Willie McKelvey obituary

Scottish Labour MP, local councillor and charismatic union leader who was a mentor to George Galloway

Willie McKelvey, who has died aged 82, was a popular working-class Labour MP whose career was divided between two former bastions of Scottish industry, Dundee and Kilmarnock. The link was provided by the Amalgamated Engineering Union (now part of Unite), which sponsored his parliamentary candidacy.

McKelvey was a Dundonian by birth, education and accent. He attended Morgan Academy in the city but left school at 14 to attend technical college. His parents, George and Florence, met in the jute mill where they both worked in the days when that industry dominated Dundee.

George then had a very different career, as second accordionist in the Jimmy Shand Band throughout its formidable heyday of the 1950s and 60s. The McKelveys had acquired the tenancy of a new council house in Dundee and this became the band’s practice place on the grounds that it had the biggest bedroom. The neighbours would hang out of their windows to listen.

There was always something of the entertainer about Willie. He was a fine singer, witty raconteur and effective public speaker. After national service in the RAF, he went to work with the National Cash Register, a huge employer in Dundee, where he became a shop steward and latterly convener. This drew him into Labour party activism and he became its full-time organiser in the city in the early 70s.

The smell of corruption had hung over Dundee politics for several years, particularly in relation to contracts for city centre redevelopment, involving the building firm Crudens and several prominent Labour councillors. McKelvey worked closely with Gus MacDonald and Ray Fitzwalter of Granada’s World in Action, leading to a momentous expose in 1975, which resulted in one conviction.

Already a councillor, McKelvey became council leader in 1977. The vacancy as Labour organiser in Dundee was filled by George Galloway, to whom McKelvey had been a political mentor from an early age. Delivering the eulogy at McKelvey’s funeral, Galloway described him as “a dynamic and charismatic union leader whose faith was in the working class, the Labour party and the labour movement”.

The Ayrshire town of Kilmarnock had a proud engineering tradition, and when a vacancy occurred in advance of the 1979 general election, the candidacy was within the gift of the AEU, who put forward McKelvey. His predecessor was William Ross, the formidable secretary of state for Scotland in Harold Wilson’s governments. McKelvey held the seat (known as Kilmarnock and Loudoun from 1983) until retiring in 1997.

He and his friend, Ernie Ross, newly elected for Dundee West, arrived in Westminster with a reforming zeal directed towards the parliamentary Labour party, which at that time mainly provided an audience for the leadership to address. It may now seem ironic that their democratisation campaign was aimed at securing more influence for the left. In 1982, both became founding members of the Socialist Campaign Group, which supported Tony Benn.

Kilmarnock was in the throes of industrial decline, involving a series of closures at the hands of multinational companies. In his maiden speech in 1979, McKelvey entered a passionate plea for the retention of combine harvester production in Kilmarnock by US-owned Massey Ferguson, who were planning to switch it to France. This duly happened the following year, with the loss of 1,200 jobs in Kilmarnock.

Much of McKelvey’s time as an MP was devoted to fighting battles against the loss of jobs. One of the few bright spots was the continuing presence of Johnnie Walker whisky as a major employer in Kilmarnock (though this, too, came to an end in 2012). McKelvey became active on behalf of the Scotch whisky industry, on matters such as taxation and counterfeiting, and chaired the industry’s all-party group.

The Scottish affairs select committee was revived in 1992 and McKelvey became its chairman in spite of opposition from some Scottish Tory MPs who believed that he was too committed to the cause of Scottish devolution. In the event, he proved to be an excellent and consensual chairman. While very much a man of the left, McKelvey was good at crossing party lines in order to work for effective outcomes, both on national and local issues.

Another interest was greyhound racing, and he served as an owners’ representative on the British Greyhound Racing Board as well as being instrumental in forming an all-party group on the sport. He bought his first greyhound in partnership with three other Labour MPs, who soon found they had been introduced to an expensive hobby. Only McKelvey persisted and eventually owned a successful dog, Lady Polly, which gave a handsome return on his £800 investment and then became his “tremendous pal” for another 12 years.

Shortly before the 1997 election, McKelvey had a stroke and decided not to stand again. His wife, Edith (nee Wilkie), died in 2001. He continued to live in his adopted constituency, to which he had become completely devoted, and remained active in his local Labour party. He is survived by two sons, William and George.

• William McKelvey, politician and trade unionist, born 8 July 1934; died 19 October 2016


Brian Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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