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Tony Lloyd, Labour’s Conscience

Whether Tony Lloyd was opposing attacking Iraq and Gaza or supporting trade unionists and local people, it was never about a parliamentary career — it was about, in his words, 'that human solidarity that matters'.

Tony Lloyd (1950-2024)

Everybody knows the multiple contenders for the overworked title of ‘Mr. Manchester’. But if there ever was someone deserving of the title of ‘Mr. Greater Manchester’, it would be Tony Lloyd, who died last month at the age of 73. At various periods of time serving as deputy leader of Trafford Council, the region’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and as an MP for the Stretford, Manchester Central and Rochdale constituencies, he was one of the core figures who defined public life in the region.

Born into a labour movement family in Stretford in 1950, Tony was the fourth of five children, and his father died when he was 13 years old. This led his mother to form the basis of his politics; good friends of hers had been killed fighting in the International Brigades, a ‘simple battle of good versus evil’ that he told a journalist instilled in him ‘the basic morality of politics… if not fighting for what’s right and just, then what is politics for?’

At the age of 16, Tony joined the Labour Party, and after completing a mathematics degree at the University of Nottingham, he returned to Greater Manchester and became a business studies lecturer at the University of Salford. In 1979 he was elected to represent the Clifton ward on Trafford Council, rising to become its deputy leader before being elected as Stretford’s MP in 1983 and then for the newly created seat of Manchester Central in 1997.

During his first stint in Parliament, Tony’s capabilities were evident. He held numerous frontbench appointments: in the whips’ office (1986-87), as a spokesperson on transport (1987-88), employment (1988-92) and education (1992-94). From 1994 he was on the environmental team, then spent two years as the foreign affairs deputy spokesperson. Following Labour’s 1997 landslide victory, he became a minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with responsibility for Africa, the Balkans and Latin America, until he lost his post in a 1999 reshuffle.

Despite the evident desire to utilise his talent, Tony never had particular aspirations with regards to the promotional ladder. His thoughtful, well-informed and principled character was illuminated during his tenure as the chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party between 2006-12, where — despite being known for his ‘centre-left loyalism’, he was unafraid to take principled, oppositional stands.

Indeed, his national political legacy may be sealed in this role, where he voted against the invasion of Iraq, 90-day detention without trial for ‘terror suspects’, university tuition fees and the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system. He was also unfailing in his support for causes such as the campaign to free the Cuba Five and the people of Palestine — which saw him being one of a small number of MPs to visit Gaza in January 2009.

When the role of Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) was created in 2012, Tony stepped back from Westminster to contest the role, which he saw as having the potential to establish a new process of communities actively being involved with — and taking control of — policing by building clear lines of accountability.

As Britain’s first PCC, he was passionate about victims’ rights and services, supporting work at the St Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre and pooling resources to deliver better, more efficient services. This was particularly successful when police were called to attend to those suffering with mental health issues, as police were then able to transfer responsibility to health professionals — a task now made so much more difficult by austerity-driven cuts.

After the PCC role was subsumed into the Mayor of Greater Manchester role, Tony was defeated by Andy Burnham for the 2017 Labour candidacy. But the general election that same year saw him return to frontline politics after the disgraced Simon Danczuk was barred from standing as a Labour candidate, leading him to resign his party membership and issue a statement claiming Labour didn’t ‘have the interests of Rochdale at heart’. Tony was rewarded with a majority of 14,819 by the people of Rochdale — the largest ever Labour majority in the town — while Danczuk, standing as an independent, lost his deposit.

In his final political role, Tony was interested in being ‘a positive voice for Rochdale’, a place he said could boast of ‘wonderful people, vibrant communities and a great future’. In his role as PCC and interim Greater Manchester mayor, he had already served Rochdale well, understanding the town’s diverse communities and bringing an established trust which helped him build on these relationships. Those who worked with him thought he appeared to have a mind like a sponge, remembering the names of locals he had met once, and details of their families.

This generousness of spirit was particularly true with young people. One example from 2019 springs to mind; after watching a David Attenborough documentary with his gran on the amount of plastic in the Mariana Trench, a young boy from the Healey area of Rochdale who felt compelled to write to Tony with his concerns.

In that same week, Tony also received an invitation from the Plastic Patrol to take part in their clean-up event on the banks of the Rochdale Canal. Considering it a great opportunity to talk about his letter, he got in touch with the child’s parents to ask if they wanted to come along as it would be a great opportunity to talk about his letter.

After the event, Tony then invited his young constituent and his mum to his office to meet Arron Dixon, founder of the Paper Concept, a Rochdale-based biodegradables family business. Sat around Tony’s desk, they discussed ways in which businesses can reduce their use of single-use plastics. On climate and the environment, Tony rightly recognised that it is young people ‘whose futures are most on the line’, saying in 2019 that young people ‘are right to feel let down by the generations before them — and it’s inspiring to see children across the world make their voices heard.’

On a national scale, Tony was also appointed by Jeremy Corbyn as a shadow spokesperson on housing and then as shadow secretary for Northern Ireland, having previously campaigned as an MP against the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s use of rubber bullets. In an interview in The House, Tony said the role was ‘more satisfactory’ than others, remembering that ‘years back I was the shadow transport minister and frankly I don’t imagine that anyone remembers anything I said, including me. Whereas there is something more real about the Northern Ireland role because you can be an advocate.’

The fallout from the 2019 election saw Tony adding shadow Scottish secretary to his brief, and when Keir Starmer became Labour leader, he was reappointed to Northern Ireland. However, he was soon to stand down after a serious bout of Covid-19 saw him spend 25 days in hospital, including 10 days in intensive care. True to form, he used his experiences to highlight the ‘enormous decency’ of NHS staff who sacrificed themselves for patients like him, and to express his hopes that the pandemic will help people to ‘realise that there’s more to life than the next Amazon package’.

After being knighted in 2021, he was reselected as Labour’s candidate for Rochdale in 2022 and was looking forward to welcoming a new intake of Labour MPs (who would no doubt seek his counsel) to the Commons. It is such a shame this won’t now happen. Even while undergoing hospital treatment for an incurable leukaemia, he was still pushing for a ceasefire in Palestine, using one of his last interventions in parliament to demand an answer as to why the British government refused to call for a ceasefire on the UN Security Council.

The best tribute we can pay to Tony and his values is by making sure Labour wins the next general election; when we think back on time spent with Tony, it won’t just be with a warm glow, but with a challenge to improve society and make a difference. He was a no-nonsense, practical and fundamentally decent person with his eyes on the best outcome, who was never interested in showboating or virtue signalling.

In an interview recorded by pupils of Falinge Park High School in Rochdale, Tony gave brilliant advice for any student hoping to become a politician, and one any new MP entering Westminster this year might take: ‘Politics is all about people. It’s that sense of human solidarity that matters. If it’s not about making people’s lives better, then don’t be a politician.’

The Labour Party and the trade union movement owe a debt of gratitude to Tony’s family: his wife Judith, who survives him with their children Angharad, Siobhán, Kieron and Alexandria, and granddaughters Carmen and Charis.

About the Author

Tricia Ayrton is a Labour Councillor in Rochdale

Jacob Mason was Office Manager to Tony Lloyd MP