Thursday, January 12, 2017

In Memory of John Cummings, former Easington MP

I was particularly saddened to hear of the death of John Cummings, whom I knew well in the period when we were fellow MPs from 1987 to 2005. He continued as an MP for a further five years after me.

It is not only that the MPs you get to know the best are normally those who are part of your own intake, but the only two times when John and I ever met outside of our parliamentary years both help to illustrate our strong connections.

We first met when both of us were seeking to be selected as candidates for the Labour Party, for the different areas in which we lived. There was, however, a big difference in our positions.

John was the leader of the Easington District Council, an electrician at his local pit and fully active in the National Union of Mineworkers in an area still dominated by pits. He clearly already had the nomination sown up from the start. Yet the surprising thing is that he became the only miner ever to represent the coal mining constituency of Easington or its previous Seaham Constituency. His Labour predecessors being Sidney Webb, Ramsay McDonald (who then defected to National Labour), Manny Shinwell and Jack Dormand. I always felt that Easington needed to be served at some time by a miner. John turned out to be the appropriate person.

In contrast, when I became MP for North East Derbyshire I become the first non-miner ever to serve the Constituency in the Labour interest. Although even with the pits in rapid decline, my own selection as a candidate turned out to be a much closer matter than John's.

When John used parliament to pursue the interests of his constituents, I followed his work with a special interest. For both my wife and I originate from the area covered by the Easington Constituency. My wife's father having worked at the coal mine at Shotton Colliery and my father at Easington Colliery.

During our period in parliament John and I (along with my wife Ann) went to Nigeria as part of a Commonwealth Parliamentary delegation. It was good to be with John whom we felt so close to. One of our visits took us to a rather isolated area with less than the normal first class hotel provisions. There was no shower nor other bathing facilities (beyond a bucket) and John informed us that he had had a “sparrow's bath”. It is a phrase (and practice) I have pinched from him whenever I am in a rush or face similar difficulties.

Unfortunately, I only met up with John once after we both left parliament. It was a somber but appropriated occasion.

There had been a pit disaster at Easington Colliery in 1951 when 83 men were killed (including two rescue workers). My father was at the pit at the time, but was working in a different seam to the one that was devastated. Local memorial services were held in remembrance of this disaster in 2011.   I met up again with John on this solemn occasion, which included a march from a local Church of England service to the mass grave at the Easington Colliery cemetery. It was led by the still existing local colliery band, playing Gresford – as it had be done many times during the funerals in 1951.

John had worked at Murton Colliery which was a neighbouring pit. Although this memorial was to be our final meeting and was built upon sad memories, it is also appropriate that it is the last time we met. It showed that the political path which he had followed was often a serious and somber business. In many difficult circumstances he showed that he had the background, values and abilities to seek to deliver improvements in the lives of those he served.

It is a pattern for others to seek to follow.

I also have a close personal debt to John. When my mother needed to be moved from accommodation in Donnini House at Easington into a care home (at the former residence of the pit manger), he helped in this process. This is a photo of him below, taken at Donnini House a decade later.

John Cummings, pictured at the opening of a new garden at Donnini House in Easington Colliery in 2005.

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