Sunday, July 30, 2006

Socialist Humanism in Church

On 26th July, I went to the funeral of Kevin Hughes. We had been colleagues as Labour M.P.s from his first being elected in 1992 until we both retired at the last election.

Whilst I retired because of my age and have now reached 70, Kevin’s retirement was a sad matter. He had a variant of Motor Neurone disease and knew that he would only survive for a limited time. Yet, typically, he tried to keep other people’s spirits up when he told them his sad news. He was only 53.

I had known Kevin since 1978, when I was his tutor in politics in the third year of an Industrial Day Release Course for N.U.M. members which was run by the Sheffield University Extramural Department. Appropriately, we were studying politics.

He had just resigned for the Communist Party in Doncaster, where I have been told he was made Secretary at the first meeting he attended. By I met him, he had moved into the Labour Party in the Don Valley Constituency. But from his full and passionate contributions, I had him marked down as a “revolutionary socialist”.

He arrived in Parliament five years after I did and, unlike myself, he moved solidly into a New Labour agenda.

I believe that his approach was shaped by two important factors. First, he believed in team loyalty and carried this over with him from the days of his political apprenticeship in the Communist Party. And whilst he started out in the Labour Party on the far left, he acted as a loyal grouser with his team loyalty coming to the fore as his responsibilities grew. This is by no means the same thing as coming to sell out his principles for preferment. It is his preferring to advance his principles by seeking to unite his Party with the community he represented.

Secondly, the industrial wing of the Labour Movement which he was always part of, was the NUM. He was fully active in the 1984 Miners Strike, but came to see Arthur Scargill’s approach as adventurist. This confirmed Kevin in his belief that socialism needed to be practical and to deliver for working people and their families.

The Church service in celebration of his life was held in Campsall, near Doncaster in his former Constituency and near where he had lived.

The things I will remember about the service are Kevin’s own arrangements for it. Because he knew that his final moments were approaching, he selected the hymns and the readings. He had worked at Brodworth Colliery , being on their NUM Committee when I first met him. So he arranged to have their branch banner in the Church. We started singing with Blake and the need to build “Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”.

Just as Blake’s hymn combines the best of Christian and Humanist feelings, then so did the reading from Chapter 2 of James. It called for practical help for the poor and concluded that if our faith “includes no actions, then it is dead”.

It was then no surprise that the address given by the Bishop of Doncaster, revealed that Kevin was indeed a Humanist.

The fact that he had arranged a Church setting for his funeral, seemed to me to tell us about Kevin and his strengths. To have held a Humanist Service outside of Church would have been seen by him as mere posturing.

I am sure that he felt that his family and his community would be at home in their Parish Church. These were the people from which he drew his commitments and he needed to be at one with them at the close.

Whilst Kevin and I were often in disagreement on policy matters in the Commons and he felt that as a former tutor I was given more to serving ideas than his people, we were far from being in conflict.

He used to claim, as part of his typical banter, that I still had not returned one of his essays from nearly 30 years ago. Responding in kind, I used to threaten to dig it out and have it published to reveal his past revolutionary disposition. But the banter always continued, with “have you found that essay yet?”

I know one thing, whatever it said was said with conviction, the same conviction which led him to serve his community, his union and his political party in the most effective ways he could.

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