Jack Ashley, who died on Saturday aged 89, was the kind of politician who gives politics a good name. Many glowing tributes and obituaries have been offered to give a sense of this man’s life; this is a purely personal appreciation of someone who impressed and inspired me.
I didn’t know Jack very well. He was President of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) when I was their press officer in the early 1990s. We worked together on a campaign to support a deaf woman who had been banned from jury service because of her disability. I organised a press conference on College Green, and the cameras turned up to witness his passionate advocacy of a citizen’s right to serve on a jury, regardless of their physical disability. He struck me as decent, and bothered to remember people’s names. He was kind enough to write me an endorsement when I was seeking parliamentary candidature before the 1997 election.
As a Member of Parliament Jack was elected as a hearing person, lost his hearing as a result of a medical accident, but soon realised there was nothing he couldn’t do as an MP. It perhaps shows how far we’ve come to think that Jack contemplated standing down as a Stoke MP in 1967 once he became deaf. A special Labour meeting was convened in the Labour Hall in Stoke-on-Trent to decide his future, whilst he and his wife Pauline waited nearby in the Working Men’s Club for the verdict. Within five minutes, a unanimous resolution had been passed inviting him to stay on as MP.
What a loss he would have been if he had bowed to the wisdom of the time that disabled people could not perform mainstream jobs, especially in politics. Today we would be outraged if MPs such as David Blunkett, or the Tory MP Paul Maynard who has cerebral palsy, were told they could not serve in Parliament. In the 1960s, disabled people were hidden away, patronised and dismissed.
In 1993, he underwent an operation to install a cochlear implant, and for the first time in 30 years, some hearing returned to him. There were those in the deaf community who condemned him for ‘selling out’, by having the operation. Some deaf people were already annoyed at him because he never learned British Sign Language (BSL), relying instead on lip-reading and palantype which converts sound to text.
Before joining the RNID straight from the Labour Party press office, I bought Jack’s memoir Acts of Defiance which had been recently published to mark his departure from the Commons and elevation to the Lords. It builds on the book he wrote in 1970 Journey Into Silence which covers his life story up until a couple of years after becoming deaf.
Acts of Defiance tells a remarkable story. He was a genuinely working class MP, of the kind the trade union movement used to deliver into Parliament before the rise of the researchers and political officers. He was on the right of the Labour Party. His first friends in Parliament were not only working class MPs, but also David Owen, John Mackintosh and David Marquand. In 1968, he was the only trade union-sponsored MP to back Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife, which in retrospect was the correct thing to do. He later served as her PPS.
But his time in parliament is famous for his championing of causes, which is why I admire him so much. If a Labour MP, with the platform of Parliament to stand on, can’t champion ‘unpopular’ causes and groups, and fight for justice, rather than simply sit on committees and make speeches, then what is the point of them?
Jack fought for the victims of the thalidomide drug, which left babies without eyes, arms and legs; he campaigned for victims of domestic violence (so-called ‘battered wives’) and rape victims. He called for justice for children who had been left brain-damaged by vaccinations. He campaigned for disabled people’s rights alongside Alf Morris. He sought compensation for ex-servicemen and women who had been killed or injured in training or non-combat situations. His weapons were the parliamentary question, the parliamentary debate, and the media, and he used them with tireless skill.
This was the age when investigative journalism, epitomised by Harold Evans’ Sunday Times, was at its zenith. The age of deference was ending. Scandals and injustices could no longer be hushed up with a word in the right ear. Into this ferment, Jack Ashley stepped on behalf of thousands of people who had been maimed, injured, wronged or killed by corporate insouciance or bureaucratic blunder. Most Labour MPs come and go having achieved very little. Others can point to their titles and committees, confusing being something with doing something. The odd one or two MPs, such as Chris Mullin and his campaigning for the Birmingham Six, have had some success in combating injustice, but none has come close to the scale and scope of Jack Ashley’s life of giving a voice to those without one.
Millions have cause to be grateful to the man from Widnes, born in a slum without a bathroom, whose night watchman father died when he was five, yet who took on the most powerful people in Britain, and won.