Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has led tributes to Austin Mitchell, the ardent Eurosceptic and outspoken former MP of Great Grimsby who has died in hospital today aged 86.
Mr Mitchell, a former academic and television reporter with ITV’s Calendar regional news programme, was a colourful figure who represented the North East Lincolnshire port for 38 years after winning the 1977 by-election.
The Labour politician held his seat until 2015 despite the odds through his single-minded support for Grimsby’s declining fish industry – and even temporarily changed his surname to ‘Haddock’ in 2002 in solidarity with the community.
Mr Mitchell was born in Bradford in 1934 and studied history before moving to New Zealand, where he worked as a university lecturer in the subject in the 1960s. He is understood to have died at Leeds General Infirmary this morning. He leaves behind four children and his second wife Linda McDougall.
Following his death, Sir Keir said: ‘Austin served his constituency of Great Grimsby with remarkable commitment for 38 years. There are few MPs whose dedication to their constituents would translate into changing their surname to ‘Haddock’ to promote local industry. His big sense of humour was matched by his deep Labour values. My thoughts are with his wife Linda and his children.’
Mr Mitchell was a fierce Labour Eurosceptic all his life, and in 1996 declared that our membership of the European Community, later the EU, had cost Britain ‘the loss of over a million jobs, the burden of agricultural protectionism and an annual Euro-geld of £5billion’.
He opined that Grimsby’s fishing industry had been ‘betrayed at every turn by British governments, from both parties, in their desire to get into Europe’. In 1977, he told the Commons: ‘We have a clear-cut issue and a clear-cut grievance. We provide two thirds of the fish in the Common Market pool, and we want two thirds of the catch. It is no more than our due.’
In 1995, Mr Mitchell promoted a Bill to take Britain out of the Common Fisheries Policy. More than two decades later, following the 2016 referendum on EU membership, he contributed regularly on the subject of Brexit to the website BrexitCentral.Com.
In June this year, he wrote in the Yorkshire Post that Labour must ‘accept that we are where we are, and give up sulking’, and that the party ‘must recognise that the EU is now a commercial rival, not an old friend.’
Mr Mitchell wrote several books, including Four Years in the Death of the Labour Party (1983), Teach Thissen Tyke (1988), Politically Correct Bedtime Stories (1994), The Common Fisheries Policy: End or Mend? (1996), Austin Mitchell’s Yorkshire Sayings (2004), and Confessions of a Political Maverick (2018).
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has led tributes to the former Great Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell following his death at the age of 86
Mr Mitchell was a colourful figure who represented the North East Lincolnshire port for 38 years, from 1977 to 2015, after a career in TV during the 1970s
Former Labour MP Melanie Onn, who succeeded Mr Mitchell in the Great Grimsby seat in 2015, said: ‘Austin will be greatly missed by many in Grimsby’s Labour family and across the town where he was taken from the TV screen into the hearts of local people, always ready with a camera and amusing anecdote.
‘He was a larger-than-life character, secured lost pensions compensation for the last generation of Grimsby’s fishermen and was a vociferous opponent of council housing stock transfers to arms length management organisations.
‘Not without controversy, he will most likely be remembered as the MP who changed his name to Austin Haddock but equally he was a tireless champion of the people and town of Grimsby, never forgetting who he was there to represent.
‘On a personal level, Austin was unfailingly supportive to me as a new MP, still a bruising advocate of the Labour Party and gave his time, advice and expertise generously.
Many of those remembering Mr Mitchell recalled his most famous moment as a TV presenter when, in 1974, he chaired a prickly encounter between the former Leeds United managers Don Revie and Brian Clough
Following his death on Wednesday, Sir Keir said: ‘Austin served his constituency of Great Grimsby with remarkable commitment for 38 years’
‘It was a pleasure to get to know him and I send my heartfelt condolences to Linda, his family and close friends for their loss.’
Many of those remembering Mr Mitchell recalled his most famous moment as a TV presenter when, in 1974, he chaired a prickly encounter between the former Leeds United managers Don Revie and Brian Clough.
Former Downing Street director of communications Alastair Campbell said on Twitter: ‘Sorry to hear of the death of Austin Mitchell. Great contact when I was a journo and great company when I was with Labour, even when we disagreed.
‘Best known of course as an MP but a place in history as TV Interviewer who did the ‘real life’ Brian Clough-Don Revie interview immortalised in Damned United. RIP.’
Great Grimsby Labour Party said: ‘His passion for Grimsby knew no bounds. His good humour, kind nature and booming laugh will never be forgotten in our town or our party.’
Great Grimsby MP Lia Nici, who won the seat for the Conservatives in 2019, said: ‘I am very sad to hear about the loss of my friend and predecessor, Austin Mitchell. I learnt an awful lot from him. He worked incredibly hard for Great Grimsby and will be sadly missed. My deep condolences to Linda and the family at this time.’