Independent voice of a true democrat

Published: 26 Mar 2009 09:302 comments

‘I provide my own opposition' - Reading's most veteran political animal, who first ran for council before Gordon Brown was even born, speaks exclusively to Adam Hewitt.

LORD David Stoddart has made waves at virtually every level of politics, as an Independent Labour peer, as an MP in and out of Government, as a council leader and as a councillor.

But unlike today's shiny career politicians, he also led a busy working life as a grocer, a clerk, a trainee in the post office telephone service, on the railways, in a pie factory and at Earley power station.

He was a Reading councillor from 1954-72 and ran the town for seven years when it was a county borough with extensive powers and was MP for Swindon for 13 years from 1970 before being made a life peer in 1983.

He was kicked out of the Labour party in 2002 for backing a Socialist Alliance candidate over the Government's choice, Tory defector Shaun Woodward, in a safe Labour seat in 2001.

Q) Do you miss Reading politics?

A) I think I did some of my best political work while I was a councillor and leader of the council in Reading. I think at that time councillors had a lot of influence because Reading was a county borough and had all the services of local government which were then very considerable.

A lot of them have been centralised, unfortunately, and given over to quangos. The cabinet system, which I believe is completely undemocratic, has taken over and that virtually gives power to a small group of people instead of the councillors all being involved in the committee system and being able to represent their own wards and wider Reading.

Q) How did you get into politics?

A) My entry into local politics wasn't in Reading but in Bromley. I fought my first council seat for Kent County Council in 1949. I was well into the Labour Party and was secretary of the Bromley party and I fought seats on Kent County Council and the borough council in 1949 when I was 23 so I have been around this for a very long time.

But I was first elected in Reading in 1954 and have been in public life ever since - 55 years.

Q) What are your fond memories, or achievements in local Government that you're still particularly proud of?

A) All sorts of things - the number of houses that were built for a start. I was chairman of the transport committee and reorganised the transport network to some degree and got rid of the Bennett Road depot because it wasn't being used.

The Salvation Army hostel in Castle Hill wouldn't have been there frankly had I not stuck out for it.

We had our own police then, so the policing of Reading too.

I think the build-up of democratic politics was an important achievement. I insisted that decisions should be taken democratically and should have the full backing after proper discussion of the Labour group when we were in power and indeed when we were not in power. The setting up of the direct building department to build capital works was a huge success.

Then there was the day-to-day operation of the council, seeing that officials did their job, meeting people, seeing to their needs. I think I made quite a lot of difference in those fields.

We had a very good town clerk in my time, a very wise man who thought the two most important people on his staff were the telephonist and the doorkeeper, because they were the first contact that people had with the council.

Q) At the Town Hall at that time?

A) Yes - I had a lot to do with setting up the new headquarters and having civic offices instead of the town hall. That was probably a mistake. I wasn't around when they built the civic offices, the decision had been made and tenders had gone out but if I had been the leader of the council at that particular time I very much doubt that building would have gone ahead. It would have been in the same place, but in a different building.

It wouldn't have been the open-plan system, which I think is disastrous for working people. It's always a bear garden, it doesn't matter what people say. It would have been built of traditional materials with a good working environment for the people.

I always wanted to ensure that people could afford their rates. I was always at loggerheads with the borough director, he always wanted to increase the rates much more, but since I was a humble servant of the CEGB, not very well paid, I knew how difficult it was.

I enjoyed my work in Reading, but it was tough. There were no allowances and my employers, the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) - I worked at the power station at Earley - every time I left my office they deducted my pay. And at that time for loss of earnings you could claim £5 for the day and £3.50 for a half day so we actually lost money.

There were no facilities at all; in fact one of the biggest fights I had was to get headed paper for people to write letters on.

The Reading that I represented and to some degree governed was a very powerful local authority with all the powers of a county council, a district council, a parish council the whole lot. It required a lot of time and I reckon I spent, when I was the leader anyway, more than a week in every four on council business.

Q) Did control of the council swung back and forth more in that period?

