Dave Watts pays tribute to his predecessor as MP for St Helens North, John Evans who died on 5th March
Today, along with many other Labour colleagues, I will attend the funeral of John Evans. Given that John was a staunch trade unionist, it is fitting that the service should take place on the same day as Parliament is debating the Trade Union Bill, which seeks to weaken the links between our Party and the trade union movement.
John had a very difficult early life after his father died in an industrial accident, and he experienced at first hand the hardship and poverty that would later shape his political beliefs. After completing his national service, John went to work locally in the Jarrow shipyards and soon became active within the AEU. A devoted trade unionist, he soon came to realise that working people also needed to be represented by a political party – the Labour Party. And that protecting people from exploitation demanded a strong party and unions working together to achieve a fairer and more just society.
John had a successful political career in local government, serving the people of Hebburn on South Tyneside until his election in February 1974 for the then Newton-le-Willows parliamentary constituency. Later, following boundary changes, he became MP for the newly created seat of St Helens North which he held until 1997. Having also been an MEP (from 1975 to 1978), he continued to take a keen interest in European issues.
A hardworking constituency MP, John had a reputation as a tough advocate and champion for his community. He successfully helped to prevent a takeover from a company intent on asset stripping Pilkington Glass, which was a vital local employer in St Helens. John took part in an unusual demonstration that saw both the employees and management protesting together against the proposed move.
During the 1984/85 miners’ strike, John was arrested for obstruction on the picket line at Parkside Colliery. I recall him telling me of his amusement on being taken to a local police cell where he was asked to remove his shoe laces in case he committed suicide. John informed the young police officer that he was highly unlikely to wish to harm himself in this way as he had to be back in the House of Commons later that evening for a vote and didn’t have the permission of the Whips to be absent.
We will all remember John as a strong character, a proud son of the North East and an avid Sunderland supporter, who was not afraid to speak his mind. Down the years I have met many people who have told me that John stood up for them when he felt that they had been unfairly treated – even those he didn’t really know. John also loved nothing more than having his family around him, so much so that most lived in the same small village as he and his wife Joan.
John had successful parliamentary and political career, serving as a government Whip and then PPS to Michael Foot when he was Leader of Opposition, before joining the National Executive Committee and then becoming Party Chair. While on the NEC, he made a major contribution to the fight against the Militant Tendency.
The Labour Party owes a great debt to John and he will be missed by us all, especially his loving family who helped him cope with a very difficult illness during the past few years. I personally will remember John as a good friend and Comrade, and a man with great courage and principle who made a major contribution to our general election victory in 1997.
Lord Dave Watts is a backbench Labour Peer and former Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party
Published 16th March 2016