Obituary: Gerald Kaufman (1930 - 2017)

27 Feb 2017

As the Labour Party sinks deeper into another long period of disunity and unhappiness, the death of Gerald Kaufman at the age of 86 is a reminder of what goes to waste when a party turns on itself after an election defeat.


Kaufman was a talented member of parliament, but spent most of his career at the very back of the opposition benches, fighting passionately but impotently for the causes in which he believed.


The Father of the House and the Oldest MP in Britain first entered the Commons in 1970, briefly serving as a junior minister in Harold Wilson’s second government of 1974 to 1979. But by the time Labour had returned to power at the end of the century, Kaufman was too old for a government job.


Besides, times had changed, and the outspoken old stalwart probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable in the tight-lipped, spin-controlled New Labour cabinet.


Kaufman was born in Leeds on 21 June 1930, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. His politics and identity were shaped in his early years, first in Leeds Grammar School, where he encountered vicious anti-Semitism, and later in Queen’s College, Oxford, where he became involved in Labour politics.


A Daily Mirror journalist initially, he earned himself a safe Labour seat in Manchester Gorton after several years spent advising Harold Wilson in the Labour Prime Minister’s first government.


In those days, it took a long time for someone to rise up the greasy pole of government. You could not become an MP at one election and become party leader after the next – as David Cameron and Ed Miliband both did. It took at least a decade for Kaufman to rise to prominence, a wait which was costly for both his career and his party.


Kaufman fought bitterly against the attempts of the far left to take over the party in the early 1980s, fearing the damage that would be done if it succeeded. He backed Denis Healey against Tony Benn’s vain 1981 attempt to become deputy leader, and is credited (perhaps erroneously) with dubbing Labour’s 1983 manifesto as ‘the Longest Suicide Note in History.’


Never one to speak obliquely, Kaufman later commented on the ‘stupidity’ of the document, which at the height of the Cold War called for nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the then-embryonic European Community. Filled with promises he didn’t believe the party would honour, it provided Labour’s opponents with cannon-fodder with which to kick them further into the wilderness.


By the time Labour got itself together again and returned to power, Kaufman’s prominence was fading. For him, Tony Blair’s election brought a mix of emotions: disdain for PR-politics, happiness that his party had returned to power, and also bitterness that it no longer had a place for him.


Not that his passion was in anyway diminished, however. Kaufman was also well-known for his denunciation of Israeli expansionism, particularly under the leadership of General Ariel Sharon. He spoke in support of the Palestinians with the vigour usually espoused by the Jeremy Corbyn faction of the left, but remained a proud Jew and supporter of Israel’s right to exist.  


Altogether too much of a flawed, open and contradicted person to fit into the highly cosmetic and soundbite politics of the modern era, Kaufman was nonetheless a fine example of where hard work and determination could get you, and of the importance of fighting against seemingly eternal opposition when others around you have resigned themselves to such a fate.

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