Charles Morris, MP for Manchester Openshaw from 1963- 83, died on 8 January 2012.
Charles Morris, who has died aged 85, was a politician from another age, one of a now long-gone breed of Labour MPs whose politics were formed by the poverty in which they were raised. He was a former Post Office worker who was sponsored by his trade union as MP for Manchester Openshaw, and was a member of the Labour governments from 1966 until 1970, and from 1974 until 1979. When his constituency was abolished in 1983, he returned to work for his union.
Morris beat his younger brother Alf (now Lord Morris of Manchester) into the House of Commons by a few months, winning a by-election in December 1963, on the death of the incumbent Labour MP Bill Williams. It was a constituency where the Union of Post Office Workers held considerable weight – the late MP had been known as “Post Office Williams” – which was Charles’s good fortune. When Labour won the general election a few months later, Tony Benn was made postmaster-general and appointed Charles Morris as his parliamentary private secretary.
After his maiden speech, Morris was commended as being “level-headed” by the Tory MP who spoke next and this proved a profoundly accurate assessment. He was a supremely modest man, unassuming, fiercely loyal to his party and to his political masters and without a trace of personal ambition. One of his two daughters, Estelle (now Baroness Morris of Yardley), became MP For Birmingham Yardley and secretary of state for education, and father and daughter shared the highly unusual political distinction of not making enemies.
He was, in political terms, “a safe pair of hands” and it ensured him continuous status within the Labour party in the Commons. He was a government whip from 1966, becoming deputy chief whip, in the last year of that government, under Bob Mellish as they struggled to contain the party rows over Barbara Castle’s doomed attempts at trade union reform. Morris spoke in a slow and distinct manner, having had elocution lessons, and Mellish was fond of remarking that listening to him was like turning on the BBC Home Service. But unlike the more mercurial Alf, he had a helpfully calming effect on the frenzied atmosphere of the whips’ office and the Commons’ lobbies.
A measure of how well he was regarded was Harold Wilson’s decision to appoint him as his PPS in opposition from 1970 until 1974, a post of considerable importance for Morris, who was a go-between for the leader and the parliamentary Labour party. He was rewarded with the job of minister of state at Environment between the two 1974 elections and then given the difficult responsibility of the Civil Service Department, overseeing pay negotiations during the fraught years of incomes policy and restraint. He remained there until the winter of discontent drove the Callaghan government from office in 1979.
He was deputy shadow leader of the house during the party’s warring years under Michael Foot’s leadership and, having lost out when the Boundary Commission redrew the constituencies in Manchester, tried unsuccessfully to seek selection for three other seats. It was a sorry end to his parliamentary career that, as he had no other role in the forthcoming general election, he then helped run the disastrous 1983 campaign.
Charles and Alf were two of the eight children of George Morris and his wife Jessie (nee Murphy). Their father had returned from the trenches of the first world war suffering from damage to his sight, injuries to his leg and the effects of being gassed. He found work as a signwriter, but the family lived in profound poverty in an area of inner Manchester that had scarcely improved since caricatured by Mrs Gaskell in her mid-19th-century novel Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. The Morrises lived in Grace Street, Ancoats, and when the area was designated for slum clearance in 1935 as George was dying from his war wounds, the family was too poor to qualify for a council house. For a while the workhouse threatened, until they were rescued with the help of a local cleric who enabled them to secure a move to a housing project in Newton Heath.
Charles was nine years old when his father died aged 44 and their mother failed to qualify for a pension; understandably, the hardships of this childhood had a profound effect in politicising the family, although with different approaches. Alf sought higher education and went to Ruskin College, then St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and became a teacher before entering politics and campaigning with great success for the disabled and their families. His 1972 book No Feet to Drag gives a flavour of how their father’s disability had a lifelong effect on them all. Charles served for three years with the Royal Engineers and in the 1950s immersed himself in Labour party and trade union politics. He was a Manchester city councillor for 10 years, president of the local Labour Party and a national executive member of his union.
In 1950 he married Pauline Dunn, a fellow Mancunian who shared his political perceptions. She, Estelle, and their other daughter, Heather, survive him.
• Charles Richard Morris, politician, born 14 December 1926; died 8 January 2012