Jack Ashley: An appreciation

April 22, 2012 1:08 pm

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.

  • treborc1

    Great man, great politician, I doubt we will see another like him in politics or the Labour party.

  • oatcakecorral

    I was very sorry to hear of the death of Jack Ashley the former MP for Stoke South. He was a doughty fighter for the rights of the disabled and a very good constituency MP. I knew him best during the 1970s and 80s when I was active in the Labour Party in Stoke, for a short period between 1985-6 I was Vice Chairman of Stoke South Constituency Labour Party. His campaign on behalf of people effected by the thalidomide drug in the 70s which would be a fine record in its own right but added to that was his work around domestic violence and the need for a refuge for victims of violence later in the decade. I could add other things as well. Recently I wrote for the Stoke  Sentinel in the local history section on the earth tremors caused by mining in the Flash lane area of Stoke in the 70s. Jack Ashley fought the interests of his constituency in a forceful way ensuring that compensation would be won for residents who were inconvenienced greatly by the “quakes”. One subject that I recall him taking a great interest in way before Joanna Lumley was the subject of Gurka pay and pensions. I recall asking him a question about this in 1986 shortly before I left to work in Wigan. He was very pleased that someone else should ask a question and added that he was sorry that I was moving out of the district. He did say that I should support Widnes Rugby league team who were superior to Wigan whilst I was living in the North West- it was advice I ignored. I know how much he valued the work of ordinary members of the Labour Party and was very pleased to see me some time later when I bumped into him outside Stoke Railway StationI also went on a tour of the House of Commons with Jack in the summer of 1984. I can recall a few things about the day. Having to almost press myself flat against the corridor wall as the very large bulky presence of Ian Paisley was coming the other way and Jack’s impersonation of Roy Jenkins peering at his finger nails as an indicator of how aloof Jenkin’s was with other MPs. One thing was noticeable as we trudged around the Palace of Westminster and that was the looks of recognition from members of the public.I should also add how much Pauline’s support was invaluable to Jack in coping with his deafness. His wife cut an elegant and kindly figure in the meeting places of Stoke South Labour Party.

  • Tim Oakes

    An absolutely outstanding politician, who should really be regarded as a statesman, for that is quite what he was. A determined and trenchant fighter for minority rights, he was a true Son of Widnes, and the town should be proud to have nurtured such a unswerving force in British politics. I met him on many occassions when he would call at our house, or when I accompanied my father (Rt Hon Gordon Oakes,  MP for Widnes) to the Houses of Parliament. I remember a kind and patient man, with a keen sense of humour…  He and dad shared a fine and deep seated belief in the idea that politics could, and should, be used as a force for social change – for all. He will be sorely missed, but I hope his example will be followed by the next generation of MPs – of whatever political persuasions – as a man of strong principles, who fought for those principles to the very best of his considerable ability. His speeches, indeed, should be collected for the benefit of future generations. Our thoughts are for Pauline and his family at this sad time.         Tim & Dot Oakes

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