Lord Marsh obituary
Outspoken transport minister under Harold Wilson who later headed British Rail
It used to be said of Harold Wilson, during his difficult early years in office as prime minister, that he looked in his mirror every morning and saw Dick Marsh. A charismatic young Labour MP who had already made his name in parliament, Marsh, who has died aged 83, was widely regarded as a possible future leader of the Labour party.
He had impeccable qualifications for the post: a working-class background, further education at Ruskin College, Oxford, and a former career as a trade union official. He had been an office boy in the gloomy basement of Transport House, the Labour party headquarters, and had made influential political contacts through the Labour club at Oxford.
He was a brilliant speaker, an impressive broadcaster long before the days of media training and a charming, humorous, likeable character. He joined the first Wilson government when it was formed in 1964, and within four years was a member of the cabinet as minister of transport. But his political career was swiftly over, and his anticipated potential in politics never fulfilled, probably largely because of a profoundly pragmatic streak in his make-up which led him to speak his mind and to promote his personal interests above those of his original political party.
In 1971, he left the House of Commons to become chairman of British Rail at the invitation of the Conservative transport secretary, Peter Walker, abandoned his membership of Labour, pursued a successful career as an industrialist and in the financial services industry, and from 1981 sat in the House of Lords - to which he was appointed by Margaret Thatcher - as a crossbench peer.
As for many young men, Marsh's first political sympathies were to the left of the mainstream within the Labour party, and at a party summer school the journalist Paul Foot recalled that his exposition of his political views was a "terrific encouragement to all young Trots". Born in Belvedere in Kent, the son of a foundry worker, he grew up partly with his grandmother in Swindon, where he went to Jennings school until the age of 15. He had attended weekly engineering classes at Woolwich Polytechnic, but his developing political interests led him to apply to work at the Labour party, and from there he won a scholarship to Ruskin.
It was a natural career move for him to become a trade union official. In 1951 he joined what was then the National Union of Public Employees as its health services officer, and learned invaluable negotiating skills as a member of the Whitley council for the National Health Service. He fought the safe Conservative seat of Hereford in the 1951 election, and secured his selection as the Labour candidate at Greenwich wearing a prominent CND badge, although this was quietly discarded when he arrived at Westminster in 1959 and became a protege of Hugh Gaitskell.
His maiden speech came on his second day as an MP, in the debate on the address – intervening, he suggested improbably, with feelings of diffidence: "I am convinced that the key to all our hopes and aspirations in the field of economic activity lies in the maintenance and improvement of industrial relationships," he said. "The time has come to remove the aspidistras and the odour of mothballs from the negotiating chambers."
He also had the considerable good fortune of coming top in the ballot to promote a private member's bill from the backbenches and, through a judicious choice of subject and with the assistance of the Conservative government, introduced what became the 1960 Offices Act. The legislation introduced basic standards of health and safety in office premises, and he pointed out in his speech introducing the bill that the greatest aspiration for children from families such as his was to secure an office job. The legislation was later further improved by the government and became the famed Office, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963, copies of which were displayed on office walls throughout the land.
His early posts in government after the 1964 election were as a junior minister at the Ministry of Labour for one year and then at Technology for another. He then became minister of power for two years, closing 100 pits during that time, until in 1968 Wilson promoted him to succeed Barbara Castle as the minister of transport, with a seat in the cabinet. He celebrated his new job, he admitted privately, by driving at 90mph on the M4.
His appointment was not a success, not least with Castle, who regarded him as a dilettante, not really interested in pursuing his policies and proposed legislation. She pleaded with Wilson to sack him on one occasion, claiming that he was "cynical, superficial and lazy", and the prime minister did indeed subsequently sack him after just a year in the post. It caused considerable surprise at the time, and Wilson wrote later that he did not intend to exclude Marsh for long from office, but that Marsh enjoyed leaking stories to the newspapers about his own heroics in cabinet to the disadvantage of his colleagues round the table. His political impetus was probably best described by Castle: "He just can't help going where his reasoning leads him, even if his reasoning doesn't fit into any consistent ideological pattern."
Marsh's main mistake in dealing with a prime minister who was paranoid about leaks was to make some disobliging comments about his fellow ministers to Joe Haines, unaware of the fact that the previous day Haines had left his job as a journalist to become the No 10 press spokesman. Haines regarded Marsh as a poor decision-maker who expected the prime minister to solve his department's problems.
By 1971, Marsh was becoming more interested in the bottom line than the party line, and he enjoyed considerable publicity, if not popularity, during the five years he spent at British Rail, at the end of which he was knighted. Then came 14 years (1976-90) as the head of the Newspaper Publishers' Association, during which time there was considerable controversy about the growing issue of press intrusion. However, little was done about it. Bernard Donoughue records in his memoirs that Marsh was regarded as "hopeless and idle" in the post.
He was an active member until 2005 of the House of Lords, where he delighted in parking the Rolls-Royce with which he was provided by the NPA. He told the Lords in his maiden speech in 1981 that he had changed his view of politics. He joked that he lay awake at night worrying about the leftwing tendencies of Margaret Thatcher's famously rightwing economics adviser, Professor Milton Friedman, and underlined the difference from his first parliamentary speech by speaking of "the danger of underestimating the irreconcilable and fundamental conflict between politics and industrial management".
In his final career in management, he was deputy chairman (1980-83) and chairman (1983-84) of TV-am. To his involvement with a series of financial services companies, consultancy work with Nissan and business interests in China he brought a wealth of experience as a member of the National Economic Development Council and the council of the Confederation of British Industry. In later years he chaired Business for Sterling, an organisation opposed to the euro.
He took a close interest in defending the role of the crossbenches in the House of Lords, but did once campaign for the Conservative candidate in the Greenwich byelection in 1987, thus assisting the SDP's Rosie Barnes in winning the formerly Labour seat. His autobiography, Off the Rails, was published in 1978.
Marsh was married three times. He was married to Evelyn Mary Andrews, known as "Andy", from 1950 to 1973, and they had two sons. Following their divorce, in 1973 he married Caroline Dutton, who died two years later in a car crash with Julia Jacobs, wife of the broadcaster David Jacobs, as the two couples drove together on their way to a holiday in Spain. In 1979 he married Felicity, the daughter of the businessman and economist Lord McFadzean of Kelvinside.
• Richard William Marsh, Baron Marsh, politician and businessman, born 14 March 14 1928; died 29 July 2011
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