Gerald O’Brien, who has died of lung cancer aged 63, was a crucial figure in building the organisational strength of the Labour party in Scotland, and achieving election results which, particularly during the 1980s, defied the laws of political gravity. Well-known to every Labour luminary of the past 30 years, he enjoyed playing up his role as the slightly unwordly big lad from the “Pans”, or Prestonpans, in East Lothian. But in terms of political astuteness and common sense, he was a match for any who might have felt inclined to patronise him – and he knew it.
O’Brien was from a mining background, and was one of six children. He was educated at St Martin’s primary school, in Prestonpans, and Edinburgh’s Holy Cross. After a spell as a civil servant with the fisheries department of the Scottish Office, he became an electrician, and was thus rooted in the formidable organisational politics of the EETPU.
His family were community leaders in Prestonpans, where the town and its neighbouring coalfield formed, for generations, something of a Labour oasis within the solidly Tory constituency of Berwick and East Lothian. The man who broke that grip was the outstanding Labour intellectual John P Mackintosh, who became O’Brien’s mentor and lifelong hero. Mackintosh won Berwick and East Lothian in the Labour landslide of 1966, replacing the Tory grandee Sir William Anstruther-Gray.
O’Brien became Mackintosh’s agent in 1972. At the core of a well-financed, well-organised constituency party was the Prestonpans Labour club, which O’Brien was deeply involved in running. Mackintosh was an advanced devolutionist and an early supporter of greater integra tion into what was then the European Common Market. O’Brien was loyal to both these positions, but he was also the most non-factional of men, who could state his views with conviction while always putting the party interest first.
Mackintosh’s death, in 1978, was a huge personal blow to O’Brien. But he immediately put his shoulder to the wheel to ensure that Berwick and East Lothian remained a Labour seat. The conventional wisdom was that, without Mackintosh’s ability to reach across political barriers, it would revert to the Tories. In fact, even at this inauspicious time nationally for Labour, an excellent campaign saw John Home Robertson home with a comfortable majority.
This byelection might reasonably be seen as the beginning of the end for the Tories in Scotland, with the aid of tactical voting. If they could not win such a seat at a time of huge national unpopularity for a Labour government, where were they going to win?
Within less than 20 years, the answer to that question was, quite literally, nowhere, and Gerald O’Brien played a major role in the transition towards that state of affairs. He became a fulltime Scottish organiser of the Labour party in 1983, and acted as a pillar of solid, practical sanity in the midst of the political madness which characterised that era. Trotskyite entryists, for example, found themselves up against a foe who both knew his rulebook and could outflank them with humour and staying-power.
O’Brien was a calm, friendly man of conspicuous integrity, whose work extended well beyond Scotland. He was a popular figure with colleagues throughout Britain as a result of being deployed in every byelection during the Kinnock and Smith years, as Labour’s long journey towards electability began.
He took early retirement in 1996 to care for his first wife, Helen, but returned part-time to enjoy one of his finest hours in 1997, when he ran the campaign in Edinburgh Pentlands which unseated the then foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, on the night when Scotland finally became a Tory-free zone. He is survived by his second wife, Elaine, and his son Mark.
• Gerald O’Brien, political organiser, born April 10 1939; died December 19 2002