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Red Rover: Remembering Allan Roberts MP

To mark LGBT History Month, we remember Allan Roberts – a pioneering gay Labour MP who shrugged off media slander about his personal life to become one of the most effective socialist politicians of his generation.

Evening in a bar in Berlin. A young, socialist politician is approached by two men in German army uniforms who demand his name. They restrain him and lead him away. The next day his friends learn he’s ended up in hospital.

Luckily this was not a 1930s Gestapo pick-up, but a rather fun night at West Berlin’s Buddy Club in 1981 for then recently-elected Labour MP Allan Roberts. Various details would somehow make their way to Private Eye; that Roberts was wearing a spiked collar and answering to the name ‘Rover’, that he’d ended up in hospital after an over-active whipping session, and that his medical bill was paid by the Conservative MP for Cheltenham Charles Irving, coincidentally also in Berlin at the time. Allan would later tell his constituency chairman that three quarters of the Private Eye article was incorrect, though which three quarters exactly was less clear.

Roberts came back to Britain and straight to North West Regional Conference, where he gave a superb speech on fighting Conservative housing policy. This technique—of carrying on with the job and refusing to hide away—served him well, and has been the more successful approach for most gay politicians since. He went back to his constituency, where he discussed matters with his Constituency Executive before a full meeting of the Constituency Labour Party. In a vote of confidence, they backed him unanimously.

But that was the party. What about the ordinary people in this northern, working-class and deeply Roman Catholic community? Allan was questioned about his activities while out at a local restaurant. ‘Allan,’ the constituent said, in a thick Scouse accent, ‘What I want to know is, how do they wash them leather curtains?’ His answer on Teutonic tannery must have been sufficient, as the people of Bootle rewarded him with more votes at each subsequent election.

And in part this was because Allan had never made a secret of who he was. Previously, in Manchester, he had a reputation for throwing rather raucous parties at his home on Shady Lane in Wythenshawe – to the extent that the neighbours demanded his eviction. Given his position as Chair of Housing, they got short shrift.

Indeed, Allan was the youngest Chair of Housing in the history of Manchester Council. When Labour retook the council in 1971, then leader Bob Thomas was looking for bright people to overcome the town hall machine. Manchester’s deeply conservative planning bureaucracy declared there was no land available to build the thousands of council homes in Labour’s manifesto. The day after his appointment, Bob and Allan chartered a bus, summoned the senior officers, and went on a drive around Manchester. They would point to large stretches of derelict land and pronounce simply, ‘buy it.’ Political will goes a long way.

From the city centre out to north and east Manchester, through both new builds and buy-backs of properties flogged by the Tories, Allan led a truly radical housing policy. Most markedly, he was perhaps the first to believe that the centre of Manchester should once again be a place where people lived, not just a barren commercial district. In 1975 he declared: ‘We have always advocated that life should be brought back to the city centre and see no reason why working people should not be able to afford rented accommodation in the central area.’

In part this was municipal socialism in action, but it was also politically astute. Labour had almost lost Manchester Exchange to the Liberals in a by-election in 1973. If it wanted to shore up its vote after the brutal clearances of the previous decades, it was going to have to build.

In 1974, Allan stood as the Labour candidate for the Liberal-Tory marginal of Hazel Grove on the border with Cheshire on a strong anti-Common Market ticket. Allan received the highest vote share for a Labour candidate in that seat until the record was broken by Nav Mishra in 2017.

It wasn’t surprising therefore that he chose to run again in 1979 – but the location, Bootle, was rather less expected. Simon Mahon, MP at the time, was part of a large and influential family in the town; indeed his great nephew Peter Dowd is the current MP. However, concerns about Mahon’s work rate in the Commons and a refusal to explain himself to his constituency rankled locally, and a move was made to invite a challenge in late 1977. In early 1978, Mahon announced he would not seek re-selection, and a selection process began.

Six candidates were shortlisted, with Allan as the only one from beyond Merseyside, there on a nomination from his union, APEX. The front-runner was the T&G’s Jimmy Symes, former chairman of the Liverpool dock shop-stewards’ committee, broadly associated with the left forces that had pushed Mahon out. Against were four stalwarts of what was once called the party’s Catholic Right—Michael Black, Joe Benton, Owen Brady, and Tom Nicholson—all of whom had held elected office in the area.

