The Labour peer and former MP Giles Radice, Lord Radice, who has died aged 85 of cancer, was one of the most far-sighted and thoughtful politicians of his generation. In the course of five decades in parliament he dedicated his career to seeking to make the Labour party appear an attractive political proposition by relating its policy objectives to the changing aspirations of the electorate.
His case for revisionism, arguing Labour’s need to reassess its values and strategies in the light of rapid economic and social change, was made most forcefully in Labour’s Path to Power: The New Revisionism, published in 1989. It signposted the route that Tony Blair would later follow with the creation of New Labour and qualified Radice as the party’s outstanding rightwing intellectual of his age.
He himself would joke that he was “a Blairite before Blair” but it was his personal misfortune to fail ever to secure government office, precisely because the Labour party’s long years in opposition that he himself accounted for coincided with the years of his own political maturity.
He expected a role in Blair’s new government in 1997, as the party leader had specifically promised him a position on two occasions but, by then aged 61, he waited in vain for the call from No 10 and was instead passed over.
One suggestion is that his possible appointment as minister for Europe in the Foreign Office, a post that would have fitted both his experience and his passion, was blocked by Robin Cook as foreign secretary on the grounds that Radice was too enthusiastic a European. As prime minister, Blair partly acknowledged the slight he had delivered by appointing Radice a privy counsellor in 1999, a highly unusual honour to be granted to a backbench MP.
Yet Radice was a genial, relaxed man who always understood the politics of any circumstance and thus bore no resentment. He continued his significant contribution behind the scenes to the parliamentary committee system, where he became a distinguished chairman of the Treasury select committee from 1997 until he left the House of Commons for the Lords at the following election, in 2001. He also beavered on as a one-man thinktank, maintaining his lifelong impressive published output of historical and analytical political books and pamphlets.
He was an unlikely Labour MP. He appeared somewhat patrician and had the demeanour and bearing of his public schooling at Winchester and his national service as an officer in the Coldstream Guards.
A high-domed forehead, an extravagant head of hair, which went white when he was 40, and, in youth, his startling black eyebrows all hinted at his Italian ancestry. A great-great-grandfather had been a revolutionary in 1821.
Born in London, he was the elder son of Patricia (nee Heneage) and Lawrence Radice, an official in the Indian civil service in Calcutta (now Kolkata). His maternal grandfather, Sir Arthur Heneage, was a Conservative MP. Giles spent eight years in India before being sent home to preparatory school at Sunningdale in Berkshire.
Radice chose to do his national service before taking a history degree at Magdalen College, Oxford. It coincided with the Suez crisis. An athlete at school – he was a sprinter in the 100 yards and 440 yards – he sent his tennis racket to the Middle East before his own deployment. He was never sent to the canal zone but he came back a changed man, appalled by the military action, and joined the Labour party at Oxford in 1960.
When he graduated in 1961, Radice was secretary to the Advertising Inquiry Council and worked for two years as a researcher for the Labour MP Francis Noel-Baker. He fought the safe Tory seat of Chippenham in the 1964 and 1966 general elections and then joined the loyalist rightwing General and Municipal Workers’ Union (GMWU, now the GMB) as head of research. He remained there until 1973, when he was controversially picked as the Labour candidate for a byelection in the rock-solid Labour seat of Chester-le-Street.
It was a dirty and difficult byelection. The GMWU was a powerful union in the north-east; its regional head, Andy Cunningham, chaired the Chester-le-Street Labour party and was also known to have connections with the Yorkshire architect John Poulson, who gave his name to what was then unfolding as the Poulson affair and would later lead to jail sentences for Cunningham and Poulson, among others, for their roles in a web of corruption.
Radice was catapulted into a fiery campaign, presented as a high-born trade union placeman, and facing a Liberal candidate with the twin advantages of being a local miner’s son and related to a well-known Sunderland football team player with the same name. He won the seat with a much reduced majority and became one of the first MPs to seek a compulsory register of MPs’ outside interests.
He also called for an inquiry into the Labour party in the north-east. Thereafter he restored Labour’s dominant majority in his subsequent seven general elections – three as MP for Chester-le-Street and a further four after he was chosen in 1983 for the successor seat of Durham North (later North Durham).
In his maiden speech in the Budget debate, 11 days after his byelection victory, Radice paid tribute to Chester-le-Street’s record as the constituency with the longest history of Labour representation in the country.
He spoke of his three predecessors as MPs, all of them miners, and of the devastating impact of the then soaring inflation on his local economy. He was congratulated on the “remarkable fluency and clarity” with which he had spoken by the Treasury minister Jock Bruce-Gardyne.
Having always identified with the Fabian right of the party, Radice campaigned for Roy Jenkins to succeed Harold Wilson in 1976 and was then appointed parliamentary private secretary to Shirley Williams in the Callaghan government. In 1980 he supported Denis Healey against the successful leadership campaign of Michael Foot and the following year ran Healey’s winning campaign in the crucial party contest against Tony Benn for the deputy leadership.
He was always a committed loyalist to the Labour party and was never tempted to accompany his friends and rightwing contemporaries when they split with Labour to form the SDP.
At the 1981 Königswinter conference Williams and the Liberal leader, David Steel, climbed the Drachenfels hill nearby while discussing the future of the parliamentary social democratic right. Walking separately, Radice and the Labour MP George Robertson decided jointly to stay and fight. Radice played a leading part in both the Manifesto Group and the Labour Solidarity Campaign.
During Labour’s wilderness years he was a frontbench spokesman on foreign affairs in 1981 and on employment from 1981 to 1983. Neil Kinnock made him education spokesman in 1983 but replaced him in the post in 1987 after a series of run-ins with the teachers’ union. He was a member of the Commons’ select committees on expenditure (1974-79), procedure (1978-82), Employment (1979-81) and the Treasury from 1995, before becoming chairman.
In the Lords he chaired the European Economic and Financial Affairs sub-committee (2002-06) and played a role in many national and international organisations. He was awarded the Order of Merit by Germany in 1996 and the Legion d’honneur by France in 2004.
Among the books and diaries of his later years, Radice published Friends and Rivals (2002), a study of Jenkins, Healey and Anthony Crosland and their failure to work together to advance the cause of the Labour right.
His own favourite book was Odd Couples (2015), about significant pairings in postwar politics including Churchill and Attlee, Thatcher and Whitelaw, and Blair and Brown.
Radice married Penelope Angus in 1959. They divorced after 10 years, and in 1971 he married the historian Lisanne Koch, who survives him with the two daughters of his first marriage, Adele and Sophie, and three step-children. His younger brother, Jonathan, died in 2020.
• Giles Heneage Radice, Lord Radice, politician and author, born 4 October 1936; died 25 August 2022