Remembering Harry Fletcher, the Socialist who tried to steer Labour away from hate

Martin Bright reflects on the campaigner and old-fashioned trade unionist who died earlier this month aged 72

January 22, 2020 14:53

I first came across Harry Fletcher nearly 20 years ago when I took over as Home Affairs Editor of the Observer. Harry, who died on January 8 aged 72, was an extraordinary mixture of dynamic PR man, impassioned campaigner and old-fashioned trade unionist.

His nominal job at the time was Assistant General Secretary of Napo, the probation officers’ union. But he was always much more than that. He knew his way around the Home Affairs world better than any journalist or politician and constructed elaborate campaigns around the issues he cared about: tagging, anti-social behaviour orders or the privatisation of his beloved probation service.

He was a thorn in the side of ministers and those who ran the country’s major penal institutions throughout his career.

But it is a sign of the respect in which he was held that among the first people to pay tribute to him following his untimely death were two of his greatest adversaries: Ed Owen, former special adviser to Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw, and Martin Narey the former head of the Prison Service.

In recent years he committed himself to the cause of victims of domestic violence and stalking in his work with the Victims Rights Campaign. Harry’s lasting legacy will be changes to the law on coercive control and stalking, which he pushed for alongside colleagues at his final employer, Plaid Cyrmu.

Harry was a socialist who found himself working for the Welsh Nationalists because he could no longer stomach the antisemitism he had watched slowly poison the Labour Party.

He had always worked closely with John McDonnell on campaigns and was happy to work on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid.

There is no doubt Harry’s involvement in the early days of Corbyn’s leadership gave it a credibility it lacked elsewhere.

Indeed, if he had been placed in overall charge of communications it is possible to argue that Labour would be in a very different place today.

From the moment Corbyn was elected in September 2015, Harry urged the Labour leader to rebuild trust with the Jewish community. He knew his record as a backbencher would prove a problem, but with his characteristic optimism Harry believed he could help heal wounds.

Driven by an increasing awareness of his own roots (his paternal grandfather was Jewish), he built a network of relationships with key figures in the community.

We talked often during this period and I watched as Harry became increasingly frustrated with Corbyn’s refusal to deal with the issue. His suggestions, including plans to engage with the Jewish media and the community with a series of interviews and set-piece speeches, fell on deaf ears.

He had long urged Corbyn and McDonnell to setup an inquiry into antisemitism in the party, but when Shami Chakrabarti’s report failed to address the issue and instead resulted in a life peerage for the lawyer, he was horrified.

The Labour Party should be ashamed of making an enemy of the man who spent his life fighting injustice and the last three years of his life campaigning to expose antisemitism. In Harry Fletcher, the Jewish community has lost a proud champion and comrade.

January 22, 2020 14:53

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