The influential trade unionist and Labour party figure Lord (Derek) Gladwin, who has died aged 72, was a perfect specimen of that once flourishing species now threatened with extinction – the working-class lad who pursues an education to devote his life to what Labour leaders used to call “this great movement of ours”.
His father was a fitter and shop steward, who belonged to the rightwing faction within the then Amalgamated Engineering Union led by Bill (later Sir William) Carron. Derek himself was educated at Carr Lane junior school, Grimsby, and Wintringham grammar school.
Then, after six years working for British Railways and in Grimsby docks, from 1946 to 1952, his life was transformed by an advertisement in the Daily Herald. This invited working men and women to apply for places at Ruskin College, a unique Oxford institution founded by two rich Americans. Gladwin and I met at Ruskin on the first day of Michaelmas term 1953; he was 23 and I was 27. We have been meeting ever since; he was my best man and I was his. I cannot claim to be objective about him.
It is easy to summarise his CV. He was an official of the General and Municipal Workers’ Union for 34 years, becoming southern regional secretary, and thus one of the all-powerful “barons”, from 1970-90. He was also, for a time, chairman of the union, and a permanent part of its delegation to the Labour party annual conference.
As a result, for those years from 1974 to 1990, Derek chaired the then extremely important conference arrangements committee. Each year, his benign and avuncular persona guided first-time delegates through the labyrinthine mix of composite motions and executive statements that constituted conference business in those days. He was accepted by all as the ultimate guardian of fairness and order; it did not matter if you were not speaking to each other, so long as you spoke to Gladwin.
Without visible efforts, he collected more than his share of quangos, nationalised boards and review bodies, and he also served on the employment appeals tribunal. He refused few invitations to work for sundry good causes, such as the British Diabetic Association, of which he was a trustee from 1995 to 2001. He was an active Fabian, an executive committee member of the Industrial Society from 1968 to 1991, and on its council in 1968. He was an inveterate overseas delegate.
He remained on his local bench until retiring age, and even became chairman of his residents’ association. To him, these were all platforms from which he could assist the onward march of the workers and the ultimate goals of the Labour movement.
Derek’s longest and most rewarding association was with Ruskin College. He soon appeared as the GMB’s representative on the governing body, and, at the first opportunity, in 1979 became chairman of its governing council, remaining in the post until 1999. His devotion to the college interests was unmatched – whenever there was the slightest chance, he campaigned for its expansion and development. After he finally had to retire, in 2000 he was elected as Ruskin’s first life president.
Derek’s secret was that he always read all the papers in advance of the meeting, making neat little notes in the margin. From them, he could plan his strategy and maximise his influence. He always knew when to intervene – usually when others had “made a mess of things”. He had a genius for rooting out the basis of an agreement, and making it look as if it were a product of the general will.
At conference, he was at his most gentle when dealing with new, rank-and-file delegates, and at his most magisterial when pointing out to union leaders, or MPs, that they ought to know the rules by now.
He was least successful when seeking to explain to the five party leaders he served just how conference worked, and why they should speak to time. They all said they saw the point, but all of them somehow got it wrong. He failed most spectacularly with James Callaghan, at the time of the 1978-79 winter of discontent. Derek could not believe that the cabinet was serious about the 5% pay norm. But then, he was not alone in taking that view.
Derek suffered, as we all did, during the long dark night of Thatcherism, especially when so many of his pro-Europe friends diverted the great movement that had made them when they were needed most. He once asked me: “We don’t have to have anything to do with all this, do we?” But he knew the answer all along.
Created a life peer in 1994, he was offered a House of Lords job in 1997, when victory came at last for Labour. He decided against it, saying he preferred to “work from behind”. Part of the trouble was that, for Derek, the unforgivable sin had always been to work for another party, let alone stand against a Labour candidate. But, by then, many rising figures in New Labour had been guilty of both sins, often quite recently. Derek could never swallow the case for making all the fuss over the sheep that “went astray” – he always saw himself as a member of the other 99. He was not so much old Labour as broad Labour. His ultimate loyalty was to its institutions and long-standing aims. His attachment to individuals, even leaders, was, in this sense, contingent.
So despite his beloved wife Ruth and precious family, who tried to get him to put away his papers for a while and indulge his many private interests, including “keeping in touch with Grimsby”, he went on in much the same way – often in considerable pain. He was a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, from 1978 to 1986.
Let us be clear. It is not that there are no replacements for such as Derek Gladwin; the tragedy is that there are. It is rather that, nowadays, long service and ideological constancy are at a discount as you move upwards. It has something to do with what zoologists term “a hostile habit”. It is what worries the friends of the sparrow. It has already done for the mountain gorilla.
Derek is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1956, and their son.
• Derek Oliver Gladwin, Lord Gladwin of Clee, trade unionist, born June 6 1930; died April 10 2003