Norman Atkinson

Norman Atkinson

Norman Atkinson, the son of a bus driver, was born in Manchester on 25th March, 1923. His father died when he was five years old. After attending college he became a designer in a engineering department. A member of the Labour Party he was elected to Manchester City Council in 1945 at the age of 22.

A member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union he became branch president while working in Barrow. He was the unsuccessful candidate at Wythenshawe in the 1955 General Election. In 1957 he became chief designer at Manchester University’s department of mechanical and nuclear engineering. Atkinson became the Labour candidate in Altrincham and Sale but failed to get elected in the 1959 General Election.

In 1962 Alan Grahame Brown, the Labour MP for Tottenham defected to the Conservative Party. Atkinson was selected over Ian Mikardo to replace Brown. Mikardo later recalled in his autobiography, Back Bencher (1988): "I knew I was merely making up the numbers since that was an AEU-sponsored seat and the AEU had put up an estimable young candidate, Norman Atkinson, who was virtually certain to be selected. (He was, won the seat, and made a notable contribution to the work and performance of the Party in Parliament.)"

The authors of Michael Foot (1981) pointed out that Atkinson became a supporter of Michael Foot: "The Parliament of 1964 had changed in several important ways. Until then the left in its various manifestations had a distinctly middle-class air. It did have working-class supporters, but the intellectual drive came primarily from highly educated people, often from public schools... This new generation of self-educated union officials were becoming MPs, and many entered Parliament in the 1964 and 1966 elections. Eric Heffer arrived, as did Stan Orme who went on to become a Cabinet minister, Albert Booth who replaced Foot as Employment Secretary, Norman Atkinson, later Treasurer of the Labour party, Norman Buchan, Russell Kerr, Sydney Bidwell, Roy Hughes, and many other names, famous and unfamiliar, who are now firmly bedded down in the active Labour left. These men were Foot's natural allies; they had looked up to him and drawn inspiration from his speeches and writings."

After winning the seat in the 1964 General Election he joined Michael Foot, Konni Zilliacus, William Warbey, Russell Kerr, John Mendelson, Anne Kerr, Stan Newens, and Sydney Silverman in protesting against American intervention in Vietnam. However, Atkinson and his friends were unable to persuade the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, to condemn US policy on Vietnam. Atkinson was also a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, that opposed nuclear weapons, prices and incomes and the European Common Market.

Atkinson warned Harold Wilson in 1968 that expelling rebels would “smash the party”. Soon afterwards Atkinson was suspended by the parliamentary party. The following year he took on Barbara Castle when she launched her In Place of Strife union reforms. Atkinson accused her of “setting fire to the grass roots of the Labour movement”. Anne Perkins, the author of Red Queen: The Authorized Biography of Barbara Castle (2003), Castle was "gentler with the young MPs like Norman Atkinson, one of the leading lights of the new left" and encouraged him to keep banging away at principles... to force us to change details back into principles from time to time in order to see how far we've strayed".

After the Labour defeat in the 1970 General Election, Atkinson concentrated his attacks on the government of Edward Heath. Atkinson, now chairman of the Tribune Group, led the campaign against Heath's Industrial Relations Act and his plan to join the European Common Market. According to The Daily Telegraph: "With Heath moving to take Britain into Europe, Atkinson... sought a pledge that Labour would pull out, reckoning the leadership’s opposition to entry a sham."

Harold Wilson returned to power in 1974. When Jim Callaghan replaced Wilson as prime-minister in 1976 he offered Atkinson a job in the government but he turned it down, feeling more at ease on the backbenches. Atkinson was especially critical of the government's economic policies. He urged the Cabinet to take up “the Socialist case for reflating the economy” and warned that if this did not happen, Margaret Thatcher, the leader of the Conservative Party, would win “the greatest Tory majority for years”

Atkinson strongly disapproved when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, controversially began imposing tight monetary controls. The Guardian reported: "Atkinson's straightforward lack of guile led to friction with some Labour leaders, notably in 1976 with Denis Healey as chancellor over economic policy. Atkinson argued that Healey had become too much of a prisoner of International Monetary Fund policy in making the public spending cuts that came as a condition of an IMF loan. Yet his criticism, which consistently based itself on a cry for more radical socialist policies, never reflected badly on his credibility, as was the case with some other leftwingers."

