For 45 years the veteran left-wing Labour MP Michael Meacher retained his Oldham West and Royton constituency, which made him one of Parliament’s longest serving politicians. He held various junior posts in the shadow cabinet and government but his abrasive policies often placed him at odds with the Labour hierarchy. Throughout his time in Parliament Meacher was a radical firebrand and one of the 36 Labour MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn in the recent leadership election.
He described Corbyn’s election as a “seminal day in British politics, marking the coming together of the two great conditions needed for transformational change”.
Meacher was a colourful character with powerfully held views which he articulated with a deep conviction. Earlier this month he wrote a typically scathing attack on George Osborne’s austerity programme for his constituency bulletin. “Osborne has shown no concern whatever,” he wrote, “and frankly no pity or compassion with what he has already inflicted on a third of the population through five years of grinding austerity.”
Michael Hugh Meacher was educated at Berkhamstead School then got a First in Classics at New College, Oxford and gained a Diploma in Social Administration at the London School of Economics.
He had always been a keen student of politics and contested two seats in the late 1960s for Labour before winning Oldham West in 1970. He remained a lecturer at the LSE until the mid-1980s. He was a member of the Shadow Cabinet from 1983–97 but his views – he was a close ally of Tony Benn’s – did not find favour with New Labour and Tony Blair did not appoint him to any senior post when he took office. Instead, Meacher languished as a minister of state in various posts in the Department of the Environment. But he displayed a canny knack of mastering the most complex brief and by sheer hard work achieved many reforms – especially connected with conservation.
In 1983 he was the Left’s candidate for the deputy leadership election. Meacher ran a balanced campaign and Neil Kinnock, clearly rattled, said: “People regard him as Benn’s vicar on earth. In reality he is kind, scholarly, innocuous … and weak as hell.” Roy Hattersley won easily. He remained something of a thorn throughout Blair’s premiership and, significantly, is not mentioned in Blair’s autobiography.
Clearly senior members of the government were taken aback in 1999 when Meacher criticised those with second homes and it was alleged in a Channel 4 documentary that Meacher and his wife owned at least three properties. Blair ensured that the job at the new Department of Rural Affairs was given to Margaret Beckett.Facts about his past slowly emerged. Meacher was the son of an accountant and stockbroker but in 1988, lost a libel action against the journalist Alan Watkins, who had written an article saying: “Mr Meacher likes to claim that he is the son of an agricultural labourer, though I understand that his father was an accountant who retired to work on the family farm.”
In 2003 Meacher was sacked by Blair and with his freedom on the backbenches he attacked many of the government’s policies – most notably the Iraq war and replacing Trident.
But he supported environmental issues and championed the Kyoto Agreement on climate change, speaking with authority on global warming. He also was a strong supporter of the Right to Roam bill. In 2002 he stripped off and took a dip in Blackpool as the sea water had passed its EU cleanliness test. “God, it’s cold,” he said, shivering.
Meacher planned to challenge Gordon Brown and John McDonnell for the Labour leadership in 2007, but eventually stood aside and backed McDonnell. In fact, he struggled to get the required 44 nominations.
Meacher remained a maverick to the end. He argued strongly against the outsourcing of assessments for disabled people and during a debate in the House he so confused David Cameron that the Prime Minister accused him of taking “mind-altering substances”.
In 2013 Meacher published a radical analysis of the state of Britain, The State We Need. In a comprehensive attack on the existing system Meacher recommended: a different model for business, a reconstructed banking system, an alternative economic policy, a reconfigured power structure and a fundamental reassessment of the handling of climate change.
Meacher combined, to a remarkable degree, a capacity for open-minded and far-sighted thinking on serious questions. He was a thoroughly decent and principled man who campaigned for social justice for all.
Meacher was first married to the social scientist Molly Reid (now Baroness) Meacher. They were divorced and in 1988 he married Lucianne Sawyer. She, and the four children from the first marriage, survive him.