Ray Marriott The Guardian,Sunday 27 February 2011
For anyone who lived through the winter of discontent or the “dirty jobs” strike in the late 1970s, the name of my friend Colin Barnett was synonymous with trade union intransigence. As the north-west divisional officer for the National Union of Public Employees (Nupe) and regional secretary of the TUC, Colin, who has died of cancer aged 81, organised militant industrial action which, for a time, threatened to bring public services in the region to their knees.
Colin was vilified in the tabloid press and was blamed personally by Barbara Castle for Labour’s loss of the 1979 general election. Along with his second wife, Hilary, he was accused by the press of attempting a leftwing coup for control of the Merseyside Police Committee, of which she was a member, and trying to engineer the dismissal of its controversial chief constable, Kenneth Oxford. Certainly, Colin was unbending in pursuit of his members’ interests and his politics were on the hard left of the Labour party.
Colin was born in Wandsworth, south-west London, into a working-class family. He contracted osteomyelitis as a child and his mobility was restricted as a result. Soon after leaving Wandsworth grammar school, he became a library assistant at the London School of Economics, where he was able to attend the lectures of intellectuals of the left such as Harold Laski.
His next job was as administrative assistant for the campaigning Methodist minister Donald Soper. Colin explored the “worker-priest” model. He took a job at a steelworks in Sheffield, but the physical strain of the rolling mills combined with his disability led Colin to decide that manual work as well as ordination was not possible. In 1960 he was appointed a full-time Nupe official in Yorkshire.
As time passed, Colin’s mobility became more seriously impaired. He retired from Nupe at the peak of his powers, in his early 50s. Later, he and Hilary settled in the market town of Sedbergh, Cumbria. Colin was a kind man, a loyal friend and an enthusiastic supporter of underdogs everywhere. He was also surprisingly shy and unassuming. In his later years, he became increasingly housebound and reliant on newspapers and his well-stocked library for mental stimulation.
He is survived by Hilary, their son, Luke, and daughter, Amy; and a son, Ian, and daughter, Alison, from his first marriage.
(You can buy Ray’s book about Colin at