis Healey was defeated by Michael Foot he organised the Healey deputy leadership campaign in 1981. By a tiny, but party-saving margin, Denis defeated Tony Benn.

Many tributes have been paid to a most likeable, gentle, dignified writer/politician who so many admired. But behind the calm exterior of intellectual and literary quality was also a powerful, practical political character who leaves a formidable legacy. And not a few blunt lessons for the rest of us.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen is a Labour peer

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