ASHTON, Joe (b.1933).



31 October 1968 - 7 June 2001


Joseph William Aston was born in Sheffield on 9 October 1933. He married Margaret Patricia Lee in 1957. He was educated at High Storrs Grammar School and Rotherham Technical College.

He began work as an engineer when he was a teenager and in 1962 he was elected to Sheffield Council, later becoming chief whip. He left to enter Parliament, winning the Bassetlaw by-election in 1968 for the Labour party by a small margin. He held the seat until he retired in 2001.

Ashton served as Tony Benn's PPS in 1974, and subsequently joined the Whips Office, but resigned the following year. From 1979 to 1981 he was the opposition spokesman on energy. He was a member of several Select Committees, including Trade and Industry (1987-92); Home Affairs (1989-92); National Heritage (1992-97); Modernising the House (1997-98) and was the Chairman of the All-Party Football Committee (1992-2001).

Click here to listen to the full interview with Joe Ashton in the British Library.

Transcript of clip

"[The Bassetlaw by-election in October 1968] It was a disastrous time. The Labour party was dying on their feet. They’d lost Sheffield, they’d lost safe seats with a 10,000 majority. I hadn’t got a chance. I hadn’t got a prayer. I knew that if I didn’t get it this time, forget it. They’d never seen anybody in those rural villages. Nobody had ever visited them. There was something like 40 villages, and two towns, Retford and Worksop. Lovely people, what you might call a bit insular and isolated, but none of what you get in the big cities, of back stabbing and dirty tricks. They were honest. And they took to me and Maggie. … They had never seen an MP in their life.  … We had everything against us: the weather was against us, they put the rents up, they shut another pit right in the middle. But you have to remember that when that happened, there was no telly. The television didn’t come on till 4 o’clock. So the miners had nothing to do if they were on night shift. They’d have a sleep, but if you got a loudspeaker and said This is your Labour party… I’d get the kids singing a song: vote, vote, vote for Joe Ashton, he’s the man… kids would give badges out. It was all a treat. Because it was a one-off thing, and the Government was in trouble, … it took off. And all the press – it was after the long recess – and all the papers came, and they encamped there. Barbara Castle came, Manny Shinwell, you name them, they all came up, and they went to a different village every time. … Nobody in Bassetlaw had ever seen anything like it before."

