Remembering Lord Bill McCarthy

Bill McCarthy4x3 (1)Phil Hunt pays tribute to Bill McCarthy, recounting Oxford’s city Labour politics in the 1970s 

Bill McCarthy, who died on 18 November, was a great Labour and trade union man and a wonderful colleague to many in the Lords on the Labour benches.

His Obituary Notices have detailed his extraordinary translation from his education at Holloway County School, leaving at the age of 14 to become an assistant in a gentleman’s outfitter through to his USDAW scholarship to Ruskin College. Bill rose to eminence as an academic at Oxford from where he played a key role in the industrial relations battles of the 1970s and 1980s. He was the influential Research Director for the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and made a highly significant input into successive Labour Governments thinking on industrial relations.

Tam Dalyell in The Independent has aptly described Bill as someone to whom Labour ministers turned to throughout the Wilson and Callaghan governments when threatened with an industrial problem. If anyone could arrive at a just solution acceptable to all sides it was Bill. As Tam said, he was a deeply concerned and wise man. Geoffrey Goodman meanwhile, has written in The Guardian of Bill being one of Nuffield College’s star dons. A wonderful teacher on the complex subject of industrial relations about which he became nationally renowned for his ability to cut through the often obscure jargon.

All this is so, and much more too. 

I vividly recall first setting eyes on Bill as a newly elected member of the GMC of the Oxford City Labour Party in 1972. Meetings were held in Transport Hall in the Cowley Road, and they were normally packed out as so many luminaries of the Oxford Party were in regular attendance. 

On the one side there was Olive Gibbs, Leader of the Labour Group on the City Council and a former Chair of CND. On the other Frank Pickstock, a champion of the Labour Right prominent in the Campaign for Democratic Socialism. Presiding over it all was the Chair of the Party – Bill McCarthy. Puffing at a large cigar, with powerful voice and authority, he was in confident control of those loud and rumbustious meetings.

I became a councillor for Blackbird Leys Ward for six years and served with Bill’s wife Margaret. What a remarkable pair they made. 

A prolific writer, he was immensely proud of his chairmanship of the Railways Staff National Tribunal. 

In the Lords, Bill was a formidable debater. Were it not for the long 18 years of Opposition in the 1980s and early ‘90s, he would surely have occupied a senior position in a Labour Government.

Who could forget those intense debates on employment law nearly a decade ago? Bill alongside Bill Wedderburn and Muriel Turner made a formidable team in standing up for the rights of trades unions and their members. How I wish Bill had been in the Chamber last week when he would have joined Muriel in making mincemeat of a government intent on tossing away employment rights for the sake of a few baubles of shares.

Parliament has lost an outstanding expert in labour law and industrial; relations. But we have lost a dear friend and colleague. Our thoughts are with Margaret and family.

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Labour’s Deputy Leader in the Lords

Published 29th November 2012

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