Over the years we have occasionally blogged tributes to former MPs who were interviewed for our oral history project but have since passed away. In the current pandemic we are sadly losing a number of our interviewees – whether related to Covid-19 or not – and we hope to reflect and pay tribute to as many as possible here.
On 21 March Ted Graham, Lord Graham of Edmonton, passed away aged 94. Graham was a Labour MP and peer, who became Chief Whip in the Lords. His political loyalties really lay, however, with the Co-operative movement. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to an unemployed butcher, Graham came from difficult circumstances and would often speak in parliament on social mobility in terms of his own experience. One such story he remembered in our interview was his parents’ reaction to his receiving boots from a charity whilst at primary school:
In his interview Graham recalled a similar reaction from his parents when he passed his 11+ exam to attend grammar school – there was no possibility of him being able to afford the place, nor stay in school after the age of 14 and not bring in a wage to help the family. Thus he first joined the Co-op as a shop errand boy and was to stay deeply involved for the rest of his life. Here he remembers the initial attractions:
Graham remained both a football fan and a Co-operative activist. He joined the army in 1941. He was due to take part on D-Day, but during training for the landings he was so badly injured he was forced to miss them. On leaving the army he continued both his Cooperative career and his education through Workers’ Education Association correspondence courses and the Cooperative residential college in Loughborough (he later became the first MP to get a degree in the Open University whilst studying, as he told us, ‘on the Victoria line’). He moved up in the Cooperative movement before becoming National Secretary in 1967.
Graham had met his wife Margaret at a Cooperative youth conference after the war. He described her as ‘my soul mate in the sense that we both believed in the same way of living.’ However, in his words, ‘the sadness about the family’ was Margaret’s inherited condition: myotonic dystrophy. Sadly Graham lost both his wife and their two sons to the disease in the early 2000s.
Graham described Margaret, using a football metaphor, as ‘more left than I was. I was inside left, she was on the wing, outside left’. It was after the family’s move to London that he began an active political career, becoming a councillor in Enfield in 1961. He went on to lead the Council before being elected to represent Edmonton in February 1974. On the centre of the Labour party, he was immediately made a PPS and later a Whip when James Callaghan became Prime Minister in 1976. Whilst a loyal Labour member he was not afraid to criticise party policy if he felt it contradicted the values of the Co-operative movement, nor to attack Labour’s radical left-wing or powerful unions for what he believed to be the good of the party as a whole. He lost his seat in 1983 but was quickly made a life peer by Labour’s new leader Neil Kinnock. He helped manage Labour’s business in the Lords – as Chief Whip between 1990 and 1997 – but also rallied for causes he believed in: he was the only peer to speak against the amendment that would later become the infamous ‘Section 28’ prohibiting the ‘promotion’ of homosexual lifestyles in schools,and helped lead an unlikely coalition against the introduction of Sunday Trading.
Since his death Graham has been described as a ‘legend’ in the Cooperative movement in many tributes. Described as a ‘blunt but genial’ MP and Peer, he is remembered for his self-deprecating sense of humour, kind nature and humility.