ASLEF loses a friend, Labour loses a giant

15 August 2005

I represented our union at the funeral of Robin Cook in Edinburgh last Friday. It was a duty I undertook with sadness and pride. Sadness because we have lost a principled and effective friend; pride because this splendid man appreciated, liked and understood ASLEF and its members.


As ASLEF’s General Secretary I was one of 500 official mourners in St Giles" Cathedral, but it is a measure of people’s respect for Robin that there was a much larger crowd in the street outside. The Chancellor Gordon Brown made a pertinent point as he ledthe tributes when he said, ‘I believe it could be said of all of us that we did not value Robin enough in life’ – although to be fair, I think ASLEF is less guilty than many others in this respect.


We did appreciate Robin, which is why we often invited him to speak at union gathering including our annual conference, the AAD. It is why we invited him to be the main speaker at our July ‘freight on rail’ rally. It is why we were delighted to have him as a leading member of the ASLEF group of MPs.


Robin could be personable and pleasant company, but he was also a man of sharp intellect. His intelligence and fluency made him a beacon for the democratic left. He was an astute politician, but his motivation was always principled rather than self-seeking. He was a man of vision, but also of realism. He knew the value of an idea was the ability to deliver it rather than debate it.


Central to this was Robin’s core belief in democracy. He moved easily in the corridors of Westminster, but recognised that the real process of change comes from the street, the schools and the factories. His vision of socialism could not be imposed from the top: it needed to be built from the bottom.


This year Robin spoke to three ASLEF gatherings, the retired members section, the ‘Who Cares?’ lobby and the Annual Assembly of Delegates. At the first he reiterated his support for ‘the ethos of public service’, the linking of pensions with average earnings and the scrapping of political fund ballots. At the second he spoke with conviction and knowledge about the disastrous effects of global warming, the positive advantages of freight movement by rail and the need for government action to create an integrated transport system. At the AAD he spoke of his resignation from government office because of his conviction that the Iraq conflict was ‘an illegal war that should never have taken place’ as well as his support for a new offence of corporate manslaughter and his personal dedication to eliminate child poverty in this country.


In each of these areas he spoke with conviction, courage, intelligence and knowledge. That was the sort of man he was. He spoke when he had an understanding of a problem, a view on it, and something to add to the debate. He was a prince among politicians.


We will miss his sound advice, his persuasiveness, his energy and his encouragement. He is a great loss. The only fitting tribute to him is to redouble our efforts to create the democratic and socialist society to which he aspired.



Keith Norman


General Secretary

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