This is our third blogpost paying tribute to former MPs and interviewees of our Oral History Project who have sadly passed away during the current crisis. Here project lead Dr Emma Peplow remembers Joe Ashton, MP for Bassetlaw October 1968-2001.
Born in Attercliffe, Sheffield in 1933, Joe Ashton told us during his 2012 interview for our oral history project that he came second in a competition with fellow MPs to decide who had the ‘roughest’ upbringing (according to Ashton the winner was Frank McElhone, MP for Glasgow Gorbals/Queen’s Park 1969-82). Ashton’s early years certainly were difficult: his father worked in the local coal mine and steelworks but was unemployed at various times during his childhood, his mother was a ‘buffer girl’ in a cutlery factory. Their home was bombed during the Second World War leaving the family living in one room.
Yet Ashton was hard-working and bright: noticed by his primary school teachers he was put forward for the 11+ exam and gained a place at High Storrs Grammar. Despite the opportunity this was a difficult experience, he had to make a long journey every day and, unaware he needed a uniform the family could not afford, he attended without one. This meant he ‘stood out’ and was picked on by fellow pupils; ‘we had to fight’ he remembered. He joined the Labour party at 16.
After an engineering apprenticeship and National Service in the RAF – including taking part in the 1956 Suez Canal invasion – Ashton returned home to become a design engineer and married Margaret Lee in 1957. It was the struggle to get their first house, despite his good white-collar job, that pushed Ashton into active politics:
Housing, housing was terrible. You had all these houses that were still standing, they were damaged, but you couldn’t buy one. You had no chance on a waiting list [for a new home]. It was ten years literally. […] Here I was, by this time I was doing well at work, I was in the drawing office […] but we just couldn’t get a mortgage. […] We never had a house with running hot water until I was twenty-six years old.
Ashton became a Sheffield City Councillor before winning a difficult by-election in 1968 in Bassetlaw – although the seat was firmly Labour the unpopularity of the government made it a tricky campaign, as Ashton describes in this clip. He held the seat until he stood down in 2001: ‘I was feeling rotten and I knew that I was getting old. Couldn’t do the nine pints a night, and bloody get up at six and all that. Your body tells you.’
Ashton has been described as a ‘populist’ and ‘outspoken’ MP. These traits led to a successful complementary career as a newspaper columnist during his time in Parliament. When he entered the Commons in the 1960s he was firmly on the left of the Labour party, becoming Tony Benn’s PPS in 1974 and running his 1976 leadership campaign. However, he later moved more to the centre of the party. A whip under Callaghan (leading to the writing of his 1981 play, A Majority of One) he fell out with Benn over issues such as mandatory re-selection of MPs, and was not afraid to speak out against them at Labour conferences.
Although his outspoken nature did not always make him friends in Westminster, it certainly helped him make his mark. In 1974 he provoked a row about corruption by writing an article in Labour Weekly calling for better pay for MPs. This eventually led to a compulsory register of interests for all MPs:
Ashton spent the 1980s and 1990s largely on the backbenches and on various select committees. He had a significant interest in sport, chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group on football between 1992 and 2001. In our interview he remembered the importance of sport to his political career:
After standing down Ashton founded the Association for Former Members of Parliament – we are very grateful to them for their support of our project and their assistance inviting MPs for interview. Ashton described how former MPs liked to ‘feel connected’ but also that their families enjoyed seeing the detailed obituaries they wrote. Ashton’s wife died in 2014 but is survived by his daughter, Lucy, who wrote movingly last month about the difficulties she faced grieving for her father under the current restrictions.