The government's economic policies included deep cuts in public spending on education and health. Healey explained his thinking in his autobiography The Time of My Life (1989): "Once the pay policy was in place in 1975, my overriding concern was to restore a healthy financial balance both at home and abroad. It had become customary among Keynesians - who had usually read no more of Keynes than most Marxists had read of Marx - to claim that there was no need to worry about a fiscal deficit when the economy was working below capacity, nor about a deficit on the current balance of payments when foreign capital was pouring into Britain. In 1975 unemployment was rising, and the Arab countries were parking their surplus oil revenues in British banks for the time being. So in theory there was no harm in running substantial deficits both at home and abroad.... Politically, by far the most difficult part of my ordeal was the continual reduction of public spending; almost all of the spending cuts ran against the Labour Party's principles, and many also ran against our campaign promises."

Left-wing critics like Atkinson have claimed that these policies laid the foundations of what became known as monetarism. This view was supported by the Conservative Party MP Iain Duncan-Smith has said that Healey deserves credit for the economic achievements of the future government of Margaret Thatcher. In 1978 these public spending cuts led to a wave of strikes (winter of discontent) and the Labour Party was easily defeated in the 1979 General Election.

In 1981 Atkinson was a strong supporter of Tony Benn in his unsuccessful attempt to beat Healey to become deputy leader. Atkinson was ousted as treasurer of the Labour Party as a result of taking on the leadership. Before the 1983 General Election Atkinson defeated his Left-wing neighbour Reg Race for the enlarged Tottenham constituency. He was comfortably elected, but in 1985 lost the nomination to Bernie Grant, leader of Haringey council. Atkinson left the House of Commons in 1987.

Atkinson published a biography of Joseph Whitworth entitled, Sir Joseph Whitworth: the World’s Best Mechanician (1997). His first play, Old Merrypebbles, appeared in 2007. He argues: "My satirical play Old Merrypebbles, peels away in the best Shavian fashion, the last remnants of genteel propriety.... I hope the somewhat mischievous fun laden script also helps explain how parliament is sometimes abused."

Norman Atkinson died on 8th July, 2013. He was survived by his wife, Irene Parry, whom he married in 1948.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Ian Mikardo, Back Bencher (1988)

The first invitation I had to participate in the selection of a candidate was at Tottenham, and I accepted even though I knew I was merely making up the numbers since that was an AEU-sponsored seat and the AEU had put up an estimable young candidate, Norman Atkinson, who was virtually certain to be selected. (He was, won the seat, and made a notable contribution to the work and performance of the Party in Parliament.)

(2) Simon Hoggart and David Leigh, Michael Foot (1981)

The Parliament of 1964 had changed in several important ways. Until then the left in its various manifestations had a distinctly middle-class air. It did have working-class supporters, but the intellectual drive came primarily from highly educated people, often from public schools. They sensed themselves to be in opposition to the trade union right wing, the nondescript bulk of Labour MPs loyal to their union bosses and deeply suspicious of the smart-Aleck, clever-clever left which they, sometimes quite justifiably, thought hopelessly out of touch with ordinary working people. But in the 'Fifties and 'Sixties there came a new generation of trade union workers and officials, more militant, better educated, and less inclined to accept the law as laid down by autocrats such as Arthur Deakin. The TGWU was now led by Frank Cousins, a left-winger, and was succeeded by another, in Jack Jones. The Union gave money to Tribune, and Jones went on the paper's board. The TGWU Executive minutes recorded optimistically that Tribune was "the last major national newspaper firmly committed to the Trade Union and Labour Movement" not a sentiment with which Deakin would have found himself in agreement.

Meanwhile, this new generation of self-educated union officials were becoming MPs, and many entered Parliament in the 1964 and 1966 elections. Eric Heffer arrived, as did Stan Orme who went on to become a Cabinet minister, Albert Booth who replaced Foot as Employment Secretary, Norman Atkinson, later Treasurer of the Labour party, Norman Buchan, Russell Kerr, Sydney Bidwell, Roy Hughes, and many other names, famous and unfamiliar, who are now firmly bedded down in the active Labour left. These men were Foot's natural allies; they had looked up to him and drawn inspiration from his speeches and writings.

(3) Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989)

Once the pay policy was in place in 1975, my overriding concern was to restore a healthy financial balance both at home and abroad. It had become customary among Keynesians - who had usually read no more of Keynes than most Marxists had read of Marx - to claim that there was no need to worry about a fiscal deficit when the economy was working below capacity, nor about a deficit on the current balance of payments when foreign capital was pouring into Britain. In 1975 unemployment was rising, and the Arab countries were parking their surplus oil revenues in British banks for the time being. So in theory there was no harm in running substantial deficits both at home and abroad.

