Ian Mikardo, East End MP

It’s the lot of politicians to be famous, or infamous, in their lifetimes, but swiftly forgotten once they are gone. Major sixties figures like Crossman, Driberg, Butler and Grimond soon become half-remembered names.
Of course many of them dream of immortality. But for once, with the naming of a new school in Bromley-by-Bow, the memorial is a fitting tribute to a lifetime’s service, not merely a posthumous ego trip.
Ian Mikardo School, in Talwin Street, opened the doors to its first intake of pupils last January, after relocating from Weavers Fields. Its namesake was an East End Labour MP for over 40 years, serving Poplar, Bethnal Green and Bow during his long career.
Baby Ian was born in 1908, the son of Jewish emigrants from eastern Europe. His parents arrived in Britain during the mass exodus of Jews in 1900. His mother came from the Ukraine and his father from the Polish town of Kutno, near Warsaw.
Like many others, the Mikardos arrived with nothing but the clothes they wore, their accessories for prayer and a handful of Russian roubles – not much use in Stepney!
The family moved on to Portsmouth in 1907, and Ian was born a year later. But it was a testament to just how hard Jewish emigrants found it to integrate that when he began school, at the age of three, his paucity of English words made him the butt of jokes – and meant he had a lot of catching up to do.
Years later as an East End MP, Mikardo said that those early days of bafflement in a Portsmouth classroom gave him a deeper understanding of the language problems of his Bangladeshi constituents.
The young Mikardo studied hard to overcome his problems, and it was his proud mother’s ambition that he should become a rabbi. Ian gave it a go and started at a Portsmouth college for the training of Jewish divines.
He soon realised the life of a cleric was not for him however, and the bright pupil transferred to Portsmouth Grammar School, spending his leisure hours watching Portsmouth FC – even when the club’s glory days had gone he retained an encyclopedic knowledge of all their matches.
60 years wed
In 1930, two major changes were to occur which shaped Mikardo’s life. First he met and married Mary Rosette – they were to be together for more than 60 years.
In the same year he joined the Labour Party and in 1935, the socialist returned to his roots, moving back to Stepney.
During the 1930s, Mikardo worked in factories, marketing and distribution. It was experience which was to serve him well during World War II, when planning of production and distribution became vital to the war effort.
With the end of hostilities, the aircraft factories where he had served his country scaled down production. But the lessons of centralised planning were now being applied to civilian life, as the new government began the huge task of rebuilding a peacetime economy and finding jobs for thousands of returning men.
By the mid-1940s, Mikardo wasn’t content merely implementing industrial policy, he wanted to make it too, and from 1945 to 1959 he served as Labour MP for Reading.
He lost the seat in 1959. But in the epoch-breaking victory of Harold Wilson in 1964, Mikardo was swept back into Parliament for Poplar. Boundaries came and went over the years and he represented Bethnal Green and Bow, then Bow And Poplar. He served as an East End MP until his retirement, in 1987, at the age of 79.
Ian Mikardo died in 1993, aged 85. During his lifetime, he wasn’t without his critics. George Orwell accused him of being a “fellow traveller”, a covert communist who didn’t have the courage to declare his convictions.
Others would point to decades of solid service to the public, and it is for this that one of the true personalities of post-War British politics will be remembered – and fittingly marked by Ian Mikardo School.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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