Ernie Ross obituary

Labour MP who represented his native Dundee for 26 years and campaigned for local and Middle Eastern causes

Ernie Ross, who has died aged 79, was an energetic and able working-class Labour MP who represented his native Dundee for 26 years. During which he moved from Bennite loyalties to a mainstream position within the parliamentary party.

He had a longstanding interest in international as well as domestic issues, and when Labour won in 1997 was delighted to find himself a member of the foreign affairs select committee. However, loyalty, in particular to Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, soon led him into a high-profile episode that resulted in him resigning from the committee and being suspended from the House of Commons.

The select committee investigated what became known as the Sandline affair, involving an obscure company that sold arms into Sierra Leone despite a UN embargo. The committee’s report was severely critical of the Foreign Office’s role for, at best, turning a blind eye to Sandline International’s activities, which were supportive of restoring the former president, Ahmad Kabbah, who had been removed by a military coup.

Ernie leaked a draft of the select committee report to Cook, who made the mistake of pre-empting its findings in interviews before they had been published. This was spotted by a Tory member of the committee and parliamentary outrage ensued. Ironically, the restoration of democracy in Sierra Leone became the Blair government’s showpiece for its “ethical foreign policy”, but this judgment of history did not come soon enough to save Ernie from a 10-day suspension from the Commons.

Ernie came into Labour politics through the trade union route. Dundee in the 1960s was dominated by two industrial giants, “the Cash” (the banking machinery company NCR) and “the Timex” (a watchmaking and computing plant). Ernie became a quality control engineer at Timex. Both companies were heavily unionised by the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) and produced a cadre of effective Labour activists. Two leading figures and close friends were Willie McKelvey, who became MP for Kilmarnock, and Ernie, who succeeded Peter Doig in Dundee West. Both were elected in 1979.

As part of the Bennite assault on the party’s structures, the pair promoted a movement to make the parliamentary Labour party subject to conference decisions and manifesto commitments. The more far-sighted tribunes of the left could see that while this might serve their short-term purpose, it could also work against them if – as duly happened – conference and manifesto moved closer to the mainstream. After 1983, the demand faded and Ernie became a unifying figure, dedicated to electoral revival. In 1992, he was one of five candidates to chair the PLP but lost in the runoff to Doug Hoyle.

Ernie retained a close interest in the Middle East and was a lifelong supporter of the Palestinian cause, having backed Dundee city council when it made the controversial decision in 1980 to twin with the West Bank city of Nablus and unfurl the Palestinian flag above the city chambers. As recently as April of this year, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK visited Dundee to express thanks for that decision and the city’s continuing support for twinning, with particular reference to Ernie’s role.

During his first term in parliament, he survived cancer with the help of keyhole surgery developed by a team led by Sir Alfred Cuschieri at Ninewells hospital in Dundee. Ernie was one of the first patients to benefit from the pioneering work of the Maltese surgeon and remained proud of, and grateful for, this connection between his own survival and the status of Dundee as a centre of medical excellence.

His popularity with voters owed little to his involvement in international causes. He remained in the same council house throughout his time in parliament, travelled by bus, possessed a gentle style of Dundonian humour and was closely in touch with his constituents. He lobbied successfully to bring hundreds of Department for Work and Pensions jobs to Dundee and was involved in a successful campaign to save the Dundee dental school, which had a long history in the city and was key to the reputation of the university, which lay within his constituency.

However, one of the most prominent campaigns – in which he sought to be an intermediary and which took him back to his old workplace – ended in failure. Timex had been in Dundee for 40 years but by the early 90s was facing intense competition from east Asia. When the management tried to make redundancies, the workforce voted overwhelmingly to strike but, when they offered to return, the company locked them out. After a bitter six-month dispute the plant shut permanently in August 1993.

Ernie’s parents both worked at NCR and he was educated at St Joseph’s and St Mary’s primary schools and then St John’s junior secondary school. He worked initially as a shipyard engineer before joining Timex. While he retained a Catholic faith, Ernie cheerfully accepted criticism from the church for his liberal voting record on issues such as abortion and the age of consent.

He is survived by his wife, Jane Moad, known as June, a playgroup supervisor, whom he married in 1964, and their three children, Stephen, Ali and Karen.

• Ernest Ross, politician, born 27 July 1942; died 17 October 2021


Brian Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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