Austin Mitchell was a key member of Denis Healey’s team during Labour’s crucial deputy leadership contest of 1981, which narrowly saved the party from extinction at the hands of Tony Benn. Austin wrote many colourful articles and made even more colourful speeches and panel appearances on Denis’s behalf. He also gathered and promoted copious opinion research suggesting that Denis was by some distance the preferred choice of Labour party and trade union members, and voters generally.
Even more than Denis, he was a passionate and compulsive photographer, never without a camera. If he had not gone into politics he could have had a long career as a paparazzo.
That lovely man once observed: “Tony Blair says he is going to save the world. But he hasn’t even saved Greater Grimsby yet.”
Austin Mitchell was greatly concerned with voting reform. He came into parliament at a time when even Lord Hailsham was speaking about “elective dictatorship”. He became the first chair of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, and handed over to Jeff (now Lord) Rooker at the end of the 1980s.
It was Austin who introduced us to what was happening in New Zealand, and to its then Labour leader, Helen Clark, when first a royal commission and then two referendums ditched first-past-the-post voting for a mixed-member proportional system.
He was an entertaining speaker, loyal voting reformer, imaginative and kind. Such a pity he did not live to see Labour change its mind on how the UK elects its MPs.
As chairman of the Commons council housing group for many years, Austin Mitchell tried to get his party to return to building council housing to offset the homes lost through the right-to-buy legislation. It was a passion for the latter part of his time in parliament.
Through the Defend Council Housing campaign he organised meetings and produced reports arguing the case. In the introduction to Council Housing: Time to Invest he wrote: “It’s time to stop driving us to home ownership. It’s time to deliver a genuine level playing field for council housing.” But despite the support the Defend Council Housing campaign engendered, Tony Blair’s legacy still included the housing crisis.