Roland Boyes 1937-2006

The former Labour MP and MEP Roland Boyes, who has died aged 69, was an opposition spokesman on environment and defence who began his Westminster career as a rumbustious backbencher and ended it as a soul-searching select committee member. He represented Durham in the European parliament from 1979 to 1984, and Houghton and Washington in the Commons from 1983 to 1997. Two years before Labour’s 1997 election victory, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and did not contest the seat again.

Though he modified his, at times, unruly behaviour as an MP – the Guardian’s Michael White called him “a born hooligan” – Boyes did not change his leftwing views as an opponent of nuclear weapons and a supporter of the Greenham Common women.

Born in Holmfirth, near Huddersfield, Yorkshire, Boyes was a bright lad at Wooldale primary school but fell ill with spinal meningitis at the age of 10 and missed the 11-plus exam. A year later, he was offered a place at Penistone grammar school. He gave up his chemistry place at Leicester University after a year, claiming that his accent made him feel out of place, but went on to qualify as a teacher at Coventry Training College and take a BSc and MSc in economics at Bradford University. He earned his living for 13 years as a maths teacher before taking up a research post in the County Durham social services department, eventually becoming assistant director.

Boyes began to climb the political ladder when he was elected to Easington district council in 1973. That same year he was selected to contest the Tory-held parliamentary seat of Scarborough, but decided not to fight. When he became an MEP six years later, he was against the EC, attacked the expense frauds of fellow MEPs and had to be stopped from marching on Downing Street in protest at the closure of the Consett steel works. He backed Tony Benn’s 1981 campaign to become deputy Labour leader.

In the 1983 general election he won the safe seat of Houghton-le-Spring (later designated as Houghton and Washington. He soon showed himself as an ambivalent leftwinger, joining both the soft-left Tribune group and the hard-left Campaign group. He was attacked as “nothing but a Tribunite” for refusing to join a pro-Scargill demonstration during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, but was one of four MPs offered honorary NUM membership for their opposition to police brutality against striking miners. He was more proud of his 1985 election as chairman of the Tribune group.

Boyes showed the way his political mind was moving in 1986 when he attacked the seven hard-left members of Labour’s NEC who walked out, bringing to a halt the disciplinary hearings against Militant. In the late 80s, he was a beneficiary of Neil Kinnock’s efforts to reshape the party, being promoted to assistant environment spokesman (1985-88) and assistant defence spokesman (1988-92). Kinnock knew what he was getting in the latter appointment because Boyes had complained that the British-based USAF aircraft that had bombed Libya might have been carrying nuclear weapons. He was dropped from the frontbench by John Smith in 1992, serving instead on the health and environment select committees.

Boyes’s other passion was photography, and in 1990 he brought out a book of portraits, People in Parliament. He is survived by his wife, Patricia, and his sons David and Paul.

Roland Boyes, politician, born February 12 1937; died June 16 2006

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