Alf helped 20 million people, against the odds

What a life! What a story! What a legacy! Perhaps it is that my roots and journey crosses that of Alf time after time, or perhaps it is...

What a life! What a story! What a legacy! Perhaps it is that my roots and journey crosses that of Alf time after time, or perhaps it is because we both serve the Co-op cause, or even admiration for what he has achieved and is still achieving — whatever it is, I found the biography of the life of Lord Alfred Morris of Manchester both a tribute and an inspiration.

I first came across Alf on the front page of the Co-operative News in 1951 when he stood as the Labour and Co-operative candidate in Garston, Liverpool. He lost that one, but he was to win many more in due time.

In 1951, Alf was the National Chairman of the Labour League of Youth and I was the President of the British Federation of Young Co-operators.

It was in 1951 that the BFYC annual conference was held at Wortley Hall, Sheffield, and the fraternal delegate from the Labour League of Youth was one Betty Boothroyd. All three of us were to meet up later in the Commons and now work happily on many projects in the House of Lords.

In the book, Alf refers to a friendship then with one Fred Jarvis, later to become the National Secretary of the National Union of Teachers and Chair of the Trades Union Congress. I first met Fred when he and I were delegates to a National Youth Parliament and we elected him as the Labour leader.

The chair of that Parliament was the wife of Arnold Kettle who was my tutor later at an Open University Summer School, and whose son is Martin Kettle of journalistic fame. Alf went on to Ruskin College and I went on to the Co-operative College. When I was there as Chair of the Student Body I welcomed students from Ruskin — led by its chairman, Dick Marsh. Talk about a small world!

Alf was to go on to change the world for millions of men, women and children when he entered Parliament in 1966 as the Co-operative MP for Wythenshawe, Manchester, the constituency in which he lived with his wife Irene and eventually his four children.

She was his soul-mate from an early age, and met through the Labour League of Youth. Those were the days when young people had the benefit of thousands of youth organisations and clubs to join and which gave to Alf and Irene that precious gift of a solid background. Both had their beginnings in the poorer part of Manchester.

When they married they had their wedding reception above a Co-op Butchers shop. Alf left school at the age of 14 and, like me, was denied the place he had won having passed his 11 plus exam, due to family circumstances. People today cannot understand that bright children in those days were denied educational opportunity due to family hardship.

This book is a testament, a dedication by young Alf to his parents, George and Jenny. Alf was one of nine children — by no means unusual in those days — but sadly not all of them survived into adulthood. Not only were conditions in the Ancoats district of Manchester bleak and poverty-stricken — they were so bad that in one of the early slum clearance schemes in the 30s the whole area was demolished thus giving the Morris’s the prospect of a new life elsewhere. Sadly, George who came home from service at the Front in France suffered the rest of his life from being gassed and he passed away less than 20 years after that awful ordeal on November 11th 1935. He was only 44 years of age. Thus Alf learned early and at first hand what it was like to be disabled.

He once said to me that it taught him that if you had a child or a parent who was disabled from whatever cause, you not only had that member of the family disabled, you had a disabled family. When Alf was to get into Parliament he carried with him a burning desire to render what help he could to all those who were chronically sick or disabled.

His chance was to come sooner than he dared hope. After being ‘blooded’ in 1951 at Garston he narrowly failed to gain the Labour nomination at Manchester Gorton in 1955 — losing it to Konni Zilliacus — and when he was finally chosen to fight the 1959 election in Wythenshawe he was to beat Walter Frost, one of my predecessors as President of the BFYC. It was not to be in 1959 nor, in 1964, but he was to enter Parliament in 1966 — at the same time as his brother Charles (the father of Estelle Morris who became the MP for Yardley, Birmingham). Within three days of entering the Commons Alf had some good luck when Fred Peart, the newly appointed Minister for Agriculture, appointed him as his Parliamentary Private Secretary — the first rung on the ministerial ladder (unpaid).

As Fred assumed higher Office he was to take Alf with him and eventually was to be a guide and mentor to Alf in one of the most arcane of fields — Parliamentary procedures. Alf was to become the master supreme in this most baffling of all arts and it was to lead to his many triumphs in his career.

The annual ballot for Private Members Bills is always a lucky dip. Potentially more than 500 members can enter the ballot. The first 20 secure a place for a Private Bill of their choice, but it is really only the first six who have any chance. In 1969 Alf drew first place.

It was then that emerged Alf’s Chronically Sick and Disabled Bill, the plank on which decades of supplementary legislation has been built. It was the product of years of agitation by Alf and others who recognised that there were millions of citizens living less than equal lives not from any fault of theirs, but because society either did not know or did not care — Alf and his supporters made them care.

Since the passing of that one Act it has been estimated that 20 million people in Britain have benefited. It stands as a memorial to Alf and many more devoted carers who had to battle against the odds — and won.

Alf’s biographer Derek Kinrade has done a masterly job in detailing the twists and turns that the mover of every Private Members’ Bill has to endure. I have to confess even though I was close to the action at the time I had little idea of the colossal and daunting task accomplished by Alf and his supporters in getting the Bill onto the floor of the Commons.

The Bill had 33 clauses and all had a common purpose: to increase the wellbeing, improve the status and enhance the dignity of chronically sick and disabled people. But as 1969 merged into 1970 the prospect of a General Election loomed large and with it the imperative that the Bill had to clear the Lords and return to the Commons in time for Royal Assent before the dissolution of Parliament.

The last day of Parliament was May 27th. What was now called the ‘Magna Carta of disabled people’ became law — just in time, for we now know that Labour lost the 1970 General Election and the likelihood that years of Parliamentary sweat would have been in vain. To do so it had to amend 39 existing Acts of Parliament as well as legislating in areas where previously there was no legislation of any kind to amend.

As the Minister John Dunwoody said at the time: “It was a compassionate and civilised charter for the chronically sick and disabled in our community.”

Alf was later to become the Minister for the Disabled in 1974. The book tells us how Alf later helped the disabled by ensuring the legislation was put into practice and helped bring together the myriad of organisations and institutions in the field who lacked a voice.

If the Bill was all that Alf achieved, it would have been more than enough for one man, but Alf was never idle. He represented the Police Federation at Westminster; campaigned on behalf of sufferers from thalidomide; and successfully brought in legislation giving the Mobility Allowance, Carers Allowances and Severely Disablement Allowance.

There was also a never ending list of invitations from governments across the world asking him to explain the aim of the legislation bearing his name. More importantly, how to overcome obstacles in the way.

He has addressed the US Congress and the United Nations. He was honoured by both Australia and New Zealand for his work and for being their champion after Britain joined the Common Market. Alf always kept in touch with his co-operative roots too. He was the Chair of the Co-operative Parliamentary Group (twice), honoured by the Movement when he was elected as President of Co-operative Congress in 1995 and chaired the Rules Revision Committee of the then CWS.

There are few Parliamentarians more respected than Alf and as co-operators we share in the lustre he has brought to our name. For many reasons this book is a must for co-operators.

• Alf Morris: People's Parliamentarian is available from the National Information Forum:

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