Sir Gerald Kaufman, Labour Party politician

Sir Gerald Kaufman in Hebron in 2010. HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images
Sir Gerald Kaufman in Hebron in 2010. HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images
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Sir Gerald Bernard Kaufman: Born: 21 June 1930, in Leeds. Died: 26 February 2017, aged 86

Sir Gerald Kaufman was one of the most able, acerbic and articulate frontbenchers during Labour’s lean years in Opposition in the 1980s and 1990s and would certainly have commanded a senior Cabinet post had his party not lost its fourth election in a row in 1992.

But after that defeat and then at the age of 61, Kaufman decided not to stand again for the shadow cabinet and returned to the backbenches to pursue an active career there, as well as becoming chairman of the key National Heritage Select Committee, later to become the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, with the arrival of Labour in power.

He denied this voluntary departure from the highest echelons of the party was prompted by despair, saying, generously, that it was right to make way for another political generation. And despite the fact that he was Jewish, Kaufman was a critic of the modern state of Israel. He also possessed an enviable knowledge of cinema and the vaudeville of his generation.

During his period in the shadow cabinet he was easily the most effective and biting tormentor of the Government, a genius also of the “newspaper bite”, delivering the most scarring insults to his political enemies in a bare minimum of ferocious words.

His background in early TV satire, as a political correspondent, and as a Labour Party press officer during Harold Wilson’s governments provided an ideal base from which to launch his parliamentary career. It was only the “accident” of prolonged Tory power from 1979 which cheated him of what would surely have been an illustrious career as a Cabinet minister.

Gerald Bernard Kaufman was born on June 21, 1930, the descendant of a family of Polish Jewish immigrants. The son of a tailor, he was educated at Cowper Street Council School, Leeds, and Leeds Grammar School, where, he says, he was the victim of anti-Semitic bullying. Later he graduated from Queens College, Oxford.

Kaufman worked on the political staff of the Daily Mirror and New Statesman, and also appeared on That Was The Week That Was in the early 1960s, the first satirical anti-Establishment programme on TV.

He fought some hopeless seats – including opposing Harold Macmillan at Bromley in 1955 – before entering Parliament as MP for Manchester, Ardwick, in 1970. From 1983 onwards he represented Manchester, Gorton.

When Labour regained power from Edward Heath in 1974, Kaufman became Under Secretary, Environment and a year later was promoted to Minister of State, Industry, a post he held until Margaret Thatcher swept them out of office in 1979.

In opposition he served consecutively as housing, home and foreign affairs spokesman, and in whatever portfolio he was engaged he was probably the most consistently incisive and certainly sharpest-tongued operator on Labour’s front-bench.

Kaufman was elected 12 times in succession to the shadow cabinet and was always at, or near, the top of the annual contest, coming first on no fewer than four occasions. He was the only leading Labour figure who had the courage to tell Michael Foot that he ought to quit as leader in 1983. He had dramatically warned, privately at the time, that Labour’s 1983 election manifesto was “the longest suicide note in history”. But his warning – disastrously for Labour – went unheeded.

Throughout his political career, Kaufman was also downright disdainful of the hard left in the Labour movement. Once, at a formal lunch, he found himself sitting next to left-winger Ken Livingstone. He abruptly moved to a different table.

In 1983 he withdrew his name as a deputy leader aspirant after Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley entered a pact to support one another for deputy leader if the other became leader. And when Kinnock decided Labour’s unilateralist defence policy had to be ditched, he and his closest confidants agreed to “send for Gerald”. He was put in charge of the defence policy review group and eased Labour’s biggest policy somersault through the party with aplomb.

Because he was not regarded as telegenic – one commentator described him as looking like the Muppet, Kermit the Frog – Mr Kaufman was often given a low-profile, backroom role at general elections.

But many of his friends – and others – regarded this as a serious mistake, since Kaufman possessed the strongest line in invective of any Labour frontbencher.

He called Margaret Thatcher “the thieving magpie”, Michael Heseltine a “commissar” and John Major “the man who came to dither”.

Kaufman became one of the leading Jewish critics of Israel. He once called for economic sanctions and an arms ban against Israel, describing the country as a “pariah” and its senior politicians as “war criminals”.

In 2002 he created a BBC television documentary, The End Of The Affair, in which he recounted his youthful infatuation with Israel and his eventual disillusionment.

In April 2002 during Israel’s controversial military operation codenamed Defensive Wall, Kaufman told the Commons: “It is time to remind Ariel Sharon [the then prime minister of Israel] that the Star of David belongs to all Jews, not to his repulsive government.

“His actions are staining the Star of David with blood.”

He was notable for his jazzy attire, sometimes looking more like a bespectacled gangster than a shadow cabinet minister. One commentator described him as “that quiet bald figure in the silk jacket and clashing tie”.

Kaufman, who was unmarried, was awarded a knighthood in the Birthday Honours of 2004.

He became the longest-serving MP, taking the title of Father of the House of Commons, in 2015, when Conservative MP Peter Tapsell retired.

Chris Moncrieff