In the course of his 45-year career in the House of Commons, Michael Meacher, who has died aged 75, established a name for himself as an earnest and committed leftwing MP who wore his much-polished social conscience very visibly on his sleeve.
He sat on Labour’s frontbench in government and opposition for a total of 29 years, but his misfortune was that he was never greatly favoured or particularly trusted by the six party leaders under whom he served. His good fortune, however, and the reason for his lengthy political survival in office was that he did not allow this evident antipathy to matter to him and even accepted demotion and an occasional public humiliation as a necessary price to pay.
He was one of only two MPs elected in May (the other is the Father of the House, Gerald Kaufman) to have served in the 1974-79 Labour governments under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He had arrived in the Commons as the MP for Oldham West (now Oldham West and Royton) in 1970 with his political aims and ambitions, nurtured at New College, Oxford, and in a brief academic career, in an advanced state of preparation. He knew exactly what he wanted to do as an MP and he won grudging respect from his parliamentary colleagues for a dogged and unfailing application to his agenda.
His primary concern was to tackle poverty, particularly among elderly people. One of his Conservative parliamentary critics, irked by Meacher’s worthy but somewhat pious manner, once described him as “Robin Hood in spectacles”. Yet despite his radical ideas, he learned the art of political pragmatism by pursuing policies that were workable. Although social services were his main interest, his seven years dealing with the environment portfolio, six of them as a minister, won him considerable praise from the green lobby.
He was responsible for the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which enshrined in law the public’s right to roam. He was an ardent opponent of genetically modified crops, in conflict with other ministers, notably the science minister, Lord Sainsbury, and was an enthusiast for waste management and developing wind and tidal power sources.
One of Meacher’s early problems with his political masters was caused by his affiliation with Tony Benn during the years when members of the left wing were leading Labour into an internal power struggle over constitutional reforms that would see it out of office for more than a generation. His first job, to which he was appointed in 1974, was as a junior minister in the Department of Industry under Benn.
Although Wilson moved both of them to other posts the following year, Meacher remained close to Benn for many years. When Benn was out of the Commons in 1983, Meacher stood as the left candidate against Roy Hattersley for the post of deputy leader and came a creditable second with 28% of the vote. The then leader, Neil Kinnock, told the writer Jilly Cooper in an interview at the time that Meacher was “kind, scholarly and weak as hell” – a remark for which he subsequently apologised to Meacher. In the same interview he also called him “Benn’s vicar on earth”, a phrase that stuck because of its ring of authenticity and a widely held view that the Oldham MP often exuded an air of being somewhat “holier than thou”.
This was perhaps something rooted in his childhood. Meacher was born in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, a descendant of a brewing and farming family, the only child of Hubert Meacher and his wife, Doris (nee Foxwell). His father had trained as an accountant but after a breakdown worked on the rundown family farm, while his mother took in lodgers, worked for a local doctor and dreamed of her son becoming an Anglican priest. The family had little money, but Michael won a scholarship to Berkhamsted and he then secured a place as an exhibitioner at Oxford to study classics and divinity.
He took a first class degree, but his road then diverted from his mother’s hopes and he studied for a diploma in social administration at the London School of Economics, joined the Labour party and lectured at Essex, York and the LSE. He fought an traditionally unwinnable seat – Colchester in 1966 – and was selected to contest a byelection in Oldham West in 1968. Although this was a Labour seat, it was the height of the Wilson government’s unpopularity and he lost. He won it back for Labour in 1970 and this year was elected with a majority of 14,738.
Meacher was a private man, never the sociable sort to hang around the Commons watering holes – he was always too busy (he was a prolific journalist and author of books on social and socialist issues) – but nevertheless he won respect for his ability to master a brief.
It also won him the joint accolade of election to the leftwing party national executive for six years from 1983 and to the more rightwing shadow cabinet from 1983 until 1996. And he had a great many briefs to master in his career: as well as Industry, he was a junior minister at Health and Social Security and at Trade before 1979 and in opposition he was successively spokesman on health, employment, social security, overseas development, Citizen’s Charter, transport, education and employment and environmental protection. He was not given a place in the cabinet when Tony Blair was elected in 1997, but was minister of state at Environment until he was sacked in 2003.
He did not hesitate to court controversy by frequently attacking the government of which he had been a member and planned to stand against Gordon Brown for the leadership in 2007. Failing to secure sufficient nominations, however, he stood aside for John McDonnell, now the shadow chancellor, as the leftwing candidate, but he also failed to make the ballot paper. Meacher was an enthusiastic supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Two other causes of controversy were a decision to sue the journalist Alan Watkins for libel in 1990 and the revelation that he had accumulated a property empire. The libel case, which he lost and which left him liable for costs of £130,000, brought much gaiety to the nation but exposed him to ridicule. He sued Watkins for having described him as “middle class” in the Observer, Meacher maintaining that his father was a tenant farmer. In more recent years he was subjected to charges of political hypocrisy when it was disclosed that he and his second wife, Lucianne, had invested in buy-to-let property and owned at least nine properties between them.
He is survived by Lucianne (nee Sawyer), whom he married in 1988; and by two sons and two daughters from his first marriage, to Molly (nee Reid, now Lady Meacher), which ended in divorce.
• Michael Hugh Meacher, politician, born 4 November 1939; died 21 October 2015
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