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A Good Man Not in Tune With His Times

21/10/2015 17:47 BST | Updated 21/10/2016 10:12 BST

Michael Meacher was proof that in politics - as in sex - timing is everything.

A clever, intellectual, inquiring, methodical mind allied to one of the most least self-aggrandizing personalities, despite clear ability and ambition, in the Labour ranks in the Commons, Meacher never quite got into alignment with the political moment during his 45 years in the Commons.

Today the press are going bat-silly about Jeremy Corbyn with even the Daily Mail jokingly describing the Chinese president meeting a communist - that is the new Labour leader.

In 1970 when Meacher entered the Commons aged just 30, Corbynism was mainstream PLP politics.

Meacher quickly mastered the language of the left and his clear forensic ability got him promotion under Jim Callaghan with the nudging of Tony Benn who always needed someone with a little economic knowledge to sound as if his theories had some foundations.

Meacher was of that generation of Labour MPs who were aged around 40 when the long Thatcher years begun. There is nothing more miserable for a politician than to have served an apprenticeship and then find the chance of plying your trade has evaporated as voters elect and re-elect the other party.

Meacher trudged through Labour's wilderness 1980s gradually detaching himself from Tony Benn who he came to realise was not going help Labour ever to win elections.

But he could not read the new times. By chance I met him in south-west France in August 1992. He had just written a book with a title like 100 Socialist Policies for Britain (memo to wannabe Jeremy successors: there is nothing less likely to sell or impress the left than a book with socialism in its title) which had been launched by by the newly elected Labour leader, John Smith.

I said to Meacher: "Michael, John is a great guy but the next English Labour prime minister will be Tony Blair."

He exploded. "Blair! Blair! I have served with Tony Blair on the front bench, on the NEC, in the shadow cabinet. Tony Blair is nothing, nothing, nothing!" he bellowed as other diners in the restaurant wondered why les deux Anglais were having such a heated discussion.

"Michael," I said. "I know exactly what you mean but as friend of yours let me suggest you find any bit of Blair still sticking out and start sucking now."

He snorted and we went back to the safer topic of how Labour and Michael would bring socialism to Britain.

By the time government came Meacher was pushing sixty and Blair was unkind in not giving him full cabinet rank though Meacher once he got down to problem solving with the help of civil servants he was a competent, efficient and respected minister.

Unlike Robin Cook whose better sense of timing and where the shifting sands of Labour politics were moving ensured him a top cabinet slot as de facto leader of the Parliamentary left, Meacher never formed a faction and his calm factual expositions could never match the gallery playing oratory of other left Labour politicians who had a higher profile.

He lost a stupid libel case dispute with Alan Watkins over whether the private school he had gone to was a public school or not. It was and in the end he made his peace with the public schoolboy Blair and served loyally as a Minister of State, not even making a splashy showy resignation over the Iraq war.

In the Commons he was always polite, inquiring, without side and a thoroughly decent man. He had a near half century as an MP but never quite made it to the very top. There are Michael Meachers amongst Labour today starting out on the long traverse of the desert of years in opposition. Anyone aged over 50 should work out the odds. Meacher loved politics and gave his life to being an MP. It is far from clear that the affection was returned as politics is much better at swallowing its practitioners alive rather than allow them to be fully successful human beings.