Although not widely known outside the trade union movement, Garfield Davies, Lord Davies of Coity, who has died aged 83, made a significant contribution to Labour history. As a result of his personal support for the end of the traditional trade union “block vote” system in the Labour party, he rescued the political reputation of one party leader and guaranteed the election of another.
The shopworkers’ union, Usdaw (Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers), of which Davies was general secretary for 11 years from 1986, opposed the replacement of the block vote, by which the accumulated membership of a single trade union voted as an entity.
In 1993, the then Labour party leader, John Smith, proposed replacing this widely criticised mechanism with a one-member, one-vote system, introducing more individual democracy into the trade union movement and thus limiting the industrial muscle exerted by the leadership of all the unions.
Smith faced the fight of his political life to secure the passage of this reform at that year’s Labour conference and it was solely thanks to Davies persuading his union executive in Brighton to reverse the decision of its own earlier union conference and support the change that the party leader won the narrow victory he secured.
Ironically, Davies thus marshalled the power of the block vote of Usdaw to end the block vote. One further unexpected outcome was that, in elections for a new party leader, following Smith’s untimely death six months later, trade union leaders no longer had hundreds of thousands of votes in their own pockets.
More than 400,000 trade unionists voted individually for Tony Blair as leader, many of them against the specific recommendation of their leaders. When Davies retired as general secretary shortly after Blair’s election as prime minister in 1997, he was rewarded with immediate elevation to the peerage.
The title of his memoirs, Overalls to Ermine, privately published in 2017, captures the trajectory of his career and provides almost a textbook account of a Labour and trade union activist of those times.
Born David Garfield Davies (always known as Garfield) in the heart of the south Wales coalfield in Bridgend, Glamorgan, he was the son of David, a miner, and his wife, Lizzie. After failing the 11-plus exam, he went to Heol Gam secondary modern school (now Brynteg), leaving at 15 for a job as an electrical apprentice at the Port Talbot steelworks. He worked there from 1950 to 1969, acquiring further qualifications at Bridgend Technical College and doing national service in the RAF in 1956-58.
He joined Usdaw in the 1960s, was elected as a Labour councillor for Pen-y-bont council for three years in 1966 and then in 1969 became a full-time trade union official as the area organiser in Ipswich, Suffolk. He transferred to Usdaw’s head office in 1978 as a national officer with responsibility for the co-operative wholesale societies and the catering industry, and in 1986 he won election as general secretary against candidates from left and right.
Davies was a moderate man with moral certainties formed by the Welsh Methodism of his youth. He was a Labour loyalist in every respect, except on issues that conflicted with the social conservatism of his Christian beliefs and the influences of those Methodist roots; the most challenging issue of his years as general secretary was inevitably that of Sunday trading.
The first moves towards reform of the 1950 Shops Act were made by the Thatcher government as Davies took over at Usdaw, but despite a valiant effort to defend the existing working week of his members and to “Keep Sunday Special” the public demand for Sunday opening proved irresistible and led to the 1994 Sunday Trading Act.
Other instances of his somewhat traditional approach included an attempt to resist the power of supermarket prices and save doorstep milk deliveries.
As a member of the TUC general council (1986-97), he opposed the inclusion of women in the TUC cricket team and in the House of Lords he spoke forcefully against lowering the homosexual age of consent to 16 in 2000. He was also against the repeal of the blasphemy laws in 2008.
Even though he was a moderate during a highly charged and difficult period for the trade union movement, his voice was recognised and respected and he was also a familiar figure and a frequent speaker at the Labour party conference.
Davies was a magistrate in Ipswich from 1972 to 1979. He was a member of the executive of the International Confederation of Free Trades Unions and of the European TUC (1992-97) and was appointed CBE in 1996. On joining the Lords he became a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. He was a member of the employment appeal tribunal from 1991 until 2006.
In 2017 he was diagnosed with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), a rare neurological condition similar to Parkinson’s disease, and took leave of absence from the Lords the following year. His last months were spent campaigning for others suffering from PSP and to improve diagnosis of the disease. He donated his brain for PSP research.
He is survived by his wife, Marian (nee Jones), whom he married in 1960, and their four daughters, Helen, Susan, Karen and Rachel.
• David Garfield Davies, Lord Davies of Coity, trade union leader, born 24 June 1935; died 4 March 2019