Home 5 News 5 Sir Gerald Kaufman obituary: Long-serving Labour MP and Father of the House

Sir Gerald Kaufman obituary: Long-serving Labour MP and Father of the House

Gerald Kaufman who has died aged 86 was a highly complex character. As journalist, backstage adviser, MP, minister just outside the cabinet, leading front bench figure in the Labour Opposition of the eighties, follower of the arts, he had every merit of intelligence, application and easy, literate fluency in argument. But he could be counter-productively abrasive, took and gave rather too much offence and was perhaps a little short of self-doubt.

His clear and lucid mind inclined him to a laying down of the law in a masterful fashion not everywhere appreciated. Genuinely gifted, he was his own worst enemy, but not without competitors.

Gerald Bernard Kaufman was born on 21 June 1930 in Leeds, one of the many children of Louis Kaufman, a Montague Burton’s tailor, and his wife Jane. He progressed to Leeds Grammar School for which he felt no affection, having encountered anti-Semitism there, and to the Queen’s College, Oxford where in 1952, he became Chairman of the Labour Club. A Daily Mirror journalist by trade, he fought two Tory seats in 1955 and 1959 before entering politics obliquely as an adviser to Harold Wilson, to whom he showed sustained personal loyalty. The kitchen cabinet of Wilson’s personal staff: inter alia Joe Haines, Thomas Balogh, and Gerald Kaufman, was not a happy gathering.

Sharing in, often adding to, the chief’s paranoid, but not necessarily mistaken, belief that he was surrounded by enemies, it was no place for nuance or dispassion.

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On a visit to Israel in 2010 (Hazam Bader/AFP/Getty)

Kaufman entered parliament for Ardwick, Manchester in 1970, later, after redistribution, serving as Member for a new version of the Gorton seat. His ministerial career rightly began at the first opportunity, 1974, as junior to Anthony Crosland at the Environment, shepherding exceptionally protracted legislation, the Rent Act (near his heart as it gave tenants security of tenure), through a tight, difficult committee. He was then given responsibility with Eric Varley at Industry (post-Tony Benn), for the Industry Act. Moving up to Minister of State at the end of 1975, he stayed there until 1979, taking care of aircraft and shipbuilding bills, arguing against the nonsense of the Chrysler deal, but defending, at least in public, the hardly less nonsensical Polish shipping agreement, both subsidies of uneconomic activities. He was never less than a painstaking, dedicated and very capable minister, and it was his wretched misfortune to have qualified for and deserved Cabinet office just when in 1979, all prospects would be whisked away for the next 18 years.

In opposition he grasped Labour’s predicament exactly, backing Denis Healey for the key deputy leadership contest and standing up to the Far Left. But though he rose to leading portfolios, shadowing Environment from 1980, the Home Office 1983-87 and the Foreign Office 1987-91, he would not be wholly happy. His best gifts were ministerial (or civil servantly) – for minute grasp, not persuasion in debate. Always combative, Kaufman was not subtle in public argument. “Just hint a fault and hesitate dislike” was a hypocrisy (or finesse) quite beyond him. He attacked enemies – and in an oddly Thatcherian way, they were more often enemies than mere opponents – with words too rich for the palette.

“Infamous” was a recurring adjective. An Independent  journalist would sigh that “there was scarcely any topic he touched that was not scandalous, any Ministerial statement that was not outrageous.” He once turned on Leon Brittan, of Latvian Jewish extraction, engaged in 1984 upon immigration rules cosy by Mr Blunkett’s standards, charging that had they applied when his own parents arrived from Poland, they would have been sent back to the gas chambers. The grasp, always good, could be vitiated by the animus.

Opposition can be done deftly with information or by full frontal assault. Kaufman, so good at the first, was attracted to the second, riskier, option. John Smith would triumph in indictment speeches, Robin Cook would do very well. The test of this style of opposition is the response of the government. The Tories disliked Robin Cook, but had a healthy respect for his closely argued case and savage irony. They were genuinely scared of Smith who, over Westland, sliced them fine. Gerald Kaufman they never quite took seriously. He could be witty, but was more often sarcastic, spent too long in top gear and, in his furious but ornate way, became predictable.

He would demonstrate greater strength on standing committees when an eye for detail could embarrass a minister, and he flourished in his final parliamentary job as Chairman from 1992 onwards, of the select committee on the National Heritage, later Culture, Media and Sport. The arts had always been a concern. Kaufman was the sort of person you met at arts festivals (the present writer encountered him in a theatre queue at Buxton).

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Kaufman addressing the House (PA)

He also wrote a little. His best book, How to be a Minister, has a light, sardonic touch and approaches minor classic status. My Life in the Silver Screen is a pleasant romp about the film-going in which he delighted.  Theatre and cinema could, however, trigger the irksome excess of his speeches. Dismissing Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, which has held the stage for three hundred years, as ‘utterly worthless’ was characteristic. He also led an unattractive campaign against a Radio Three presenter, Paul Gambaccini, come from a commercial classical station and derided for a Boston, Massachusetts, accent. It ended in the man’s removal. And an obituary of Barbara Castle in 2002 expressing a clearly long-cherished loathing was doubtless meant as plain speaking, but generally taken as bad manners.

But what was incontestable about Kaufman was the courage, very like Barbara Castle’s, in any cause he cared for. He was the one member of the Shadow Cabinet with the nerve to tell Michael Foot that he should give up a leadership far beyond his abilities. And throughout the period of frightened silence when entryism and de-selection were cats that had got the tongue of most Labour politicians, Kaufman spoke up quite fearlessly again and again.

He is credited with calling the calamitous Labour manifesto of 1983 “the longest suicide note ever penned.” Significantly, he would be rewarded with a sustained series of very high votes in the annual ballots for the Shadow Cabinet, when Labour did that sort of vulgar thing.

The courage also showed more than once on the Israel issue. Kaufman protested at the entry to Britain in 1972 of Menahem Begin, co-plotter with Yitzak Shamir in 1948 in the killing of 91 Arabs , Jews and British in the King David Hotel bombing. Kaufman could be petty over ancient small grievances. But the same zealous memory worked against murder! And in April 2002, he attacked General Sharon in the Commons for his  ready resort to violence, racial prejudice against Palestinian Arabs and general unfitness for high office. As brave as true, it was a splendid defiance of the standard smear from virulent Zionists that that Jews criticising Israel are “self-hating.” Kaufman was Jewish, Leeds Jewish, Polish immigrant Jewish, even a Zionist, of a civilised and deeply troubled sort. He spoke as a proud Jew, but not proud of Israel under Ariel Sharon.

As a parliamentarian, Kaufman was capable at best of wit, his seconding of the loyal address doubled the House up, but in the way of many wits, had a limited sense of humour. Jewish, homosexual, thin-skinned, representing with real passion ill-served and unprivileged people and newer racial minorities in a hard part of a hard city, genuinely devoted, yet leaving no small point unscored Gerald Kaufman was always a class act if, on occasion, something of a strain.

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