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A beacon of decency and justice

17 January 2014

Paul Vallely recalls the life, faith, and commitment of Paul Goggins MP

THE little town of Sale, where I live in the southern suburbs of Manchester, has been in a state of shock since last week, after the sudden death of our MP, Paul Goggins, at the age of only 60 (News, 10 January).

The sense of numbed disbelief can be detected everywhere - on the streets, in the shops, in the pub, at the library, in the gym, and even across the great divide with which football enlivens the multiple identities of the great city of Manchester.

Everywhere, everyone is saying the same thing. We have lost a man who was a beacon of decency, generosity, justice, and kindness. But these are more than tributes to a fine man. What local people are saying goes to the heart of an important truth about modern politics.

Paul Goggins's virtues were recognised everywhere that he worked - from the children's home he ran in Wigan, before he became an MP; to the Stormont office where, as Minister of State for Northern Ireland, implementing the Good Friday agreement, he won the trust and respect of all sides.

He did the same in Westminster. One political editor said that he had never known such generous cross-party Commons tributes at the death of an MP. He was called a true champion for the disadvantaged and dispossessed, a good and wise man, principled and hard-working, and utterly without ego or personal ambition.

But it was the plain people of Sale whose memories told the real story. The wife of a man dying from asbestosis spoke of his unflagging commitment to obtaining justice. A housing expert spoke of the precision of his insight that the Coalition's "spare-bedroom tax" would hit the north hardest. The mother of a child with leukaemia recalled the MP's unexpected visit to her home to offer support. The manager of a community centre in the constituency's poorest area in Wythenshawe called him a man with no side, no airs or pretensions, who treated everyone the same.

Beneath all this was a deep faith. Although Goggins gave up in his youth the ambition to become a priest, his faith and his politics were inseparable all his life. The passion and compassion that they inspired made him the exemplar of what a modern politician should be.

In an age when government ministers waffle about their "values" to draw a veil over the detail of their dubious policies, Paul Goggins did the opposite. He did not need to proclaim his values, for it was easy to deduce them from his actions and concerns. He pressed for change on children in care, homelessness, prison reform, and poverty in the developing world. His was a commitment to justice that knew no bounds, as one friend said.

It made him not just a good guy, but also a very effective politician. As David Blunkett said: "He managed to achieve things by persuasion and personality that some of us have to do by hectoring and force."

But here in Sale, we remember not only the politician, but also the man. One man told me that Goggins's only failing was to support the wrong football team. He was a lifelong Manchester City fan, while his wife Wyn was a keen Everton supporter. As a Northern Ireland minister, he was forced to spend long periods away from home. So, when he did get back to Manchester, to maximise their time together, he bought himself a season ticket for Everton, so that he could go with her.

Paul Goggins was, in the very best of senses, a man who was on everyone's side. But it is perhaps only here, on the streets of his constituency, that it is clear how many lives this extraordinary man has touched.

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.www.paulvallely.com


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