Obituary: William McKelvey, Labour MP and trade unionist

William McKelvey, politician and trade unionist. Born: 8 July 1934, Dundee. Died: 19 October 2016, Kilmarnock, aged 82.

William McKelvey, former Labour MP, has died at the age of 82. Picture: Robert Perry
William McKelvey, former Labour MP, has died at the age of 82. Picture: Robert Perry

William “Willie” McKelvey was a rare breed of politician in the modern era – one that genuinely cared for his fellow man, and one that did not become tainted, sanitised or swayed by his Westminster parliamentary experiences. He was to many “a working class hero”. A wonderful raconteur with quick wit, he was a popular character at Westminster.

As a councillor, a union leader and a Labour MP, firstly for Kilmarnock (1979-83) and then for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (1983-97), McKelvey was an enigmatic, eloquent and ardent campaigner and champion of the working people of Scotland. Despite having to retire due to poor health in 1997, he was thrilled when that year’s landslide victory saw Labour return to power under Tony Blair after 18 years of Tory government.

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Never afraid of ruffling feathers and always trying to make a difference, McKelvey hit the headlines with a controversial suggestion to supply heroin free to Glasgow’s addicts in a bid to help solve the city’s escalating drug problem.

Former MP George Galloway, who remembered being pushed around in a pram by family friend McKelvey as a baby, paid tribute in his eulogy, describing him as “a dynamic and charismatic union leader whose faith was in the working class, the Labour party and the labour movement”.

Born in Dundee in 1934, William McKelvey was the son of Florence and George, who had met at Britain’s first jute mill. His father, an accomplished accordionist, was a founding member of the famous Jimmy Shand Band.

William attended Morgan Academy, where he was a good singer, but left school at 14 to attend Dundee College of Technology. After National Service in the RAF, he went to work with the National Cash Register, a huge employer in Dundee. He became a shop steward and, in 1971, an official with the Amalgamated Engineering Union (now part of Unite). He became Labour’s full-time secretary and convenor in the city in 1973.

Councils up and down the country were being investigated over allegations of corruption in relation to contracts. Dundee was no different, particularly in relation to contracts for the city centre’s redevelopment; building firm Crudens and several Labour councillors were implicated. McKelvey, already a councillor, worked with Gus MacDonald (now Lord), former Scotsman and Sunday Times reporter, and Ray Fitzwalter of Granada’s World in Action, which led to an exposé that resulted in one conviction.

By 1977, McKelvey had become leader of the council and shortly after the post of Labour organiser for Dundee was filled by George Galloway, to whom he had been a political mentor from an early age. Soon after, Willie Ross, the Kilmarnock MP and former Secretary of State for Scotland, stalwart stepped down, and McKelvey was put forward. He retained the seat with an increased share of the vote for Labour in the 1979 general election, which saw the first of Margaret Thatcher’s three consecutive victories.

Upon heading south to Westminster with fellow friend and newly elected Dundee West MP, Ernie Ross, the pair were full of idealism and reforming zeal directed towards making the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) more democratic. In July 1981, they proposed “all Labour MPs should sign a loyalty oath to stand by conference decisions”. McKelvey later reflected that “the PLP thought that we were nutters.” Aligned with Tony Benn, he founded the hard Left Socialist Campaign group.

During his time in the House of Commons, he took an active role on matters concerning Scotland and particularly championed subjects concerning the west of Scotland. In his maiden speech in 1979, McKelvey passionately pleaded for the retention of combine harvester production in Kilmarnock by US-owned Massey-Ferguson, who planned to shift manufacturing to France. This duly happened the following year, with the loss of 1,200 jobs.

In 1981 he met Mrs Thatcher to discuss the threatened closures of Armitage Shanks, Saxone (shoes) and Blackwood Morton and Sons (carpet) factories in Kilmarnock. Little was done to help.

McKelvey spoke in the House on occupational pensions and the Scotch whisky industry, in particular Johnnie Walker, which was a major employer in Kilmarnock until it closed in March 2012 after 192 years, moving to Fife and Glasgow.

While on the Scottish Affairs Committee, McKelvey became known for his excellent leadership and as a consensual chairman and, though very much a socialist, he was praised for his ability to work well across party lines in order achieve effective outcomes. One of his most effective Commons speeches was delivered in 1990, on behalf of two constituents whose sons were both suffering from haemophilia and HIV-positive. He pleaded with the government to make funds available to help such distressed families.

In 1995, he produced an insightful report on drug abuse in Scotland which proposed some sweeping yet controversial measures for the treatment of heroin addicts in Glasgow; campaigners were delighted but some Labour supporters disapproved.

McKelvey explained: “If pure, clean heroin was selectively decriminalised and supplied free to those addicts who wanted to kick their habit, it would drastically reduce the level of mixing and the death rate would decline.”

McKelvey enjoyed greyhound racing and was fundamental in starting the All Party Parliamentary Greyhound Group. He bought his first two pups, at about £1,500 each, in the late 80s in partnership with MPs, Irene Adams, John McAllion and Jim Wray. The venture was a failure but, hooked on the sport, he paid £800 for Lady Polly, who won many races. Upon retirement, she became “a tremendous pal for the next 12 years.”

Although he retired from national politics in 1997, McKelvey continued to support the local community.

McKelvey married Edith Watson with whom he had two children, William and George. Edith died in 2001. Both sons survive him.