6 April 1945 – 3 October 2017:
Rodney was a lovely man. We mourn his death after a long illness, endured with great courage.
But we celebrate a life lived with such joyousness and spirit – a doughty fighter, a true friend, deeply loved.
The public record is, of course, well known:
- the young union organizer, an exuberant 21 year old Buddy Holly, starting with NUPE at a time when the union was beginning to take off and acquire its special character with the recruitment of thousands of low paid women workers
- Divisional Officer in the North East with his friend, Tom Sawyer; the ‘Winter of Discontent’
- General Secretary of NUPE at the age of 38; and, following the formation of a new public service union, General Secretary of UNISON in 1996
- a spell binding orator – ‘a journeyman ranter’, as he described himself – eloquent, moving, funny, with the timing of a natural comic
- an astute negotiator, chair of the TUC Economic Committee, President of the European Public Service Unions, internationally renowned for his advocacy of dispossessed people, Dalits in India, Palestinians, against apartheid in South Africa and all racial injustice
- and, beyond the union, his work with travellers and pensioners.
Loved and respected – like Jack Jones before him, he was the outstanding trade union leader of his generation
But none of this quite captures the warmth, down to earth humanity, intelligence, wit, laughter and sheer fun that made him so deeply loved. You did better because he saw the best in you. You never stood alone with him. Whatever the challenge you faced, you had a friend and a champion.
And thousands counted Rodney as a friend, including journalists, politicians and business people with whom he profoundly disagreed. ‘People before principle’, he used to say. But that was because, whoever you were, he was always true to himself and the values forged in his South Yorkshire boyhood.
Brought up by his mother, Pearl, a single mum, moving after three years in London, to her parents’ home in Doncaster, Rodney was shaped and formed by his family. It wasn’t always easy –‘borrowing’, as he said, ‘from next week to pay this week’s rent’ – but it was a very happy childhood. ‘I was’, he said, ‘the apple of everybody’s eye’.
It was a political household. His grandfather, Jack, chaired the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in South Yorkshire. His mum, a nurse, was a member of NUPE – her teenage scrapbook of the Spanish Civil War, a gem, testimony to the depth and thoughtfulness of the socialism that shaped Rodney’s thinking.
The family was complete when Pearl married Norman – ‘a wonderful guy’, Rodney said – together with Norman’s son, 10 year old Peter.
Then there was Pat.
They first met at 7pm on 26 December 1963 but, as he said, ‘she finally caught me in 1973’.
It was a love match. No one could be with them for a few minutes without seeing the love and delight they had in each other.
Back for 10 minutes for a quick cup of tea or a short nap, then out again, she sustained him in everything: a warm hospitable home, lovely meals, caring for Norman and Pearl when they came to live with them in Catford, ferrying Rodney by car to the endless meetings.
On one occasion he was invited to speak at a miners’ event. He and Pat arrived. No one had mentioned it was just men at the dinner and there was some consternation about having her in the room.
Rodney started his speech:
‘I know there’s some concern about my wife being here, what with the bad language that may be used. But I’ve had a word with her and she’s promised to tone it down for the evening.’
She was the love of his life, the touchstone for everything he did.
With four children, Sean, Barry, Carol and Philip, it must always have been a lively household, and then their partners, 11 grandchildren and a great grandchild.
Then, on a fine morning in Dublin, following a meeting of the European Public Service Unions, Rodney, somewhat apprehensive, set out to find the address his mum had left him after her death, for Tommy Simpson, his father, the Irish carpenter she had known in London. Sadly he didn’t find him, but, he did find three brothers, Tom, Liam and Francis, and a whole new family.
National Minimum Wage
It falls to few to achieve the goals they set themselves in life. Rodney had two: the formation of a single public service union; and a national minimum wage. He accomplished both.
The national minimum wage, with which Rodney’s name will always be linked, is now so widely accepted that it’s hard to remember how controversial it was.
Few outside NUPE supported it.
