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Obituary – Jim Mortimer, a socialist and trade unionist to the end

Jim Mortimer, who has died at the age of 92, was the general secretary of the Labour Party during the turbulent early eighties – perhaps the most difficult time to take on that role since the party was founded.

I was distantly related to Jim. An uncle of his, who gloried in the name of Fountain Mortimer, was married to my great-aunt. Also, Jim’s father, Willie Mortimer, was a close friend of my grandfather. It seems that they were both members of the Socialist Labour Party in the years before the first world war. That conflict seems to have destroyed the small, hard-left party, many of whose members joined Labour. Willie Mortimer, unlike my grandfather, was unable to serve in the war due to a disability.

During the Depression, Jim’s family moved from Bradford to the south, although Jim never lost his northern accent.

He became an active trade unionist as soon as he started work, as a fitter in the Portsmouth dockyards, joining the engineering union. When he was still only 20, Jim moved to London and became a draughtsman; as a result he joined the draughtsman’s union, Data, which is now part of Unite.

This effectively marked the start of Jim’s very rapid rise through the ranks of the Labour movement. He became a member of the Confederation of Shipbuilding & Engineering Unions (CSEU) executive and was frequently seen speaking to TUC conferences.

His politics were decidedly on the left. He was, for instance, an articulate opponent of Britain’s membership of what was then the Common Market during the sixties and seventies. At the 1983 general election Labour became the only major British political party to stand on a platform of withdrawal from the Common Market (which, apart from anything else, raises the question of why Nigel Farage so enthusiastically supported Mrs Thatcher then, while she was busy handing over powers to Brussels).

In 1968, Jim joined Barbara Castle’s Prices and Incomes Board. Six years later, he became the first chair of the conciliation service Acas and without doubt played a major role in its success.

When he ascended to the general secretaryship of the Labour Party it was both mildly surprising and certainly against considerable odds. Alex Ferry, the favourite, had very considerable backing.

However, Jim worked extremely well with the then Labour leader, Michael Foot, and the two seem to have had great mutual respect for one another.

During the miners’ strike of 1984-85, Jim very actively supported the miners’ cause and spoke at many rallies. He later became an honourary member of the National Union of Mineworkers.

For that and other reasons he found himself increasingly at odds with Neil Kinnock’s party leadership and he left the job before the end of his term.

His retirement was extremely energetic and he and his wife, Pat, remained active members of their local Labour Party in south London.

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