Jeff Place, who was my Election and Constituency Agent when I was Member of Parliament for Nuneaton and Bedworth between 1967 and 1983, and a loyal friend since then, very sadly passed away at University Hospital, Coventry, in the early hours of Thursday 20 March 2014. This is the Tribute to Jeff which I delivered at a very emotional funeral service at St Nicholas Parish Church, Nuneaton on Friday 04 April:
First of all, I believe that everybody here this morning will want to offer their deepest deepest sympathies to Sheila, Janine, Annette, Yvonne, Paul and all their families. I didn’t expect to be here this morning and that lovely picture of Jeff on the back of the Service Sheet brought it all back.
Jeff was my best mate.
He was a family man, trade unionist, Labour Party member, Councillor and County Councillor. This is the passing of an era, because it’s possible nowadays to become a Councillor or even MP without any of that kind of political background at all
Apart from all this, Jeff was also my Election Agent – a rough old trade in those days since the Agent carried the can while the MP was in London. And it was no bed of roses at the London end. An MP when I started was paid £3,250 with no free postage or free phonecalls to your constituency. Nowadays you can follow the Nuneaton News and Coventry Telegraph on Twitter to find out what’s going on in the constituency. In those days I have heard it said that some MPs gave boxes of chocolates to the girls upstairs on the switchboard to keep in touch with their constituency.
Jeff carried out the same role for Bill (Bill Olner, Nuneaton’s Labour MP from 1992 till 2010) – perhaps a bit remarkable since Bill and I came from very different union backgrounds. But our unions were merged in 2007.
Bill and I both agreed when we spoke earlier this week that we both chose the best person for the job. No one knew “the patch” better. Even when I came down to see Jeff on Monday 10 March – the last time I saw him – as we drove round he could identify the streets which were good for Labour and the doors you didn’t knock up.
He was also a Christian and we both attended Communion together – not here but at All Saints in Coton.
I used to visit Jeff, Sheila and the family often. Nowadays, we have elegant phrases like ‘Work/Life Balance’ and ‘Family-Friendly Employment’. But life at Acacia Road and then Kingswood Road was just like being on a big revolving stage in a play with no intervals. Bringing up four kids, working at Sterling Metals, being on the Council and being my Agent – as soon as one part of the family went out, another came in. But I’ve never come across a more caring and sharing family. No one was found wanting. Jeff and Sheila would have been married 52 years this week and all four children have each been married for 20 years. Two have been at University. There’s not many families that can say that.
Jeff became a Welfare Officer at Jaguar from 1978. He was a man of compassion. Harry Adey, who did Industrial Relations, used to say to me “No worries – I’ll get Jeff on the case”.
You could see how people felt when with Jeff and Sheila as Mayor and Mayoress I toured round the street parties for the Wedding of Charles and Diana in July 1981. You could see the absolutely genuine warmth of feeling that people showed as we went round.
He rose to become Chair of Mercia Health Benefits – then one of Britain’s last Health and Care Mutuals – with a very different background from those who have been trying to take over the George Eliot Hospital. In 1995 he came with his Chief Executive to my Office in the Albert Dock in Liverpool.
The Passing of an Era
As I said, this is the disappearance of those who knew their politics. Jeff was active politically in the days when you either had principles or had to pretend that you did.
Jeff didn’t need to pretend.
He discussed and debated the issues and then took a stand. He didn’t need a Focus Group or Opinion Polls. Whether it was the Common Market Referendum in June 1975, the siting of Nuneaton Mosque in Frank Street in 1976 or opencast at Bermuda in 1980, Jeff made up his mind and stuck to his guns. That often wasn’t easy and you don’t find that so often nowadays.
Life was Not Easy
In his earlier years especially, life was not easy for Jeff and Sheila. When he worked at Sterling Metals, he wasn’t in the Office. He worked in the foundry. As an MP I used to get weekly complaints from Nuneaton Fume, Smoke and Noise Abatement Society about what came out of Sterling. So you can imagine what it was like inside.
But he never forgot where he came from or who put him there
Jeff, mate – many thanks for your encouragement, and all you’ve done.
I hope we can find a more permanent way to remember Jeff – not just today but for the future.
I want people to say to their children “I hope you’ll grow up to be a bit like Jeff Place”
Interment followed at Bucks Hill Cemetary in Nuneaton and friends and family gathered afterwards at the Stockingford Allotments Association Pavilion (“The Piv”)
Though this was an impressive family occasion – just like working people and their communities used to come together years ago – everybody said that it would have been nicer on a happier day. But it was good to see many old friends and I hope we can keep in touch.