Born 1st April 1940, Died 12th August 2012. Alex Falconer who has died was an inspirational figure on the Left. Fragments of Alex Falconer’s life will be well known to anyone who came along to hear him speak, because his politics came from his own life experience and he wasn’t afraid to be autobiographical.
So when as a trade unionist and Labour Party representative he bravely challenged the work based societ,y he could call on all of his first hand experience as a manual worker at the Blackness Foundry in Dundee and the dockyard in Rosyth, depicting the alienation as well as the exploitation he had endured but challenged.
When he spoke of the National Health Service free at the point of need, he drew on early childhood memories of his mother pushing him up the steep gradient of Constitution Road in Dundee in a wheelchair to and from the Royal Infirmary.
And as a committed and long time member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, his case was all the more powerful because of his service in the Royal Navy followed by his working life in the dockyard behind the nuclear fence.
Before his election to the European Parliament in 1984 for the constituency of Mid Scotland and Fife, he had already established himself as a formidable community campaigner, not least in championing the cause of Scottish Special Housing Association tenants, of whom he was one in Rosyth.
But it was as a member of that wave of shop stewards in industrial Britain in the late 60s and early 70s, encouraged by Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon and mentored in Fife by the TGWU’s Jimmy McIntyre, that Alex came to the fore. He emerged not just as an astute negotiator and a proponent of free collective bargaining with an agenda which extended not only beyond wages, but beyond the factory gates too.
He also grew to be a contributor to the wider politics of the T&G, fired up by ideas that McIntyre encouraged him to examine through the then influential Institute for Workers Control (IWC) led by Ken Coates and Tony Topham. Years later as an MEP he took these notions of industrial democracy to a higher plane advocating the need for a wider economic democracy, presciently warning of the flaws of global capitalism and the dangers to working people of the tyranny of economic power in too few hands.
Of course the IWC’s agenda was championed by Tony Benn. And Alex Falconer became a lifelong Bennite, so when Tony Benn stood for the Labour Party leadership in 1988, by then a Euro-MP, he became the co-ordinator of the Benn campaign in Scotland. For some on the Left, the Benn/Heffer challenge was a shot across Kinnock’s bows, a warning that he should not move the Party organisationally or politically to the Right. For Alex it was different. He sincerely believed that Benn would make a better Labour Party leader. His view was not shared at the time and the rest is history.
Whilst Alex emerged as a leader in key debates inside the Labour Party, notably in the battle to retain Clause IV, and to defeat Proportional Representation in the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s scheme for the Scottish Parliament, he also stood out as a leader in the resistance to the hated Poll Tax winding up in Dunfermline Sheriff Court for refusing to co-operate with the authorities.
A Member of Parliament perhaps but Alex Falconer always understood the importance of extra-parliamentary activity as a means of bringing about change. He demanded attention whilst out on the streets, and he always got it even if it meant in the campaign against water privatisation, taking to the streets with a lavatory in which people could flush their postcards of opposition down the pan!
He gained a powerful reputation as an environmental campaigner. A constant critic of the nuclear industry in which he once worked, on his election in 1984 he took up the campaign for environmental justice for those living and working around the Rechem waste incinerator near Bonnybridge in Central Scotland. In the 1990s he forced the oil giant BP to undertake one of the first Environmental Impact Assessments.
Even after retirement in 1999 he never ceased to hold the establishment to account, most typically challenging bureaucracy whenever it reared its head whether in planning reforms, Health Board plans or inside the Labour Party which he often criticised but would never leave.
His active political involvement became limited to a stint on the Management Committee of the Peoples Press Printing Society and a regular column for the Scottish Campaign Against Euro Federalism.
He was elected to the European Parliament on a Common Market withdrawal ticket and he remained a committed opponent of Euro federalism in all its manifestations but from a distinctive democratic socialist perspective not a nationalistic one. Indeed he chided the Thatcher Government for guillotining through Parliament the Single European Act which paved the way for the Single Market, Maastricht and the single currency.
Through his time in politics he remained a man of principle, an inspiring teacher of socialism and a friend to humanity. He could be awkward to debate with because he rarely took an orthodox position, which would invariably infuriate his opponents on the right and occasionally frustrate his comrades on the left: but that was his strength and remains his legacy.
For Alex there was always an alternative left position: sometimes libertarian, at all times challenging, informed by his self education in the works of Thomas Paine and then the Chartists, but always driven by that life experience, including that of a shop steward through which perspective he never stopped viewing the world around him.
He has been and will remain a hugely inspirational figure on the Left, a campaigner who’s political practice followed his political principle. It was a privilege to work for him, to work with him and to learn so much from him. It is not an understatement to say that Alex Falconer was and is revered in the Party and his principles always respected even by those who drifted from the Left anchor in Labour politics which he so clearly stuck to. His influence will live though he now rests in peace.
GMB Scotland Political Officer & Organiser
Former Chairperson, Scottish Labour Party
Former Research Assistant and Election Agent to Alex Falconer
Alex Falconer’s funeral will take place at 1.15 pm on Tuesday 21 August 2012, at the Dunfermline Crematorium, Masterton Road, Dunfermline, KY11 8QR