Lord Tom Burlison 1936-2008

Tom Burlison has died in May 2008 aged 71. He played several important roles in Labour politics – both nationally and in the north-east of England as a trade union official and as a Party man; Tom was also the first professional footballer to sit in the House of Lords.

Thomas Henry Burlison was born on May 23 1936 at Edmondsley, County Durham, and left school to become a panel beater in 1951. From 1953 he was a professional footballer, playing for Lincoln City, Hartlepool United and Darlington before retiring from the game in 1965. Between 1959 and 1961 he did National Service in the RAF.

A lifelong trade unionist, Tom became a regional officer of the General and Municipal Workers’ union in 1965 and north-east regional secretary in 1978. He stood for the union’s national leadership in 1985 but finished runner-up to John Edmonds. For nine years he served as chairman of the northern region of the TUC and was a member of the Party’s NEC.

When in 1994, following John Smith’s death, rival contenders for the Labour leadership travelled to Blackpool to address the annual conference of the GMB, Labour’s second-biggest affiliated union, the question arose as to whether Tony Blair or John Prescott should speak first. It fell to Tom to settle the issue by tossing a 20 pence coin.

Tom Burlison possessed acute political antennae which he kept sharply tuned and in 1997 Tony Blair – as the newly-elected prime minister – rewarded Tom’s political skills as Labour’s eyes and ears in the party’s north-east heartland by making him a working peer in the House of Lords.

He served as the Labour Party’s treasurer in the 1990s and as a government whip in the Lords from 1999 until 2001.

Tom’s close friend David Clelland commented, “Tom was a major figure in the Labour and Trade Union movement in the North East and at national level. He loved the North East and was instrumental during his life in improving the lives and the quality of life of thousands of our citizens.”

Tom Burlison is survived by Valerie and their two sons and a daughter.