Obituary: Harold Best, former MP

Harold Best, who has died at 82, was MP for Leeds North West from 1997 until his retirement in 2005.

Harold Best

The first Labour politician to hold the seat since its creation in 1950, he was widely credited with helping to save the Wharfedale Hospital in Otley, which had been under threat of closure.

His victory in the Labour landslide of 1997, in which he unseated Conservative Keith Hampson, the occupant of some 14 years’ standing, was one of the many tremors in a night of earthquakes. Mr Best took the seat with a swing of 11 per cent, and held it with an increased majority in 2001.

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An electrical contractor by profession and former full-time trade union official, he had lived in Leeds nearly all his life, attending Meanwood County Secondary and Leeds College of Technology and representing Leeds City Schools at rugby league.

He was in his 60s when he arrived on the national stage, but he was no stranger to the political cut and thrust, having served as a councillor and fought against Communist infiltration of the electrical trades unions in the 1950s and 60s. He remained a keen watcher of developments in trade union law, and positioned himself on the “pragmatic left” of Tony Blair’s New Labour.

Although he remained largely loyal to Mr Blair during his first term, he did rebel on welfare cuts and predatory media pricing, and was uncomfortable with what he saw as “fudges” on issues such as market forces within the NHS.

His stance changed after the 2001 election, and he was a consistent opponent of the Blair strategy in Iraq – also voting against proposals for foundation hospitals and top-up fees.

He had decided around a year after his reelection that he would retire at the next poll, citing health problems exacerbated by his habit of working punishing 83-hour weeks.

It was a decision he later regretted, and in 2007 – the same year he stood unsuccessfully for a seat on Otley Town Council – he said he felt fitter than ever and wished he was back in parliament. “If I’d had the strength in the last few years in the House that I’ve got now, I might have stayed,” he said, adding that although he did not consider himself a career MP, “I am still a politician and a political activist, and always have been”.

John Eveleigh, a former Labour councillor in the district, noted that “Otley would not have a hospital today were it not for the lead Harold took.”

Mr Best is survived by his widow, Glyn, children and grandchildren.