I often think back to 1974; and it just doesn’t really seem that long ago, and yet its 35 years on, where have all the years gone I do wonder sometimes. However it was a special year for me, you know one of those years that stand out amongst dare I say it; all the others. I was eighteen a shop steward in the trade union that was known as NUPE in those days, and a member of the Labour Party. It was also the year that I participated in my very first General Election. However this story’s not about me but rather someone I greatly admire and respect; the former Member of Parliament for Brigg and Scunthorpe John Ellis.
I can’t exactly remember when, or, where I first met John Ellis all I remember is that it was in 1974 and I think in October when Harold Wilson called the second General Election to be held that year, the one that finally ended Edward Heath’s leadership of the Tory Party and unfortunately paved the way for Mrs Margaret Thatcher and the savage vengeance on the working class when the right wing of the Tory Party received a new strength and confidence under her leadership five years later.
Back then I was young naive and it must have been showing a teenager’s simplicity and lack of worldly experience, it all seemed an adventure being a younger member of the local party back then, as for some reason there weren’t many youngsters in the local party at that time; only that was about to change, but that’s really another story for possibly another time, only to say that because of my age and them early years I received much encouragement and I suppose in a kind of way the appreciation from the older members, in particular from John’s election agent Reg Neal a retired headmaster. It was Reg who got me into reading such books as ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, the funny thing about that was years later I shared a flat with E. P. Thompson’s son Ben – well it was a squat actually, same thing really, anyhow I got to know John through Reg during that election campaign even went to the count to witness John’s return to Westminster in what was Harold Wilson’s last Labour Government.
John Ellis was the kind of Labour MP of whom, it can be said: that, the mould if anything, has been well and truly broken if not smashed to smithereens by the abomination that is New Labour. John always had the look of a real Labour man about him, the sort that you could imagine had been self educated with a little help from the WEA or the Open University, but probably not the latter as he would have helped get that through parliament. He was a junior whip for a time and convener of the T&G group of union sponsored MP's in the House of Commons: I suppose you could describe John as old school or old Labour down to his very toenails. John always proudly wore the emblem of the T&G in his lapel button hole of his permanently crinkly parliamentary whistle and flute. I liked John instantly he had a great sense of humour and was always amenable and civil, his brand of socialism he held with a real passion, and he was a workaholic for the struggle the case and the constituency. I ran a surgery with him once and saw for myself how hard he worked; some years after, when I’d left Scunthorpe and was living down in London my Mother had a spot of bother with the DHSS, John shorted it out. There was also the time when I had my own troubles with the police at the ‘Railway Parcel Office’. I used to sell a left wing publication in Scunthorpe which was sent from London by rail every week; it was my job to pick up the papers from the station every Friday, on this particular occasion to my surprise and amazement a police sergeant was waiting for me, so when I picked up the papers he approached and asked if he could have a word in the empty waiting room on platform two over the other side of the track, I agreed thinking nothing of it. In the empty room, he asked what was in the parcel, I told him papers, he asked what short of papers, I said of a political persuasion, and so it went on until he insisted that I open the parcel – not knowing any better I obliged; he made some more disparaging remarks before allowing me to leave with the papers in a messed up state. I will forever remember his parting nonsensical and laughable utterance; “you’re no friend of mine” and I replied your no friend of mime to which he said; “I know that son, I know that son!” Well as it happened the General Management Committee (GMC) was meeting that very evening and some, what shaken by my first run-in with the police I decided that I would raise it with my comrades as I thought that it was an unprovoked case of flagrant harassment. John would be at the meeting of his GMC as always, travailing up from London at the end of the parliamentary week to rest and do some constituency case work. The GMC was the governing body of the local party and met every month and John always sat at the front with the party officers, he always gave a report of what was going on in the House and with the Government which we delegates would always hope and pray that John would keep it short, but he never did; nevertheless the sixty delegates assembled, would hear him out respectfully and then ask him questions; and on this particular evening a delegate raised the incident with the meeting, to my disappointment John gave one of his; I’m a MP type of replies in which he said a lot that meant nothing; along the lines that even he as MP had been stopped outside his home by the police who wanted to know what he was doing at midnight out on the street, and somehow John had managed to play the whole thing down with a promise that nevertheless he would raise the matter with the local commanding officer, and no more was ever heard of that.