A) Yes, you had three or four years on and three or four years off. And that was democratic, because you were always looking over your shoulder to the next triennial, so to speak.

I reorganised the committee system to make it work more efficiently and converted the town clerk to a town clerk and chief executive role, which helped co-ordination and helped the council to run as a unit rather than in separate parts.

Q) Wouldn't some people say that about the cabinet system, that it helps to run the council as a unit?

A) No, that's not right. The elected representatives really ought to be equal, not this hierarchy with more than a fifth exercising power. We insisted that local councillors served on various committees and that they were involved in the day-to-day work. They made the decisions. You really had a duty to contribute.

Q) You spent some time both as MP for Swindon, and leader of Reading Borough Council - how did that work?

A) Yes, between 1970 and 1972 - it worked all right, because a system was in place, we had a deputy leader who would take my place so that it just worked smoothly and a new leader took over when I left the council.

Q) Do you follow local politics now?

A) I follow local politics all right, but I don't get involved! I've got plenty to do. I'm involved nationally. People think that the House of Lords just sits there but that isn't true, it really does the work that the House of Commons should do - scrutiny.

The House of Lords is completely different from the House of Commons, people don't really understand it. The House of Lords is actually a highly democratic body, the House of Commons isn't. The House of Commons is under the control of the Speaker, and the Speaker controls the standing orders. When I was in the Commons if the Government wanted to timetable a motion, that couldn't happen until the standing committee had discussed the thing for a very long period of time so they had to fight for what was called the guillotine. Now every bill is timetabled before it gets a Second Reading, certainly before it goes into committee, and that's really quite appalling.

That means Bills come to the House of Lords which haven't been properly scrutinised by the House of Commons - which after all is the elected body - so you have the unelected body doing most of the scrutiny, or at least most of the details. I think they do it very well, and because there's no guillotine in the House of Lords they can take what time they like.

There's a Bill now starting in the House of Lords called the Health Bill with some very contentious issues about smoking, whereby retailers are going to be forbidden to display their tobacco and cigarettes, they are going to have to put a blind down or put them under the counter. That's an appalling lack of freedom for ordinary decent shopkeepers to be under.

I'm Independent Labour and that means independent; although I sit in the corner where I used to sit, I am independent. I made representations to have the Bill on the floor of the House because then it's open, the press are more interested and a lot more people can gather.

They said we could have it for five days. I raised it on the floor of the House so there would be plenty of time. They gave it five days - and it took seven days because I insisted and others insisted that the Bill was going to be properly discussed. That sort of thing can happen in the House of Lords, not often, but nevertheless it happens.

Q) Does the Government have a lot of sway over Labour Lords?

A) Well, they do, but Labour members of the House of Lords, particularly on conscience issues, they will kick over the traces. But on some of the policy, it makes me sad to see so many Labour people speaking out for privatisation - of the Royal Mail, for example. I was virtually the only one who was completely against the Bill the Tuesday before last. I provide my own opposition.

It's a different place, but a very important place and I don't think people recognise its importance.

A lot of the amendments that are made in the House of Lords are made as a result of the discussion there - and the Government sees what a mistake they've made. So the Government says yes, well, that's wrong and they'll accept amendments. It's a real debating chamber.

Q) I suppose having so many former MPs help with that?

A) They are there, but there's people from all walks of life. People say to me, ‘What's the main difference between the House of Commons and the House of Lords' and I say the most frightening thing about the House of Lords is that they actually listen to what you say. It's absolutely true.

There's no chairman, the speaker of the House of Lords is not the chairman, the speaker just sits there and puts the questions and reads out the amendments - but if there is any dispute about anything that can't be resolved there will be a division, the House will decide. Not the Speaker. In the Commons, the Speaker rules.

I couldn't believe it when I went there, that it worked, but it does. It works by tolerance, sometimes, particularly for me because they generally recognise that it goes backwards and forwards, sometimes people don't give way and I most often have to force myself through. Then the front bench will intervene and just suggest that perhaps it's the turn of the Liberals, or in my case the Noble Lord.

