08:52, April 24 79 0 theguardian.com

2017-04-24 08:52:03

 

John Fraser obituary

It was his knowledge and profound understanding of his constituency and its inhabitants that singled out John Fraser, the former Labour MP for Norwood, who has died aged 82, in his long parliamentary career. Born and brought up in south London himself, he lived and worked there throughout his life, and every speech he made during 33 years in the House of Commons, much of it spent on the frontbench, reflected his comprehension of the concerns of the people he represented.

His political life was dedicated to seeking controls over slum landlords, corrupt estate agents, rogue garage owners and unfair discrimination of any kind against those less able to help themselves. His lasting legacy is to have introduced legislation in 1976 obliging garages to display their petrol prices.

Fraser was particularly prescient about the damage being done to social relationships on the streets throughout London by the misuse of the so-called “sus” laws, under which anyone could be stopped for allegedly behaving suspiciously. Two years before the riots in Brixton in 1981, he unsuccessfully introduced a private member’s bill in the Commons to abolish these laws, asserting that the offence was “largely responsible for the enmity felt by many young black people towards the police”. He believed that both public cooperation and the reputation of the police would gain as a result. It was only after the riots, which Fraser believed were a direct result of police practices alienating the black community, that the Thatcher government abolished the controversial legislation.

Born in Lambeth, John was the son of a fireman, Archibald Fraser, and his wife, Frances (nee Benedict). He had joined the Labour party in 1950, when he left Sloane grammar school, Chelsea, aged 16 and started work in the Australia and New Zealand Bank. Two years later he was called up, and after serving in the army’s education corps he went to the Co-Operative College at Loughborough and then the Law Society school of law, where he won the John Mackrell prize.

He qualified as a solicitor at the age of 26 and became, in effect, what was once known as “a poor man’s lawyer”, working in Peckham for the leftwing firm Lewis Silkin and simultaneously putting his political ideas into practical effect, first for six years from 1962 on Lambeth council, where he was chairman of town planning and headed the Labour group of councillors, and then, from 1966, in the Commons. He had first stood for election in Norwood in 1964, reducing the Conservative majority to 451, then finally gained the seat with a majority of 2,273 two years later.

He got a firsthand view of political affairs of state as parliamentary private secretary to Barbara Castle, who chose him for this post in 1968 as she headed into the disastrous attempt to reform industrial relations with her In Place of Strife plan. Fraser was at her side throughout and she much admired his “shrewd mind and steady personality”, which she described at the time as invaluable. Labour lost office in 1970 and Harold Wilson promoted Fraser to the opposition frontbench in 1972, when he became a spokesman on home affairs.

Back in government in 1974, Fraser got his first ministerial job, under Michael Foot at employment, and then became minister of state at the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection from 1976 until the 1979 election. Thereafter he was a spokesman on trade, housing, construction and legal affairs until Tony Blair’s election as Labour leader in 1994.

Fraser was a popular man in his constituency because he was diligent, because he told people the truth and did not promise more than he could deliver, and because he had a cheery ability to greet his constituents in almost any one of the multitude of languages spoken in south London. He was a linguist, with an interest in Esperanto and, above all, a real desire to communicate with people.

He was admired in the Commons, but regarded as something of a loner, largely because he was always rather too busy to find time for the conviviality of the bars. As well as being on the frontbench for most of his career, he had to spend time managing the demands of assorted radical leftwingers within his local Labour party. The most serious personal challenge came during the party’s internal warfare in the early 1980s, which threatened his reselection as MP, but Fraser successfully saw off his critics by deploying a deft political touch and a sense of humour.

He was himself a member of the “soft” left of the party but was never afraid to speak his mind about what he saw as the common sense of any political situation. He nominated Foot for the party leadership when he stood against James Callaghan after Wilson’s resignation in 1976, and he voted for Tony Benn in the hotly contested deputy leadership contest in 1981. He stood down as an MP when his seat was abolished in 1997.

He married Ann Hathaway, a former nursery nurse, in 1960. She survives him, as do their children, Mark, Sally and Andrew.

John Denis Fraser, lawyer and politician, born 30 June 1934; died 6 April 2017