Obituary: Gerald Kaufman

Gerald Kaufman

Gerald Kaufman rose from a working-class background to become one of the longest-serving MPs of his generation.

He gained a reputation as a persistent, often waspish, interrogator whose withering putdowns became a feature of his time in Parliament.

A practising Jew, he was best known for his fierce opposition to the policies of the Israeli government and its treatment of the Palestinians.

Possessed of a sardonic wit, he was a prolific writer and columnist who also wrote satirical sketches for the BBC, an organisation that he later frequently criticised.

Gerald Bernard Kaufman was born in Leeds on 21 June 1930, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants.

A scholarship took him to the fee-paying Leeds Grammar School, and he won an Exhibition to Queens College, Oxford, from where he graduated with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics.

While at Oxford he immersed himself in politics and, as the secretary of the University Labour Club, he was instrumental in preventing a student named Rupert Murdoch from standing for office, after the Australian was found to be breaking the rules by canvassing for the position.

Image caption Kaufman (3rd right) appearing on Not so Much a Programme, More a Way of Life

On leaving university he set out to find a parliamentary seat. After a brief spell as assistant secretary of the Fabian Society, he was selected to fight Bromley in the 1955 general election. He was roundly defeated by the Conservative candidate, the future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Four years later he failed at Gillingham, another safe Conservative seat where the Labour vote actually fell.

He had secured a job on the Daily Mirror, where he often wrote leaders. In 1964 he moved to the New Statesman for a short time before working for the Labour Party as a press officer, in which post he became a member of one of Prime Minister Harold Wilson's so-called "kitchen cabinet".

It was while visiting his mother in Leeds in November 1962 that he saw the first episode of the BBC's satirical programme That Was the Week That Was. Back in his Daily Mirror office, he phoned the producer, Ned Sherrin, and told him he had an idea for a sketch.

Disappeared

"He had no idea who I was," Kaufman later recalled, "but he said, 'Write it and I'll send a taxi in the morning to pick it up.'"

It led to Kaufman becoming a regular contributor to the show, best known for his Silent Men of Westminster, a satire on MPs who never spoke in the House.

Labour lost the 1970 general election, but Kaufman finally got into Parliament as the member for Manchester Ardwick. When Labour returned to power in 1974 he held junior ministerial posts in the Department of the Environment and the Department of Industry.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Kaufman (r) was a junior minister in the 1970s

He became shadow environment secretary in 1980 and, three years later when his Ardwick seat disappeared in boundary changes, he moved to Manchester Gorton, becoming shadow home secretary after Margaret Thatcher won the 1983 election.

Kaufman was scathing about Labour's move to the left. He accused Tony Benn of nearly destroying the party when he stood as deputy leader in 1981. He later said he would have quit Parliament had Benn been successful.

He was equally critical of Michael Foot's leadership and famously described Labour's 1983 manifesto, which advocated, among other things, unilateral nuclear disarmament and renationalisation of recently privatised industries, as "the longest suicide note in history".

After a term as shadow foreign secretary, he returned to the back benches in 1992 and became chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.

Castigated

There he was able to indulge in a series of attacks on what he called cultural elitism. His savaging of Mary Allen, then chief executive of the Royal Opera House, over her failure to account for spiralling costs, saw her resign her position.

The satirical TV puppet show, Spitting Image, lampooned Kaufman as the serial killer Hannibal Lecter, from The Silence of the Lambs.

He became notable for harsh criticism of BBC management and called for the BBC to be privatised, claiming that the corporation could be funded by big business.

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Image caption He served as shadow foreign secretary under Neil Kinnock

He also castigated the BBC over its apology for the obscene calls made by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand to the actor Andrew Sachs, saying that it was "not enough".

Kaufman's most vocal attacks were reserved for Israel and its policies towards the Palestinians. A member of the Jewish Labour Movement, he called for economic sanctions against Israel and a ban on sales of arms.

In 2002 he broke a longstanding pledge never to visit Israel when he went there to make a BBC documentary called The End of An Affair, which charted his early infatuation with the Jewish state as a young student and how he later became disillusioned.

He launched a bitter attack on the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. "It is time to remind Sharon," he said, "that the Star of David belongs to all Jews, not to his repulsive government."

Prolific author

He often compared Israel's treatment of the Palestinians with South African apartheid and, described Israel's use of white phosphorus flares in the 2009 offensive in Gaza as "war crimes".

"I long ago gave up hope for the Israelis participating in a negotiated solution," he said in 2014.

Kaufman himself came under fire when the Daily Telegraph published its investigation into MPs' expenses in 2009. It emerged he had claimed more than £115,000 for work on his London flat and spent £8,000 on a large-screen TV and another £1,500 on a luxury rug.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption He led a delegation to Gaza in 2010 to express solidarity with the Palestinians

Following the general election of May 2015, he became Father of the House, a title bestowed on the sitting MP who is not a minister who has the longest unbroken period of service in the House of Commons.

A prolific author, he wrote a number of books on the art and practice of politics.

Kaufman was not a clubbable man and not one to suffer fools either gladly or quietly, something that did not endear him to many of his parliamentary colleagues.

That, along with Labour's almost two decades of opposition, may well explain why a politician with undoubted intellect, and one of the pioneers of the New Labour project, never served in the cabinet of a Labour government.

Gerald Kaufman was knighted in 2004.

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