It's a huge privilege for anybody to have been involved in public life in the way I have been. It's a great privilege to serve your own people.

I went the House of Lords because Michael Foot knew in 1983 that the Lords was going to be the only long-stop and what he wanted was people in the House of Lords who had administrative experience in the House of Commons, and indeed ex-whips who knew how to organise opposition, and we did.

Q) There was a real Tory majority at that time, in the Thatcher years, wasn't there?

A) Of course, you had the hereditaries too, but we did it and there were a lot more divisions and the Government suffered quite a few defeats because of our better political organisation. I served my purpose.

Q) Has Labour lost its way in Government?

A) Absolutely. It is no longer a Labour Government in the sense it was when I was a member of it.

Unfortunately they have been beguiled by money and position. Tony Blair was particularly fond of rich people and wanted to be among them. Of course, he got rid of Clause Four which formed the basis of the old Labour party.

They have lost their way on individual freedom as well and that's frightening.

The sort of laws that they've brought forward, ostensibly to deal with the terrorist threat, are undermining the very real freedoms which we've enjoyed for a long time in this country. People now don't know what they can do or what they can say, and that shouldn't be the case in a free country.

Again, it's the Lords that have stopped things being worse. It wasn't the Commons that stopped 90-days detention without charge. On that one the House of Lords sat all night. I think the Government didn't think the Lords were up to it but we were and I assure you they were all there. They were just as lively in the morning as they were that night. The Government should never underestimate the House of Lords!

Q) Do you agree with the view that at least Labour have dragged the Tories towards the centre ground?

A) No, I think what's happened is that the Tories have gone there voluntarily. I think that Labour has gone to the right of the centre ground.

What do you make of a Government which says our air is not for sale before the election, and when they get into power they sell off air traffic control? I think it was Andrew Smith, at Labour Party Conference who said ‘Our air is not for sale' - and not long after came this Bill to part-privatise.

‘Education, education, education' - but where has education gone? Things probably are worse now than when he said that.

‘We will not impose charges on tuition' - there's a £3,000 charge now and the universities want more. Those are just some of the things that the present Government have done which the Tories wouldn't have dared to do.

As I said in the debate, if the Tories had wanted to part-privatise the Royal Mail Labour would have been jumping up and down in a rage and organising marches up and down the country. But here they are, doing it and defending it.

The old Labour party was very much concerned about individual freedom and believed that Parliament was sovereign. Now of course Parliament isn't the sort of place that it used to be. It's marginalised for several reasons. I think Tony Blair had a contempt for Parliament and Mandelson actually made a speech, supporting the Third Way, believing in direct democracy rather than representative democracy. In other words that the Government overlooks Parliament and deals directly with the people.

The Government, has taken Parliament for granted.

Parliament has become more professional and more people depend on it for their living.

The Cabinet system has - to some degree anyway - broken down and the Prime Minister instead of being prima inter pares (‘first among equals') has taken on the role of a President - but without the checks and balances that a Presidential system must have.

In addition to that of course 70% of all legislation now starts in Europe and once it's got to the House of Commons or House of Lords there's nothing they can do about it because it's all been agreed.

Then lots of power has been devolved to Scotland and also to Wales and will shortly be going to Northern Ireland, so the House of Commons has much less to do. They say they have more to do, but it depends what you mean by more.

The number of all-parliamentary groups has ballooned - when I was there, there were about 70 of them, now I think it's over 200. I don't doubt they get a lot of correspondence but to a very large degree they can't do anything about it because power is being exercised elsewhere - in Scotland, in Wales, in Europe and in Northern Ireland.

Q) What's at the heart of your opposition to Europe? Your respect for Parliament, for individual freedoms, or is it more for economic reasons?

A) I'm for self-government, that's at the heart of it for me and always has been. I believe that this country should be governed by its own institutions which have been tried and tested over a long period of time.

Decisions, affecting the people of this country - including financial and tax matters and VAT - are being made elsewhere.