The problem was that a left-right split had developed in the local party at the same time as it was developing nationally and percolating through the Labour Party at all levels, culminating in the formation of the SDP. Scunthorpe had its own formidable detachment who eventually broke away after much fighting within the party. (This again is another story in its self that would best be explained on its own; another time perhaps.) If memory serves me right this group left the local party before the SDP had publicly declared itself a new political entity: Lead by a millionaire local butcher who had been the leader of the Labour council for a number of years; his group were I believe responsible for setting the police onto me, as part of their campaign to discredit the Labour Party, and I think that John recognized this and decided to sit-it out on the fence, rather than get involved in internal local party maters and disputes.
However the split in the local party was particularly nasty, and spearing the details of the fallout, split whatever you call it cost John and Labour the seat in the 1979 General Election. The Master Butcher now a member of the SDP put up as their official candidate; apparently he split the vote letting the Tory take the seat thereby considerably helping ‘Thatcher’ form her first Government. This was earth shattering; Labour had returned a member for over fifty years, even in 1931 when Ramsey MacDonald stabbed the Labour Party in the back out of the 52 MP’s David John Kinsley Quibell was returned for the Town and Labour following the ensuing election of the ‘National’ Government.
The victor was Michael Brown who now has carved out for himself a new career as a political columnist for the Independent Newspaper following his subsequent defeat years later. Writing in that paper he penned this in 2005. “Twenty-six years ago, I walked into a count at the Drill Hall in Scunthorpe as a fresh-faced 27-year-old Tory candidate for the safe Labour seat of Brigg and Scunthorpe. After three recounts, I found myself elected as the MP with a majority of 486.
Brown continues: “I will never forget the look of shock, horror and devastation on the face of the Labour MP, John Ellis, over whom I triumphed in 1979. He was a middle-aged, horny-handed representative of old Labour toil. Although utterly elated, I could not help a momentary pang of conscience at ruining the political career of a perfectly decent opponent. Although I soon got over it I never forgot the whisper from the Labour agent: That’ll be you in four years’ time, lad.”
John had previously been a member of parliament for Bristol along with Tony Benn before losing that seat in 1970, so being out of a job was nothing new and although he had one more attempt to regain the Scunthorpe seat, John never made the return journey back to them green benches. He stayed on in the Town finding work on the Steelworks and becoming for a time a member of North Lincolnshire Council, always remaining an activist in the Labour Party.
On June 1, 1974 a vapour cloud explosion destroyed the Nypro cyclohexane oxidation plant at Flixborough, England killing 28 people and seriously injured 36. The massive fuel-air explosion completely destroyed the plant and it is thought that had it happened on a weekday more than 500 employees would almost certainly have been killed. The factory was rebuilt much to the dismay of local residents but closed a few years later due to falling nylon prices and was demolished in 1981.Other plants on the site were seriously damaged or destroyed and the site presented a scene of utter devastation. The accident was traced to a poorly qualified design team that were asked to design and install temporary piping. The Guinness Book of World Records still lists it as the worst industrial explosion in U.K.
The North Lincolnshire village of Flixborough is situated near to the River Trent, about 3 miles of Scunthorpe and fell within John’s consistency, most of the workforce were drown from Scunthorpe and surrounding area, my uncle was a security guard at the plant and a neighbour who lived on our street with his young family was amongst those killed. The force of the blast damaged nearly 2,000 houses and 167 local shops. Even today in the village one can see the driveways to houses that were literally blown away by the blast. It still remains a tribute to John as the MP, that he was recognised for the way in which he had assiduously pursued the interest of his constituents since the disaster occurred, and in connection with the various considerations involved.
It is important to refer to the Flixborough disaster when considering John Ellis and his part in Labour Party history and the simple desire to represent the interests of working people. The truth is that John came from and belonged to a Labour Party that has long gone; I said that I admired John well I do for the tenacity of his own commitment to still hold a faith in what Labour use to be, and that’s probably why John was the only member of the Scunthorpe Labour Party to speck out against Elliot Morley.