I recently finished a book that caused a storm when it was published and attracted 36 libel writs – with the costs and damages associated with it close to bankrupting the publishers.
‘No Shining Armour’ was written by a former Labour MP, Eddie Milne, who exposed a corruption scandal in the 1960s and 1970s that poisoned local and national politics.
An architectural designer, John Poulson, was bribing elected officials as he sought to win building contracts from local authorities. Bribes included creating jobs for family members, paid holidays or just plain cash.
In return, Poulson won lucrative deals for massive developments even when his bid was far from cost-effective or short of the necessary quality.
Although a Tory minister, Reginald Maudling, was implicated (and later had to resign) as well as another Tory MP, most of the corruption involved Labour councilors, MPs or officials.
This bribery and corruption was especially prevalent in the Labour-dominated North East.
Having been bribed by Poulson in the mid-1960s, Newcastle Council leader Dan Smith brought Andrew Cunningham on board.
Cunningham wielded unbelievable power and influence, locally and nationally in the Labour Party. His list of roles was laughably long: Chairman of the Northern Region Executive of the Labour Party, Head of the Northern District of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers (now the GMB), Member of the Chester-le-Street town council, Chairman of Newcastle Airport Consultative Committee, Member of the Northumbrian River Authority, Member of the Tyneside Passenger Transport Authority, Member of the Peterlee New Town Development Corporation, Alderman of Durham County Council, Chairman of Durham Police Authority and a member of Labour’s NEC.
Cunningham was the father of Jack Cunningham, who became MP for Whitehaven at the age of 29 and later went on to be a major figure in Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair’s inner circle.
Cunningham senior’s network was a gift to Poulson. He had allies at the very top of the Labour Party. Deputy Leader, Edward Short, who was also an MP in Newcastle turned a blind eye to what was going on. And, because he did, so did Housing Minister Bob Mellish.
Rocking the boat
However, Eddie Milne, Labour MP for Blyth since 1960, voiced his concerns about how local planning decisions were being carried out in his constituency and elsewhere. In 1965 he spoke to Prime Minister Harold Wilson about this but nothing was done.
Milne was an Aberdeen-born socialist, inspired by firebrands like Jimmy Maxton. A former USDAW union official, he was appalled at the idea that Labour was implicated in grubby scams and doggedly pursued more open and accountable decision making within local government.
He wanted an inquiry into how these housing developments had come about but the response to him from party bigwigs was to say that he was dirtying Labour’s name by airing these concerns.
Eventually the whole scandal broke as Poulson was declared bankrupt in 1971 and, within a year, his detailed accounts were pored over by the Police. These revealed the extent to which he was bribing officials and Smith and Cunningham, among others, were charged with accepting bribes.
You would have thought that Milne would have been congratulated for his tenacity in challenging these powerful party officials.
Get Milne Out!
What actually happened shows just how sick corruption can make any organisation.
Several party officials in Milne’s Blyth constituency were implicated in earlier housing plans involving Smith and Cunningham.
They wanted Eddie Milne out as their local MP. He was smeared for being too controlling and impossible to work with. His wife was called interfering and allegations were made about his mental health.
These lies about Milne started to pay off as he was put up for deselection.
Milne did his best to win over the local party but he was voted out as Labour’s candidate for the election in February 1974. His union, USDAW, deserted him too as he wasn’t the Labour candidate anymore.
Instead of giving up without a fight, Milne decided to stand against the candidate who Labour’s NEC parachuted in.
The election campaign saw Labour threw everything they could at Milne, including one Labour MP accusing him of fiddling expenses (for which Milne won substantial libel damages) and further smears about his mental health.
However Milne had a few hundred local activists behind him who campaigned hard.
The election result in February 1974 saw Milne beat Labour’s candidate by over 6,000 votes. This was one of the few occasions that an MP has stood and won as an independent against the party that originally elected him.
Despite this and the fact that Milne’s concerns about corruption had been proved correct, Labour would not admit him back as a candidate. People like Short and Ian Mikardo, who played a major role in the NEC, saw Milne as a traitor.
It was seen by some people in the party to be worse to stand against a Labour candidate than to stand up for honesty in public office.
Labour was forced to hold another General Election in October 1974 and Milne was once again an independent candidate.
He was up against a London barrister known for his love of fox hunting and fine wines.
It wasn’t just Labour who put everything into defeating Milne. The police called on him a few times accusing him of receiving stolen goods (this after two local senior officers had been implicated in a scam involving discounted houses).
His son-in-law lost his job with Trafford Authority, two days after his boss was informed he was a relative of Milne’s.
Milne lost by just 78 votes.
He was later shown a bundle of postal votes that had gone missing and one of the polling stations inexplicably changed its location a couple of days before the ballot took place. His appeal to have an inquiry into this was turned down.
He died in 1983, obviously bitter about the whole experience. And, as far as I know neither he nor his family have received any apology from the Labour Party.
His story was told in the 1996 BBC series, ‘Our Friends in the North’, in which the character Eddie Wells, played by David Bradley, was based on Milne. The series is availablle on Youtube.
I am from Sunderland and was in my late teens and early 20’s during the Poulson Affair. I remember very well how the Labour Party treated Eddie Milne and how the NE Labour Party – I have to call it a “mafia” operated during that time. Labour was shocked when Milne won the first election in 1974 and it became common knowledge in the run up to the October 74 election that the Party’s “minders” were engaged in intimidating Eddie’s sympathisers both in the Party and the TU movement. Those days a word to your employer by a union rep that the “lads were not happy working with you” resulted in you loosing your livelihood. As staff were expendable in an area of high unemployment and employers didn’t actually care what the TU was up too but didn’t want any unnecessary trouble staff would be told to leave. A school teacher in my family for example once told me he could never rise to become a Head Teacher without Labour Party approval and that he would get that because he wasn’t a supporter. Note too what happened to Eddie’s son in law. Labour had a long reach and of course the extent of the corruption hadn’t been limited to just the North East.
Milne was perfectly right it was common knowledge in the North East during the late 60’s that the corruption in the LP ran deep (some said all the way to No 10) and that people like the appalling Ted Short eventually got away with it because of the power that Labour exercised over people’s jobs in an area of high unemployment.
Over the years I thought that the Poulson episode had demonstrated the very worst of Labour and that things had changed but I have to say that when you start sabotaging your own General Election campaigns (as Labour staff undoubtedly did in 2017) in order to gain political advantage over fellow members its an indication that those running Labour have lost the plot big time. I am afraid that the events of the past 12 months within Labour have only served to confirm my view that Labour will never be capable of forming a majority Government again. The electorate are not flocking back to it because of the awfulness of the Tories and are unimpressed by Labour’s threat of more Tory Governments if the don’t vote Labour. Those days are over. Poor Eddie Milne would have had every right to say “I told you so.”