Margaret Beckett became Labour’s first female leader in 1994. Her announcement yesterday that she will retire at the next general election is understandable, even if we in the parliamentary Labour party wish it weren’t true.
Her tenure as leader was short, given that she stepped into the role ex-officio as John Smith’s deputy after his devastating death and then handed over to Tony Blair. But for a generation of women and men, she has not only smashed through glass ceilings but also been the steady voice at times of crisis, the holder of the greatest offices our party and our country can bestow and a political survivor with great intellect and skill. In government, as leader of the house, she was often drafted in for media duties, by virtue of being the person most able to get excitable journalists to calm down.
At Labour’s annual conference in Brighton last year, I saw her across the hotel lobby, sitting with the paper and some toast. Her husband Leo was with her, as he was at every Labour party conference I have been to. I bobbed down to speak to her and she gave me a shrewd analysis of the various goings-on. Nobody’s judgments are perfect, and no two politicians agree on everything, and that would include Margaret and myself. But I agree with her that a year in the whips’ office, where we both served, is worth 10 on the backbenches in terms of understanding how the Commons, and politics, works.
Margaret’s insight has been priceless to us over the turbulence of recent times. Nothing surprises her. Of course, as the last remaining MP who held office in the Wilson and Callaghan governments, she has seen it all before. But she also has acted as a constant reminder of our purpose, from the platform telling a lively activist on the conference floor: “If the most important question on your mind, comrade, is not the difference a Labour government can make, I don’t know why you are here today.” Cue boundless applause from the Labour ranks.
Her words were born out of experience. As secretary of state at the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI), she introduced the national minimum wage, providing a legal guarantee against poverty pay for the first time in our country’s history.
She also served as our country’s first female foreign secretary. She was there to make changes and she did. Taking office at the time of the Iran deal negotiations was an unprecedented challenge, but her role in making the Foreign Office lead on climate change should also not be overlooked. She broke the mould as foreign secretary, not just in who she was, but in what she did.
On a personal note, Margaret’s presence in the PLP has been incredibly important to those of us elected in 2010 and onwards. Though we are progressives, looking to the future, nothing good comes from losing touch with the experience and knowledge of past Labour governments.
Every time I have spoken to Margaret, I have appreciated her dedication to stick with parliament and the benefits that has brought to the rest of us. My gratitude for that is only slightly overshadowed by the gratitude I felt at 16, waiting patiently for a Labour government, watching Margaret and her colleagues walk into the cabinet room for the first time, ready to give my generation the government we longed for.
• Alison McGovern is the Labour MP for Wirral South