Obituary: Michael Meacher – ‘Robin Hood in spectacles’
Tuesday, January 26th, 2016
Among the prominent deaths of 2015 was the veteran Labour MP and former environmental minister Michael Meacher. For some, Meacher, who died at the age of 75, was a conviction politician who championed social democratic principles of justice, equality and fairness through combining pragmatism with political radicalism.
Meacher was first elected to the House of Parliament in May 1970 for Oldham West (now Oldham West and Royton), an area he served until his death. He was one of the only two MPs (the other is Gerald Kaufman MP) to have served the Labour Governments under both Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He came from the left of the party.
When Meacher arrived in Oldham his principle concern was to tackle poverty in the borough. Oldham, once a light of the industrial revolution, had lost its industrial spark and by now was suffering from mass-unemployment and wide scale poverty. Meacher’s political radicalism and his commitment to equality led one of his Conservative party critics to describe him as ‘Robin Hood in Spectacles’.
Meacher’s radicalism was informed by a deep understanding of political ideology; prior to taking on a political career, Meacher taught social policy at Essex, York and the LSE. In fact, Meacher didn’t completely leave his academic career when he took on politics; he was the author of Taking for a Ride: Special Residential Homes for Confused Old People (1972) Socialism with a Human Face: Political Economy of Britain (1982) and more recently he wrote The State We Need: Keys to the Renaissance of Britain (2012) in which he argued for a radical change in economic and political discourses by stressing the importance of tackling inequality through investments in a manufacturing industry.
In addition to running a busy political office, Meacher wrote a daily blog on range of socio-political and economic issues aimed at critiquing and challenging the neo-liberal political consensus. Moreover, he also managed to make time to write a weekly column for the Morning Star; a paper which has historical links with the Communist Party of Britain.
The unexpected death of Meacher was seen by many as marking the end of an era. Some political commentators referred to the ‘uncritical support’ towards Meacher amongst large sections of the Muslim community in Oldham as one of the contributing factors to the alienation of the white working class from Labor party politics. This political forecasting proved to be wrong – Labour’s Jim McMahon won the by-election with 62% of the vote – an increase of seven percentage points on Meacher’s May election results. Nevertheless, the Muslim question in the political context does raise a number of issues.
Firstly, growing up in Oldham Meacher had been a household name for many years; he was a prominent figure within the Muslim community. This was mainly due to his support in helping individuals and families with their respective cases relating to immigration or related issues. His active presence in community events and his weekly surgeries meant he was always accessible to activists to help advise on a range of diverse issues, including the Israeli assault on Gaza and the Danish cartoons crisis. Meacher’s politics on a range of issues including the rights for Palestinian self-determination, the War on Terror and Middle-Eastern politics were in tune with the mainstream Muslim sentiments. It is clear from his writings and also personal conversations that he was well read and always had an informed opinion on the various topics under discussion.
Second, Meacher had a privileged position as an MP. When Meacher was elected as an MP in 1970, Oldham’s Muslim community was at a very nascent stage of its development. Meacher had the gift of hindsight to see the community develop, mature and diversify. He was able to observe key historical events which helped shape the community such as the rise of Bangladeshi nationalism, and the subsequent Bangladeshi war of independence in 1972 (which marked the end of Pakistani rule of East Pakistan). The Rushdie Affair, the rise of Muslim consciousness and the critical events of the 2001 race-riots brought Muslim youth onto the political landscape. More recently the arrival of Kurds and other refugees has added to the internal diversity of the local Muslim community. One of the biggest challenges for any political leader is to understand complex community dynamics and Meacher had the opportunity to observe and to some extent shape the changes that occurred in his constituency while he was an MP.
Thirdly, a criticism levelled against the above by some is that politicians using the wisdom of hindsight were able to use their knowledge of diaspora community dynamics to play a politics of divide and rule. The Biraderi-politiking within the Pakistani communities and similar kinship based dynamics based upon the geographical locations within Syhlet, Bangladesh was used to secure political patronage amongst diaspora communities. Biraderi-politiking is a term, which the academic Parveen Akhtar uses to describe the ‘mobilization of biraderi networks as a system of patronage and mechanism for political control within the Pakistani diaspora and public sphere’. Biraderi-politiking has a tendency to ‘exclude’ many, particularly women and young people, whilst ‘inspiring’ the few (local politicians and biraderi leaders). Unfortunately Meacher did not keep himself distant from this form of political management.
Michael Meacher has been an important figure in Oldham for last forty five years. He will be remembered fondly for his championing of this small Northern city and his unceasing service for his constituents.