However, the trouble with deficits is that they have to be financed by borrowing; and in the negotiation for a loan it is the lender who decides the interest rate and sets the conditions. It was obvious that before long the Arab countries would start diversifying their surpluses more widely round the world; and in any case their surpluses would shrink as their own development plans got under way. If we were not to become dependent on borrowing from other foreigners and from the IMF, we must try to eliminate our current account deficit within a few years. And we would be unable to reduce our external deficit if our internal fiscal deficit was still growing.

So I decided to reduce the PSBR by raising taxes and cutting public spending, so that firms would be compelled to export what they could not sell at home. It was a Herculean task. The enormous interest payments Britain had incurred by borrowing to finance its twin deficits since the Barber boom started in 1971, meant that we had to run very fast even to stand still. Yet we managed to complete the most important part of our task in just three years. In fact the latest statistics show that we had eliminated our balance of payments deficit in 1977. By the middle of 1978 our GDP was growing over three per cent a year, as against a fall of one per cent in 1975/6. Unemployment, which rose very fast in my first three years, had been falling for nine months; and inflation was below eight per cent. It was one of the few periods in postwar British history in which unemployment and inflation were both falling at the same time.
All this was achieved at a time when we were getting little benefit from North Sea oil. The capital investment required made it a net drain on our balance of payments in my early years. Even in 1978, North Sea oil was making good only half the impact of the OPEC price increase on our balance of payments, and was not yet producing any revenue for the Government.

Politically, by far the most difficult part of my ordeal was the continual reduction of public spending; almost all of the spending cuts ran against the Labour Party's principles, and many also ran against our campaign promises. Here again, my task was complicated by the Treasury's inability either to know exactly what was happening, or to control it. In November 1975 Wynne Godley, who had himself served in the Treasury as an economist, showed that public spending in 1974/5 was some £5 billion higher in real terms than had been planned by Barber in 1971. This was one of the reasons why I decided to fix cash limits on spending as well as pay, since departments tended to use inflation as a cover for increasing their spending in real terms. Cash limits worked all too well in holding spending down. Departments were so frightened of exceeding their limits that they tended to underspend, sometimes dramatically so. In 1976/7 public spending was £2.2 billion less than planned.

(4) The Daily Telegraph (10th July, 2013)

Norman Atkinson, who has died aged 90, was an old-school Marxist who antagonised the Labour leadership - and especially Denis Healey - for 23 years as MP for Tottenham. He was party treasurer for five years as the Left tightened its grip on the National Executive, his trade union contacts delivering the cash to fight the 1979 election and move Labour from Transport House to new headquarters at Walworth Road.

A skilled parliamentary tactician, Atkinson led the Left’s drive to hold Harold Wilson’s 1974 government to its manifesto commitments, and spearheaded its criticism of Healey during the IMF crisis of 1976. He originated themes used by Tony Benn in his drive to capture the party, notably the need to subordinate Labour MPs to the party conference....

In Parliament, Atkinson was one of the core of Left-wingers who opposed Wilson over Vietnam, nuclear weapons, prices and incomes, the economy and the Common Market. He went on to urge a re-examination of the relationship between Labour MPs, the NEC, the party conference and the government — the very issue that would split the party after 1979.

(5) The Guardian (10th July, 2013)

Atkinson's straightforward lack of guile led to friction with some Labour leaders, notably in 1976 with Denis Healey as chancellor over economic policy. Atkinson argued that Healey had become too much of a prisoner of International Monetary Fund policy in making the public spending cuts that came as a condition of an IMF loan. Yet his criticism, which consistently based itself on a cry for more radical socialist policies, never reflected badly on his credibility, as was the case with some other leftwingers. It was in this role, as chairman of the Tribune group of Bevanite backbench MPs, that he made his mark in parliament.

So there was a great paradox in his becoming involved in one of the most unjust and controversial developments in Labour internal politics during the 1980s, when the party was riven with disputes between left and right – especially the leftwing assault on the leadership in which Tony Benn played a key role. In 1985, following boundary changes, Atkinson was deselected as the future candidate for his safe constituency of Tottenham, north London, and so was unable to fight the 1987 general election, even though his overall majority had regularly been more than 9,000 since he was first elected in 1964.