I've always been against it. I made my first speech in Woolhampton in 1962 opposing any idea about entering what was then called the Common Market. My opposition hasn't wavered. I am still the President of the Campaign for an Independent Britain and was its chairman for 23 years. I've made probably hundreds of speeches in the House of Commons and House of Lords opposing it.

It's a very bad system and people don't quite understand just how much of their power is not being exercised by their own Parliament but by bureaucrats sitting in a foreign capital.

Q) What about the European Parliament, does it have any power to rein in the Commission bureaucrats?

A) Fortunately it doesn't have much power. I resigned as a minister - I was the Lord Commissioner, a grand title for ‘senior whip' - because of the Bill to have direct elections to the European Parliament. Until then, 1977, it was an Assembly and the delegates to it came from the national Parliaments to whom they were responsible and I knew it was going to weaken the power of the national parliaments - and so it has.

The European Parliament now, because of the powers it has been given, is much more influential than it has been or should be.

I have a huge love of this country and of its people. I believe in co-operating with Europe and all other countries throughout the globe because I think we have a lot of experience to give. But I believe this country will thrive outside of the European Union - socially, politically, financially and economically. It's all there if you study it, you can see that Europe, far from being of assistance, is a burden to this country.

It burdens us with high food costs - the average family pays about £20 more per week than they would do if we were outside of the European Common Agricultural Policy. Our direct contribution, in gross terms, is about £15bn a year, and when it comes to net - and it's going up because of the fall in the value of the pound - certainly by 2010 will be getting on for £7.5bn.

Then over-regulation costs us about £20-40bn a year. It would clearly be a benefit if we could get rid of the incubus of the European Union.

People forget that Britain is still part of the Commonwealth - perhaps more than a quarter of the world's population. We could and should exist outside of Europe. 55% of the British people would leave the EU and 84% want no further powers to go to Europe. They want to be consulted through a referendum. Those are the latest figures, which have shown that the people have never been converted.

Constantly people now say if we had known that it wasn't just about a free market but was eventually to become a country called Europe, we would never have voted to remain in 1975.

Q) Is politics in your blood, does it go back in the family?

A) My father was a coal-miner. Politics weren't really talked. The first recognition I had of politics was when the Member of Parliament - a very respected figure in those days - came to the Rhondda to speak and there was an exodus of people to the central hall. I saw all these people and said what's going on, and they said the MP is coming - and that was the first indication I had that there was such a thing as politics. But family-wise, no.

Q) So what was the intial impetus in 1949?

A) I think it was probably my first wife's father, he was political and taught me a lot and then I became self-taught. I came to have a fascination for it. There's nothing like it. There's nothing like being involved in how a country is run.

But it can be very hard. You're in the public eye all the time. If you go on holiday you dare not say you're an MP because from then on everybody wants to talk to you about everything under the sun, but certainly when I was in the Commons it was long, long hours and all-night sittings.

Nowadays the House of Lords tends to be sitting when the House of Commons has gone home.

But people don't understand that the House of Commons is there to hold the Government to account. Parliament cannot and should not be a nine-five job, it's absurd. You have to be prepared to challenge the Government at every turn because if you don't they'll get away with anything.

People used to deride the all-night sittings, but that is when you get concessions, when you begin to wear down ministers. The first lesson taught to me when I got to the House of Commons was that time is the enemy of the Government and the friend of the opposition. That's been forgotten and that's most unfortunate. Because if Parliament is there for anything it is to challenge the Executive and the House of Commons are not doing it enough.

It may be because there's too many people without proper experience. Before I got into the House of Commons I had done several jobs in my life in various industries, and had also served 18 years on a first-class local authority, and led it. At least I had some idea. Though once I had resigned as a don't get favour after that.

But I'm still able to do what I do and in this session alone, which didn't really begin until January, I noticed almost with horror that I had spoken 18 times in debates - in committee and on the floor of the House and oral questions - and put down 45 written questions. So I'm still active, and exercise a certain amount of influence.

