The death this month of Lynton Charles, Labour MP for Itching and deputy chief whip, constituted a triple irony. That this senior politician should have met with an accident while completing a televised bungee jump in aid of Children in Need could be seen as the ultimate – though tragic – triumph of substance over presentation. The fact that Charles might have survived, had it not been for the inadequate ladders carried by the army green goddess that was sent to effect a rescue, has been much remarked upon. As the minister dangled, helpless, 50 feet above the ground, the perished elastic of his harness gradually giving way, one can only conjecture on his feelings about being arguably the first civilian victim of an industrial dispute since the miners’ strike of 1984/5.
What Charles did not know was that – even as he took his final jump from the platform high above Southampton docks – the Prime Minister’s Office was attempting to contact him with the news that he was, finally, to be offered a post in the cabinet, as Minister for Europe. Had the message arrived in time to delay the fatal jump, it would have been the crowning moment of a career that can now be seen as a paradigm for the new Labour project.
Born into a lower-middle-class family, living on the outskirts of Basingstoke, Lynton Charles was educated at Archbishop Athelstan’s Grammar School, where he was remembered as being a studious, if unathletic, pupil. Charles won an exhibition to Worcester College, Oxford, where he read PPE. It was at Oxford that he first attended a meeting of the Socialist Society and became involved with radical politics, eventually joining the International Marxist Group, then led by the Oxford graduate Tariq Ali. In 1972, Ali described Charles as “one of the most steadfast comrades any charismatic revolutionary leader could hope to have”.
Upon graduation, Charles relocated to the rather less aesthetically pleasing environs of Keele University, near Stoke-on-Trent. There, despite being associated with a notorious sit-in at the vice-chancellor’s office (in which the drinks cabinet was emptied and a used condom left draped over a statuette of the founder), Charles was awarded his Master’s degree and a junior lectureship. Over the next two years, Charles became first the local representative and then a national executive member of the Association of University Teachers. In 1977, he joined the Labour Party.
The ten years Charles spent in Southampton, teaching at Southampton College, and becoming a Labour councillor with Southampton Council, marked his transition from far-leftist to prototypical new Labour. He began by campaigning for Tony Benn as deputy leader in 1981, but the experience of watching Margaret Thatcher win election after election because of Labour’s perceived extremism was, he said later, what was to turn him into one of new Labour’s earliest foot soldiers.
In 1992, Charles was elected to parliament for the Itching division of Southampton, and found himself among the small group of MPs who met together at the Islington home of Tony and Cherie Blair – MPs who included Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Denis MacShane, Chris Smith and Mo Mowlam. When, in 1994, John Smith died, Lynton Charles became south-west campaign organiser of the Blair for Leader campaign, and subsequently a part of the new strategy team based at Millbank. Working alongside Philip Gould and the advertising firm of Blarney, Booz and Flessh, Charles helped with the creation of a slick new image for new Labour.
He was rewarded after Labour’s landslide victory with a post in the Cabinet Office under Jack Cunningham, then with a junior position at the new Culture Ministry. A spell at the Treasury as fiduciary secretary under Gordon Brown followed, before Charles was appointed deputy chief whip and Chancellor of the Duchy of Durham after the 2001 election.
Never one of new Labour’s most outstanding personalities (Jeremy Paxman once forgot his name during a Newsnight interview, referring to the unfortunate minister for eight minutes as “Mr Er”), Charles made up in persistence and loyalty what he lacked in brilliance. He wrote regularly, if not doggedly, for new Labour journals such as Progress & Permutations, and was a regular correspondent in the pages of the Reformer. He was also a member of the advisory board of the IPPR, was a sponsor of Demos, a contributing partner to Nexus, honorary president of the Young Fabians and chair of the new Labour Christian Youth.
Lynton Charles was married for 20 years to Cheryl Reglip, a Unison official, whose politics were as fiery and uncompromising as Charles’s were consensual. Guests at their home in Nob’s End, near Southampton, would often describe the lively, if not disputatious, atmosphere, which prevailed there. At the 2001 election, Cheryl even stood against her husband as the Socialist Alliance candidate, losing her deposit. He leaves twin sons, Neil and Roy, aged 16.