No one rated the chances of a thirty-five year old Protestant from Droylsden – so much so he was the only candidate not asked his views on abortion. Yet, by a combination of personal charm and an unfamiliarity in Bootle that meant no-one hated him, Allan came through the middle of the warring factions and won the nomination heading into the 1979 election.

It may very well be this understanding of the importance attached to attendance that drove Allan to give his Parliamentary Report in person, whatever the circumstances. On one occasion, he did so with a hand firmly wedged into his jacket pocket. It was only towards the end of the meeting, whether in rhetorical flourish or the glad-handing of an insistent party member, that his took it out and revealed a set of handcuffs still attached, having lost the key. That level of commitment and accountability is one all politicians should aspire to, and sadly lacking in recent years.

Allan flourished in the role. He stood with workers against the Tory privatisation attacks on Girobank, railed against the impact of the Common Market’s trade policies on Merseyside docks, duelled with Heseltine over housing policy, and brought to light the shocking levels of aluminium pollution in water supplies in the run up to privatisation. He even, revealing his Lancastrian roots, lobbied for Sefton to come out of Merseyside and go into Lancashire.

Nor was Allan ignorant of foreign affairs. In 1980 he visited Afghanistan with Bob Litherland, MP for Manchester Central, and Ron Brown, MP for Edinburgh Leith, at the request of Babrak Karmal, the country’s socialist president. While still believing that the Soviet forces should leave, Allan and his colleagues took the view that Karmal was the country’s best hope for peace and stability. Condemned at a time when NATO leaders were comparing the Mujahideen to America’s founding fathers, it took an element of both personal and political bravery.

Much more suited to his mischievous side were the circumstances of 1981 in which he obtained internal coded messages from Patrick Wall of the pro-apartheid Anglo-South African Parliamentary Group. These were in fact meant for the Franco sympathiser Albert Roberts, Labour MP for Normanton. Allan took great delight in releasing their contents to various lobby journalists.

Allan’s politics were indisputably of the Labour left, and he supported Benn in 1981, but he was sufficiently well thought-of that Kinnock brought him in as a frontbencher in Environment. He managed that far too difficult trick of retaining his socialist principles without either hating or being hated, a thing seemingly beyond many others in the movement.

In 1990, Allan died at just 46. The recorded cause of death was cancer. The Sun, in its predictable way, listed AIDS as a cause of death. This resulted in a complaint to the Press Council, which was rejected on the grounds that since Allan had been an MP and not denied his sexuality, it was not intrusive. The paper’s managing editor William Newman claimed a public duty to out the medical records of people who might have died with HIV.

But Allan’s legacy continues. There’s a street named after him in Harpurhey Ward, a tribute from his closest comrades in the mid-1990s. The Smithfield Estate, that tiny jewel of municipal housing he built in the centre of Manchester, still endures as the sort of truly mixed community Allan wanted to create. The ward it sits in is represented today by three LGBT councillors. This year, after tremendous grassroots pressure, Manchester is moving to once again have its own housing development vehicle to try and do some of the things Allan envisioned half a century ago. It could do worse than name its first development after him.

Yet, while we’ve exported a few, it would perhaps have annoyed him that Greater Manchester still has never had an openly LGBT Labour MP. The Tories currently have two. He would nonetheless doubtless have appreciated the regeneration of Merseyside and the great strides forward on equality under the last Labour government. Perhaps that is the most tempting thought – of what role he might have held, had he been spared. Many of his contemporaries ended up in the cabinet. What would he have thought, or done, in that role?

Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley and Broughton, who knew Allan well, seems as certain as one can be. ‘He would have been a major figure in the Labour government, and able to bridge the divide,’ he says. ‘He was a brilliant communicator. Radical politics, but traditional Labour. We missed him.’

It seems fair then to give Allan himself the last word, on the divisions in British society.

‘My constituents will be pleased to hear that the reason why they suffer, as the statistical evidence shows, greater ill health than people living in the south, is that they do not swim enough. The Tory council closed the swimming baths and my constituents cannot swim in the Mersey because it is an open sewer full of sewage, and the Government refused funds to clean it up. That is a political point as well.

‘The only difference between Karl Marx and Government Departments is that Government Departments recognise more degrees of class than Karl Marx recognised.’