UK Politics

The Labour MP who served for longer than Tony Benn

John Parker MP Image copyright Getty Images

The recent death of Tony Benn has been much commemorated. But, it has been worked out, the veteran left-winger was only Labour's second-longest-serving MP.

The one man who was in the job for more time was John Parker. His campaigns are less celebrated and his name little known today. So, who was he and what did he do during almost 48 years in Parliament?

Warnings over war

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Born in 1906, Herbert John Henry Parker was raised in Liverpool, and educated at Marlborough College and Oxford University.

In his memoirs, he revealed that he had not always been on the Left, telling his father at the age of 12 that he intended to become a Conservative MP. He subsequently changed his mind.

Elected as Labour MP for Romford in 1935, he was soon caught up in the developing fears about the intentions of Hitler's Germany.

From 1937, Parker asked many questions in the House of Commons about the UK's preparations for war, including the quality and number of gas masks, food stores and the costs of building air-raid shelters.

As conflict loomed ever closer in the summer of 1939, he revealed some strange events outside the screening of the thriller Confessions of a Nazi Spy.

He noted that people's enjoyment of the film, in which agents try to steal US military secrets, had been affected "by the attempts of German citizens to photograph them when entering the cinema". Parker also asked if "such interference can be prevented, as [it is] likely to lead to a breach of the peace". But the Home Office said the police had not observed any such activities.

War effort

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From 1939 to 1945, Parker was secretary of the centre-left think-tank the Fabian Society.

After the war started, he urged the RAF to drop more effective propaganda leaflets on Germany and other countries.

"It is felt that the leaflets put out by the Ministry (of Information) might be written by Englishmen and translated instead of being the work of Germans," he said. "That may or may not be true, but it is a criticism made by Germans who have read the leaflets dropped by our air force in Germany."

Parker also said: "The lies which are put over in Germany about this country require to be nailed as promptly as possible, and we should be on the alert all the time to answer them straight away."

Parker was also at the forefront of efforts to melt down metal railings to improve aeroplane and munitions supplies, also criticising the construction of replacement wooden railings in London's Leicester Square as "unnecessary".

The government must "prevent this waste of our timber supplies", he argued.

The MP was incandescent in 1943 when the government released British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley from prison, stating: "The feeling that this is a war against fascism has been definitely flouted by this decision of the government, and you have the feeling among vast numbers of people that this is not the first instance of the same kind."

"German propaganda has used this incident to confuse our friends throughout the continent by pointing out that Britain does not mean all it says when it says that it is opposed to fascism," he added.


At the 1945 general election, because of constituency boundary changes, Parker became MP for Dagenham. He served briefly as a minister before returning to the back benches.

In 1946, he asked the government to increase the supply of beer in an effort to lighten the effects of austerity.

But another leisure-related cause came to dominate much of his parliamentary career.

Parker fought for more than three decades to liberalise the laws on Sunday entertainments, calling for more commercial sporting events to take place.

In 1949 he demanded more Sunday opening for cinemas and, in 1950, said: "Members may say, 'But what about the need for a day of rest for the great mass of people?' I fully agree that 100 years ago, in the middle of the 19th Century, in the heyday of capitalism, Sunday, as a full day of rest, was a very necessary institution, but we now have a five-day working week in general, and the same need for that day of rest is gone."

He introduced parliamentary bills in 1953 and 1969, to little avail, and in the face of much religious and other opposition, but his campaigning helped raise awareness of the issue.

Football transfer tax

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In 1972, Parker raised concerns over the state and provision of sports facilities for young people.

He told the Commons that 800 more leisure centres were needed - and he came up with a novel solution.

The record transfer fee for a British football player had recently soared through the barely believable £200,000 barrier, with England stars Alan Ball (above) and Martin Peters commanding such sums. So Parker suggested a tax on such transactions.

This could raise an enormous amount and help the nation's youth, he suggested, but nothing came of the plan.

Farthing fighter

The farthing - an ancient coin worth a quarter of a penny - was becoming obsolete by 1957, Parker argued.

The Labour reformer said it had to go, as shopkeepers and the public no longer felt a need to have them in circulation.

Treasury minister Peter Thorneycroft told the Commons: "The Mint is merely the servant of the public and gives the public what it wants."

Farthings ceased to be legal tender at the end of 1960.


Parker campaigned to preserve historic buildings, particularly those in London.

In 1957, he called for the government to put aside parts of St James's Palace to ensure the display of publicly owned Tudor furniture. It declined to do so.

Ahead of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns in 1959, Parker suggested a commemorative set of postage stamps.

Postmaster-General Ernest Marples gave a curt reply: "The honourable member's suggestion would mean a fundamental departure from the traditional stamp policy of this country, which I am not prepared to adopt."

Parker persisted: "Is it not about time that we changed this Victorian tradition, and adopted some of the more interesting designs used in other parts of the Commonwealth, or in countries like France?"

The regular use of commemorative postage stamps was introduced in 1965 by Parker's nearest rival for longest-serving Labour MP - Tony Benn, in his role as postmaster-general.

Tobacco advertising

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In 1972, Parker suggested a ban on sporting events and teams being sponsored by tobacco companies.

"This is a moral issue," he told MPs. "We are fighting for the younger generation. It is right that we should take steps to prevent them from becoming addicts. This House has fought such battles in the past. I ask honourable members to remember the very important battles over the question of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself as a result of backbench members raising the matter."

The ban did not come take effect in England for "global sports" such as Formula One until 2005.

Father of the House

After the 1979 general election, Parker became the MP with the longest continuous service, making him Father of the House.

In 1980, he became president of the Fabian Society, an honorary role.

His parliamentary contributions declined and, in the 1981 to 1982 session, he was one of 10 MPs who did not speak in the Commons.

But he remained very much in public life. In June 1981, shortly before the Royal Wedding, he complained to The Times that the church of St Mary in the Strand, on the planned procession route, needed urgent cleaning, saying: "The back and sides of this baroque church are clothed in a black dirt which will dominate the royal view on the return journey from St Paul's."

Final speech

Parker had decided to call it a day by the 1983 election.

His final speech was a tribute to the outgoing Speaker of the House of Commons, George Thomas (above).

He recalled: "I have been here for 48 years, and there have been seven Speakers and 11 prime ministers during that time. It is worth remembering that Speakerships tend to last longer than prime ministerships...

"The House has very much appreciated your period in office, Mr Speaker. We wish you every good luck. It has been a memorable Speakership - the most memorable of the past 50 years. We congratulate you on that and hope that you will have a happy retirement."

Parker left the House for the last time a few days later. He died in 1987.