Remembering Anne Kerr, Labour’s Forgotten Firebrand

Anne Kerr spent just six years as an MP, but in that time made a name for herself as a powerful campaigner – and a rebel whose voice wouldn't be silenced.

Anne Kerr (1925-1973), MP for Rochester and Chatham, on 29 August 1965. Credit: M. McKeown / Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Anne Kerr, Labour MP for Rochester from 1964-70, was once described as ‘one of the most vocal Left-wingers in the Party’. During her six years as an MP, she established herself as a firm opponent of nuclear weapons and campaigner against the Vietnam War. She was passionate about decolonisation and championing the rising independence movements around the world. She abhorred racism and viewed internationalism as central to her socialism.

In spite of being such an outspoken figure in life, after her untimely death at 48 in 1973, she faded into historical obscurity. Very few accounts of the Wilson government mention her. She is not captured in the diaries of the main protagonists of the time. Yet, a careful inspection of the period reveals Kerr to be a woman of tremendous tenacity, foresight, and conviction.

Rarely on Script

After a comfortable middle-class upbringing, Kerr’s tranquillity was shattered by the Second World War. Leaving school at 18 in 1943, she immediately joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), where she became a boat’s crew ‘Wren’, responsible for scrubbing the decks, cooking, and caring for sailors on liberty leave. She served in this role on D-Day.

Her experience soured her to war for the rest of her life. As an MP, Kerr reflected she was ‘possibly more aware of the horrors of the last war, and the war before that, and of any future war than some of those who are a shade younger’. Kerr was one of the first members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

After the war, Kerr became an actress, and although there were some successes, her career did not take off. Kerr later admitted that she wasn’t very good at learning her lines, a trait that would carry into her political career, as she rarely stuck to the party line. Acting, however, gave Kerr an opportunity to become involved in trade unionism, through Equity. She also joined the Labour Party and Christian Action, informed by her Methodist upbringing.

Anti-apartheid marchers, Anne Kerr among them, marching to Twickenham rugby ground where England are playing South Africa on 20 December 1969. Credit: Central Press / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1958, at 33, Kerr was elected to London County Council. She stood for Parliament the following year, unsuccessfully, but in 1964 she was elected for Rochester and Chatham with a majority of just over 1,000 votes.

Immediately on arrival in Parliament, Kerr caused a stir. She found the cramped working conditions intolerable, noting that she was not allowed to share an office with her secretary. Kerr threatened to drive a caravan onto the Parliamentary estate for use as a mobile office. ‘A tiny one would do,’ she said plaintively. ‘As long as my secretary and I have somewhere to go where we can get on with our work.’

By tradition, an MP’s maiden speech avoids controversy; kind words are said about one’s predecessor and local constituency. Kerr rejected this format, saying only a ‘mug’ would deliver a non-controversial maiden speech. She promised, ‘I intend to stray later in my remarks into the deep waters of controversy.’ In the speech, Kerr called for the abolition of war and argued for the creation of a Minister for Peace, which was met with widespread ridicule. In 2016, Jeremy Corbyn fulfilled Kerr’s dream, by creating the role of Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament, a position Kerr herself would no doubt have relished.

Anne’s husband Russ Kerr also stood in the 1964 election, losing Preston North by just 14 votes. Anne remembered watching his defeat on television in agony from her own election count in Kent. Two years later, in Labour’s landslide, Russ joined his wife in the House of Commons as MP for Feltham.

Like Anne, Russ Kerr joined the Tribune group, becoming its chair in 1969. Russ Kerr had a temperament similar to his wife, famously shouting ‘Bastard!’ at the Labour Chancellor Denis Healey during a 1976 Commons debate over public sector wage restraint, causing Healey to return with ‘Go and fuck yourselves.’ Healey later quipped that Russ Kerr ‘cast doubt on my paternity so I praised his virility.’

For the four years that Anne and Russ Kerr served in the House of Commons together, Anne was keen to maintain her own independence. ‘We aren’t twins, you know,’ she once chided a journalist. Anne never sat next to her husband in the chamber, and she hid at the back of the gallery when her husband gave his maiden speech. While both on the left of the Labour Party, Anne professed a greater interest in foreign policy, while her husband focused more on labour and industrial policy.

A Rebel With Cause

Throughout her time in Parliament, Anne Kerr chose to rebel against all elements of the Wilson government which she regarded as deviations from true socialism. She refused to support the government’s controversial Prices and Incomes Policy or devaluation. She signed the Socialist Charter of the Tribune Group in 1968, which called for the extension of public ownership.

She was not just a critic, however. Kerr made many positive and sometimes quite farsighted contributions. She advocated especially on behalf of the elderly and socially isolated, arguing for free day centres, free bus passes, and free television licences. She even scolded the Queen in 1969 when Her Majesty decided to take a year off from delivering her Christmas message. Kerr worried about the effect this would have on lonely, elderly people.

Yet, it was in foreign affairs that Anne Kerr made her greatest impact. She campaigned in support of liberation movements in the post-colonial world. As an MP, she visited Cuba, India, Biafra and Nigeria, and Northern Ireland. She disagreed with the Wilson government’s pro-Israel stance, lobbying on behalf of Palestinian refugees.

Kerr was also a fierce opponent of apartheid in South Africa. Alongside the Bishop of Woolwich in 1969, Kerr was among the leaders of a 3,000-person strong march to Twickenham Stadium to urge a boycott of the rugby match against the all-white South Africa team.

Kerr perhaps distinguished herself most as one of Britain’s leading opponents against the American war in Vietnam. At a peace rally in Trafalgar Square in 1965, Kerr denounced the conflict as ‘a bloody fascist war, which the Americans have lost’. In 1967, the US Vice President Hubert Humphrey delivered an address to MPs and peers in Westminster. Seething with anger over US policy in Vietnam, Anne Kerr could not contain herself.