Summary of interview

Track 1 [03:22:48] [Session One: 5 July 2012] Joseph Ashton [JA] born Attercliffe Sheffield 9 October 1933. Description of Attercliffe and childhood. Comments on outbreak of Second World War. Comments on housing conditions. Comments on employment. Story about grandfather and accidental death of uncle. [04:59] Description of Irish heritage and being brought up by grandfather. Mentions Sheffield Blitz. [06:14] Story about death of aunt and renunciation of religion. [07:34] Description of paper round and education. [08:16] Description of Sheffield Blitz and experience of Second World War. Mentions black market and food shortages. [12:29] Description of education. [14:17] Description of taking the eleven plus and attending High Storrs Grammar School. Story about not having school uniform. Description of General School Certificate examinations. [20:11] Description of working as an apprentice and life as young adult. [21:46] Reads story about Roy Hattersley and difference between University and working life [taken from ‘Red Rose Blues: The Story of a Good Labour Man’, p. 28]. Description of employment and training as an apprentice engineer. Story about taking a petition to Downing Street. [27:32] Description of JA’s Trade Union activity. [28:17] Comments about being called up for National Service. [29:05] Talks about joining the Labour Party. Description of fund raising activities. Comments on housing shortage as preeminent local issue. Mentions own difficulty in attaining a mortgage. [33:30] Description of work as a Sheffield Councillor. Mentions influence of grandfather and wife’s family. Description of his mentors and examples of political manoeuvre. Mentions Issy Lewis and Sid Dyson. Mentions re-housing and construction of Hyde Park Flats [Park Hill Flats]. Mentions boundary changes [in 1968 local election]. [41:17] Description of attempt to be selected for Sheffield Brightside and Trade Union influence. Mentions Tom Swain and Morgan Phillips attempt to be selected in a mining constituency. [45:34] Description of JA’s hope for selection in Attercliffe. Mentions John Hynd’s desire to move to the Lords. Comments about House of Lords and JA’s hostility to it. [48:21] Lengthy description of JA’s selection for Bassetlaw including further comment on Brightside, Attercliffe and Trade Union influence. Story about Neil Kinnock’s selection. Mentions desire to get out of Sheffield and contentions surrounding rent increases. Comments about mining heritage and decision to campaign with wife. Mentions split between Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire miners. [56:20] Comments on political context of Bassetlaw by-election. Description of campaign and tour of villages. Comments about relationship between constituency and national party. Mentions influence of George Keenan. Further description of campaign. Mentions decision to delay date, hostility from Sheffield and controversial tax increase. [1:02:31] Description of local splits between Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire miners. Mentions Arthur Scargill and miners’ strike. [1:07:17] Comments about the financial cost of the by-election campaign. Makes reference to photographs in ‘Red Rose Blues’. Comments about the difficulties of the campaign. [1:11:07] Description of first impressions of life as an MP. Story about going to Wembley with Harold Wilson. [1:16:30] Description of JA’s ‘MPs for Hire’ article and political corruption. Comments about the press reaction and political controversy. Mentions the support of Arthur Davidson [AD]. [1:23:07] Description of JA’s campaign for a Register of Interests and MPs strike over pay. Description of financial pressure and lack of support. [1:25:57] Description of AD’s support during JA’s submission of evidence to the Star Chamber. Mentions being offered a job by Tony Benn. [1:28:12] Description of impact on family life. Mentions birth of daughter and public sympathy. Comments about living conditions and lack of accommodation. [1:37:07] Discussion about the relationship between MPs and staff in House of Commons. Mentions mutual sympathy at lower levels. Lengthy story about writing for the ‘Daily Star’ and decision to introduce free bingo. [1:48:24] Description of the relationship between journalism and constituency work as an MP. Comments about writing about the miners’ strike. Mentions ‘What the Papers Say’ columnist of the year award. Mentions writing about the legacy of the miners’ strike. [1:54:59] Comments about work for Yorkshire Television. Lengthy story about Austin Mitchell’s selection for Greater Grimsby and the role of the media. [2:02:19] Description of JA’s move to the Whips Office. Mentions falling out with Tony Benn. Comment on the relationship between whips and other MPs. Mention of JA’s play ‘A Majority of One’ [this is currently being reworked as ‘This House’ by the National Theatre]. Description of everyday problems faced during 1976-79 government. Makes reference to ‘Red Rose Blues’ and candid stories of difficulties faced in holding majority. Mentions Jim Callaghan and by-elections in 1978. [2:09:54] Comment on JA’s relationship with MPs from other parties. Lengthy description of cross party fact finding trip regarding the National Lottery including anecdote about attempt to build replica of The Mayflower. [2:14:07] Description of the shift from being in a party of government to a party of opposition. Mentions setting up Association of Former Members of Parliament. [2:16:55] Description of involvement on select committees and cross party links. Stories about Rugby League and the National Lottery. Mentions trips to Australia, Kathmandu, Hollywood and Germany. Story about visiting East Germany and impression of life under Communism. Interruption as JA’s wife rings telephone.

Track 1 [cont. from 2:27:14] [Returned to question about other foreign trips] Story about visit to Japan. [2:30:16] Mentions that he does not believe he had a political career. Reflection on being freelance. Story about a German television documentary on JA’s constituency and a ‘World in Action’ film on Scottish independence. Mentions using proceeds to fund local campaigns. Reflection on contemporary lobbying.[2:37:08] Reflection of changes in Parliament between 1968 and 2001. Mentions working practices and remuneration. Description of changes in Parliamentary culture. Mentions role of Trade Unions, remuneration and television. Story about speaking in favour of John Prescott during 2001 election campaign. Mentions changes in communication technology. Mentions continuing work as part of Association of Former Members of Parliament. [2:43:30] Reflection on role in altering age of consent and euthanasia. Mentions that JA’s mother suffered from a debilitating illness. [2:49:22] Reflection on changing role of constituency work after miners’ strike. Mentions extent of public support from constituents. Digression about ability to balance work and home life. [2:51:42] Comment about the rise of religious block votes and contemporary political situation in metropolitan areas. Mentions racial tensions. [2:53:55] Description of how an interest in sport helped JA as an MP. Mentions directorship of Sheffield Wednesday and select committee work. [2:55:37] Description of JA’s decision to retire. Mentions difficulties of travel and balancing commitments. Mentions decision not to pursue a seat in the House of Lords. Mentions retirement holidays and illnesses. Mentions continued link to Parliament via Association of Former Members. [3:00:54] Mentions not wanting to have house in London. Story about being burgled. Reflections on feeling lonely and links to Sheffield. Digression about free travel for MPs partners. [3:04:04] Reflection on atmosphere in the House. [3:05:34] Description of contemporary links with Bassetlaw. Mentions unhappiness at selection process in 2001 and belief that it was unduly influenced by Trade Unions. Mentions not wanting to stay on. [03:13:28] Reflection on parts of career that most stand out. Mentions ‘MPs for Hire’ story and freedom. Mentions influence of grandfather and experience of early life. Mentions anger at Harold Macmillan’s ‘Never had it so good’ speech. Mentions ability to chip away at problems. Mentions whipping system and JA’s play ‘A Majority of One’. [3:20:00] Description of atmosphere in Chamber and political humour. Mentions notable parliamentary performers.