One of the great things about being an ex-MP in the Lords is that you've got the run of the place. Not only the House of Lords but, except for the Chamber, you can go along and have tea in the House of Commons which I do very often and because it keeps me up-to-date with their thinking, and helps them to a certain degree as well. I point them out to various things that are happening.

Q) So you still have friends and colleagues in the Commons?

A) Oh yes, quite a lot of them. I've been around the place for so long now. It surprises me, you go past an attendant and they know your name.

Q) Does the House of Lords best hold the Government to account in its current form, or is there scope for reform?

A) My recommendation always was that the House of Commons must be sovereign, in the last analysis, because they are the elected body. But in our system, a so-called bicameral system, what they had really was a sort of advisory body, the House of Lords which wouldn't use its power because of the hereditaries.

In my view, if you want the House of Commons to retain its sovereignty, for God's sake leave the House of Lords alone. But if you're going to do anything, it must then be fully elected, no messing about.

But this is the House of Lords that the Government and the House of Commons have created. What they've done is to make it more respectable and because of the additions they've made to it it's more powerful, and the Lords feel legitimate because this is what Parliament has decided their role is.

Q) And some of the old conventions on not challenging the will of the Commons' on certain issues are falling by the wayside?

A) Now that they've got rid of the hereditaries - if they'd fought, incidentally, they could probably have won but they decided wrongly that they didn't have a case - we're going to do the job as best as we possibly can and are going to hold the Government to greater account than we did before.

There is a fallacy that if you have a fully-elected House of Lords that they will simply be the same as they are now, power-wise. All history tells us that if you elect a body they will not only demand power, they will get power. If the House of Lords is fully elected the House of Commons is bound then to share its sovereignty, the people will demand it. It's going to be much more powerful than it is now and the House of Commons must then have to lose part of their power, particularly in constitutional matters.

If they've got any sense they'd realise that you've almost got the perfect position at the moment, where the House of Commons, the elected body, retains sovereignty but is held to account and supervised in a way which couldn't happen if it became party politicised in the same way as the Commons.

There is still this attitude of freedom in the House of Lords. Basically, once you've reached the House of Lords you can't go much further up the social scale, unless you become Royalty and that's very difficult. So most of them basically don't want anything. The ministers who exercise the power are in the House of Commons, there are some in the House of Lords, but you've got this other side of politics where freedom of choice in voting is always there without the Government being able to do anything about it, or withdraw rewards or so on.

Q) So you must have been deeply concerned about these allegations about money for influence in the Lords - do you believe it?

A) I don't know, quite frankly - to get yourself caught on tape, like Lord Taylor, was a very foolish thing to do. How he can say the things he did, I don't know, it was very foolish. We'll have to wait and see the outcome of it.

But people get hysterical about it. People forget that in the House of Commons, the people elected them and they are basically representative of society at large. It's almost impossible, even within the Church, to have an organisation which is completely free of bad influences or corruption. The House of Commons is probably representative of the people who elect it.

I've always taken the view, when people criticise the House of Commons, that its members are at least as honest and good as those they represent and probably in most cases rather better, because they have better opportunities to know what's going on.

But the press become hysterical about these things, and often they take action which then restricts the ability of the people who are elected or appointed to do their job properly, and that isn't only a restriction on them, it's a restriction on the people out there. This is what happens when hysteria takes over, bad decisions are taken ,and generally speaking they react worse not on the members but on the people they represent.

There's talk of removing parliamentary privilege. That would be a disaster - not for parliamentarians, but for people out there. A parliamentarian must be able, if he's got a good suspicion but not direct evidence of something very bad in the country or in his constituency to be able to voice it.

It's a great honour and a privilege to have been able to do the things that I've done over such a long period of time and indeed to have enjoyed the health to do so. But I enjoy doing it and if you're a member of the House of Lords you have a personal summons from the monarch to be there and do your job, so you never retire.

People don't understand why members of the House of Lords don't have a vote at general elections - they are already members of Parliament. When an election is called, the following morning a registered letter arrives at my door, and there is the personal writ of summons from the monarch summoning you to the new parliament.

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