Rodney stumped the country, speaking in half empty union halls – on one occasion, at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, speaking to the usual small crowd, his voice was accidently piped into the Cannon and Ball show in the main ballroom – which must have been a surprise!
He had moved the resolutions, at the 1986 Labour Party Conference and, in 1987, at the TUC, formally adopting the minimum wage as policy.
But by 1992 the policy was in trouble:
- in the Commons the young Labour shadow employment secretary was getting hammered: every time he attacked the scarily high unemployment figures, Michael Howard, the Tory minister, claimed a minimum wage would cost two million jobs
- the Bank of England said it would increase inflation
- support within the unions was beginning to fray with fears that it would be used to bring in an incomes policy and erode skilled craft workers’ differentials
Through a close friend, Derek Robinson, Fellow in Economics at Magdalen College, Oxford, a dinner was arranged at the college with John Smith, leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair, the young shadow employment secretary, Rodney and me.
By around 3.00 in the morning – and two bottles of the Master’s finest whisky – agreement was reached: Labour would introduce a national minimum wage below which no one would be paid less than half average earnings. There wouldn’t be an incomes policy.
After John Smith died, the bargain struck on the level of the minimum wage wasn’t kept but the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 was one of the early acts of the new Labour Government.
Many were involved in its implementation. But I think it is now clear that without Rodney’s charm, cajoling, tenacity and sheer bloody-mindedness, it wouldn’t have happened.
Music, books and poetry
Less well known, perhaps, was Rodney’s love of music, books and poetry.
About music, his knowledge was deep and extensive: the great symphonies, jazz, contemporary and popular music were a source of delight and consolation.
Books not only furnished a room but overflowed it. Trade union histories and biographies, of course. He believed profoundly that history had the power to shape people’s lives, through action, learning and struggle. But the shelves were also full of contemporary fiction, essays and poetry.
The Easter before last I had an email from him with two poems, one a lovely visual or concrete poem in the form of a tree that ended
‘Tread softly because you tread on my leaves.’
The other, a harsh poem, ‘Refugees’, by Brian Bilston:
‘They have no need of our help…
Chancers and scroungers, layabouts and loungers…
‘A place should only belong to those who are born there
So do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way.’
Then, it says: read from the bottom up
‘The world can be looked at another way,
So do not be so stupid to think that
A place should only belong to those who are born there
So do not tell me
They have no need of our help.’
For Rodney delighted in clever wordplay. At a meeting of civil servants protesting the banning of trade unionism at GCHQ, his translation of Quis custodiet, ipsos custodies, who guards the guardians, was:
‘Just because you read the Guardian, doesn’t mean we’re not watching you’
Of course, he was also a master of savage invective. Of Mrs Thatcher’s dismantling of public services: ‘I wouldn’t spit in her mouth if her teeth were on fire!’
A particular favourite was Charles Lamb, the early 19th century essayist. Stuttering and often tipsy, living on the edge of a precipice on the one side of family insanity and the murder of their mother by his much loved sister, Mary, and, on the other, the deadening drudgery of working as a clerk in the East India Company, he contrived to live with a lightness of touch, reducing his friends to helpless laughter with his humour and lightning wit.
More hidden perhaps still, but at the heart of Rodney’s life, was his faith.
When he lived in Catford, he and I used to meet for eight o’clock mass at St Swithun’s Church in Hither Green, and, after, have breakfast and work for an hour or two.
‘What is required? To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’
It was, it seems to me, the source of Rodney’s deep kindness, the unsung hidden acts of generosity, the fearlessness and steel in the face of all injustice – and the humour, and the laughter and the joy in living.
If there is a place which even those of us who believe sometimes find it hard to believe in, what a party there will be.
Pearl, Norman, Tommy
Tony and Caroline Benn
… and the thousands whose hearts were warmed and spirits lifted by contact with Rodney.
We’ll miss him terribly.
Most of all, of course, his beloved Pat and the family.
But all of us who loved him, the best and bravest, the kindest of men.
Requiescat In Pace, dear friend.