When the Vice President intoned in his speech, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, Kerr heckled sarcastically, ‘—and bomb droppers’. Her barracking paid off: Humphrey agreed to answer a question from her as soon as he finished his speech. Kerr challenged the Vice President to justify US presence in Vietnam, and she warned Humphrey that she was not to be fobbed off with the usual line that the US was ‘invited’ there.

Anne Kerr holds a banner for Women Against The Common Market outside Westminster Central Hall in London, UK, during the Labour Party Conference, July 1971. Credit: Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The following year, Kerr travelled to Chicago during the volatile 1968 Democratic convention to join protestors against the war. She was brutally beaten by the police and sprayed in the face with pepper spray. ‘I was grabbed from behind and thrown into a police wagon,’ she later testified, experiencing extensive bruises to her arms, temporary blindness, and blistering to her face. When, at the police station, it was discovered they had arrested a British Member of Parliament, a senior officer cried, ‘Get her out of here!’ Kerr refused to abandon her fellow protestors and was placed in a cell overnight. Her husband and son later said that she never truly recovered from this trauma.

Kerr then gave evidence in front of the notorious judge Julius Hoffman during the trial of the Chicago Seven, defending them from charges of starting a riot. Mystified by the unfamiliar US legal system, Kerr repeatedly called the judge ‘My Lord’, which drew rebuke. When Judge Hoffman asked Kerr what he should call her, she replied, ‘Just call me Anne’. Judge Hoffman retorted, ‘That won’t do’. When Kerr suggested, ‘Well, you can call me the Honourable Member for Rochester and Chatham,’ the Judge replied that he’d rather just call her ‘Madam’.

When asked to account for herself, Kerr burst into a rendition of ‘We Shall Overcome’. Kerr’s ‘stirring performance’ in cross-examination made her a feature on national television, with the British Consulate in Chicago apparently besieged by requests about the charismatic MP.

Women Against the Common Market

One of Kerr’s other great passions was her campaign to stop British entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), also known as the Common Market. There has rarely been an MP—let alone a Labour MP—who has spoken with as much passion on the topic as Kerr did. She became the founder of the group ‘Women Against the Common Market’, which tried to raise public consciousness through handsome branded shopping bags and even talk of strippers.

In one debate on the Common Market in the House of Commons in 1970, Kerr spoke passionately about the betrayal of the Commonwealth. Joel Barnett (of formula fame) patronisingly chided that Kerr had made an ‘emotional argument’. She shot back, ‘What a damnable thing to say!’

As the debate progressed, the Conservative MP Ian Lloyd began speaking about the wonders of Europe. Kerr shouted: ‘Who will profit by joining?’ Lloyd ignored her. ‘Who will profit by joining Europe?’, Kerr asked again. The Speaker told Kerr to control herself. ‘She is trying to,’ Kerr fumed.

But, as Lloyd droned on, Kerr’s anger continued to rise. ‘This is nonsense’, she said loudly enough for Hansard to record. The Speaker scolded, ‘if the honourable lady cannot contain herself, I must ask her to leave the Chamber.’ ‘She cannot,’ Kerr fired back, but did not leave her seat.

Kerr’s behaviour seemed to become more unpredictable. At an election hustings in Rochester in 1970, she responded to hecklers by telling them ‘you can stick your questions up your jumper!’ She lost her seat. After defeat, Kerr continued to visit the House of Commons with the privileges of a former member. She would sit in the gallery and watch the debates. During a debate on the EEC, she started shouting, ‘You know the country opposes membership, Heath!’ and issued a barrage of anti-Common Market slogans. She was removed by the Serjeant-at-Arms and barred from the gallery forevermore.

Kerr then took to direct action. In 1972, the French held a referendum on whether Britain should be allowed to join the Common Market. Kerr helped organise a group of trade unionists and other anti-EEC activists to take a British Rail ferry from Dover to Calais to join with eurosceptic French trade unionists, in hopes of persuading the French people to keep Britain out of the EEC. Their banners read, ‘Women Against the Common Market’, ‘Vive l’entente cordiale, mais pas un marriage’, ‘Toujours les bons amis, mais, nous voulons NOTRE Referendum’. They were complemented by trade union banners, too.

On their arrival, the British campaigners were met by the French police. Campaigning in France shortly before an election was prohibited, yet here were Kerr and her acolytes waving anti-EEC banners. The anti-Marketeers started shouting ‘Fascist pigs!’ at the French police, and then, to get the point across, ‘A bas avec Pompidou! A bas!‘ This was the final straw. The French police marched up the gangplank. Perhaps remembering her Chicago experience, Kerr shouted at them, ‘Alright! Show us your gas!’ They did not, but they did tear down her banners and sent the group back to Dover.

Anne Kerr’s political career began with a fierce determination to make a new world; it ended in tragedy and failure. In her maiden speech in 1964, Kerr had vowed, ‘we can abolish these age-old enemies of mankind: disease, homelessness and war itself. I hope very much to be here 36 years from now, at the beginning of the next century, still plugging away, and that many of my contemporaries will be with me to greet the day when it dawns.’

Yet, within a decade of that speech, she was dead. In 1973, her heavy drinking—Kerr’s bar bills at Labour conferences became things of legend—had finally caught up with her. Seven months after Britain joined the EEC, Kerr died of alcohol poisoning, passing away next to her husband in bed. Her death extinguished prematurely a political career of one of the Labour Party’s most unrelenting crusaders for a just, peaceful, and equitable world.