Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland obituary

Long-serving Labour party chief whip noted for his loyalty and steadfastness

Derek Foster, Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland, the former Labour party chief whip, represented something of a contradiction in his political life. He took on one of the most politically demanding posts at Westminster, requiring considerable personal aggressiveness, and yet he was one of the mildest and most genial of men, who in his spare time donned the uniform of the Salvation Army.

The fact that Foster, who has died aged 81, ever became chief whip was itself remarkable. He was a teetotaller, a state of affairs that, in the view of many Labour MPs, ought to have disqualified him even from standing for the job, yet he held it successfully for nearly a decade – an exceptionally long time, particularly given that he was first elected to the post in 1985 with a majority of one – against a succession of challenges in the annual parliamentary Labour party elections.

It was Tony Blair’s election as party leader in 1994 that marked the end of Foster’s role as an active member of the party’s frontbench. Blair persuaded him to stand down from the all-important control centre of the opposition whips’ office in exchange for a minor role, initially as shadow spokesman for the Citizens’ Charter and then from 1995 as shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Foster, right, with Tony Blair and the union leader Jimmy Knapp, centre, at the threatened Shildon wagon works, County Durham, in the early 1980s. Foster later became the first minister to resign from Blair’s government after Labour’s landslide victory in 1997.
Foster, right, with Tony Blair and the union leader Jimmy Knapp, centre, at the threatened Shildon wagon works, County Durham, in the early 1980s. Foster later became the first minister to resign from Blair’s government after Labour’s landslide victory in 1997. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

But part of the deal was an apparent promise of a significant appointment in a future Blair government and although Foster initially accepted the post of parliamentary secretary in the Cabinet Office after the 1997 election swept Labour into power, two days later he recanted this decision. He considered the post was insufficient recompense for the years he had put in as chief whip in opposition and thus achieved the curious distinction of becoming the first minister to resign from the new administration.

Foster got his own back on Blair subsequently when he was appointed chair of the Commons’ select committee on employment. He used the post to criticise govern ment policy to considerable effect, which led to him losing the chair in 2001. He also served as a member of the education and employment committee and of the committee on standards and privileges. Foster stood down from the House of Commons at the 2005 election and was appointed to the Lords. He had become a member of the privy council in 1993 under John Smith’s brief leadership.

He was born in Sunderland, the son of Ethel and Joseph Foster. His father was a shipyard fitter who had known hard times, spending many years on the dole, and Foster never forgot the humiliation that it meant for his father’s pride. Later, Foster always tried to give a helping hand to young people in need in an attempt to prevent the demoralising impact of unemployment. He claimed that he owed his start in politics to his religious beliefs, having join ed the Salvationists at the age of 11 and then seen the poverty of the slums of Sunderland.

He himself went to the local Bede grammar school, and then to St Catherine’s College, Oxford, where he got an honours degree in philosophy, politics and economics and upset the neighbours by playing the trombone. It was a matter of lasting regret to him, if not to any of his neighbours, that he never learned to play the euphonium.

He worked in industry for 10 years, at such typically irreconcilable pursuits as the manufacture of tyres and quilt-making. Afterwards he never discussed this period in his life, but it was widely known that he had a problem with alcoholism that was to lead to his subsequent abstinence from drink and his emergence as a hugely enthusiastic and committed social worker.

When he got his life back on the rails, he ran a youth club for a trade union about which he used to speak with great emotional and political passion, and became involved in local authorities. He worked first on further education in Durham in 1973, and became assistant director of education for Sunderland borough council from 1974 until his election as MP for Bishop Auckland in 1979.

He had joined the Labour party in 1968, was elected to Sunderland borough council in 1972 and then to the Tyne and Wear county council in 1973. From 1974 until 1976, he was chair of the North of England Development Council and was to take his concern for regional issues and industrial development into the House of Commons.

Derek Foster with Neil Kinnock in 1985. Foster served at the Labour leader’s parliamentary private secretary.
Derek Foster with Neil Kinnock in 1985. Foster served at the Labour leader’s parliamentary private secretary. Photograph: Garry Weaser/The Guardian

Foster had won the nomination for his parliamentary seat against the odds and four years later was a surprise choice as parliamentary private secretary to Neil Kinnock when he became Labour leader. He had been a member of the Commons’ select committee on trade and industry, served as a Labour whip for a year (1981-82) and been a junior spokesman on the social security team (1982-83). This was routine stuff: his was not a name cast about with expectations of future glory.

But that was one of the reasons Kinnock chose him. Foster was safe, responsible, a representative of the party’s solid north-east, which Kinnock needed to bring on side in 1983, and he had no enemies. He had a wide range of contacts in the PLP and he was trusted by everybody. His loyalty was paramount, although in fact it proved a disadvantage: he acted as a lightning conductor for Kinnock, but he took too much on himself and protected Kinnock from unpalatable truths he should have known about.

He was also, perhaps unexpect edly, politically ambitious. He aspired initially to be the party’s frontbench spokesman on social security and made no secret of the fact that he was using the important post of PPS to the leader as a route to a more distinguished position.

It was a surprise to everyone, however, that he should want to be chief whip. Kinnock initially opposed him in this, but it was held to be a mark of the steel in Foster that he not only gained the leader’s backing for the job but held on to it for so long, and withstood so many challenges.

His second wife, Anne (nee Bulmer), whom he married in 1972, survives him. He had three sons and a daughter.

• Derek Foster, Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland, politician, born 25 June 1937; died 6 January 2019


Julia Langdon

The GuardianTramp

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