Andrew Cunningham, who has died aged 100, was the most powerful man in the North-East of England until he was jailed in 1974 for his part in the “web of corruption” operated by the architect John Poulson and Newcastle’s “city boss” T Dan Smith.
In return for holidays from Poulson and a sinecure for his wife, Cunningham steered contracts the architect’s way from the many public bodies he chaired and from Labour councils he could influence.
As regional secretary of the General and Municipal Workers’ Union (now GMB) representing 100,000 members, Andy Cunningham exerted immense power and patronage through the union – and the Labour Party, as its regional chairman and a Right-wing member of its National Executive Committee (NEC).
Nothing moved in the North-East without Cunningham’s say-so. At the moment of his disgrace, he secured his home seat of Chester-le-Street for a GMWU nominee against the strong claims of the Durham miners. The by-election turned into a plebiscite on the “Cunningham gang” and Labour’s candidate – the blameless Giles Radice – only squeaked home.
While awaiting trial, Cunningham orchestrated the deselection of the Labour MP Eddie Milne for demanding an inquiry into the party’s links with Poulson; Milne held his seat as an Independent and took his campaign to Westminster, to Labour’s national embarrassment.
Few – locally or nationally – dared challenge the former docker who drove around in a white union-owned Jaguar.
After Labour’s unexpected defeat in June 1970, Cunningham was the only member of the NEC to tell Harold Wilson to his face that he had made a mistake in going to the country prematurely. He had been as forthright the year before in standing up for Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife reform package as fellow union leaders organised to kill it.
Nor did anyone dispute the vigour with which he worked to further the interests of his union’s members, or make the North-East a better, more prosperous place to live. But it was Cunningham’s eagerness to accelerate Felling council’s housing programme in the early 1960s that caught the eye of Smith, who was already on Poulson’s payroll. Smith duly introduced Cunningham to Poulson.
Over six years Poulson paid for Cunningham to take holidays in Bournemouth, Brighton and Estoril, and Cunningham steered important building contracts his way: for his union’s regional headquarters, a police HQ in Sunderland and a headquarters for the river authority, the last of which was vetoed by Whitehall on grounds of extravagance after Poulson had picked up £37,000 in fees.
Questions were asked locally about some of these projects, but Cunningham’s corruption might never have come to light had Poulson not omitted to pay £200,000 in income tax and been declared bankrupt.
At the architect’s examination in Wakefield in August 1972, Muir Hunter QC stunned Britain’s political and administrative establishment by revealing a web of corruption implicating not just Smith and Cunningham but a Scottish Office mandarin; bureaucrats in local government; British Rail; the National Coal Board; the NHS, three MPs and even – though he was never charged – the Conservative Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, who resigned.
Cunningham, then 62, was at the zenith of his power. Nothing showed his determination and the forces at his control better than the way he fought to retain his public offices until his arrest almost a year later. He mobilised Labour councillors to block all efforts to oust him, and managed, until formally charged, not only to keep his union job but also to remain chairman of the Police Authority. He even won re-election to the NEC, though the GMWU had to promise unions who backed him that he would go quietly at the end of his term.
Poulson had already been sentenced to seven years’ jail when Cunningham and Smith went on trial at Leeds Crown Court in April 1974; they pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and corruption involving the receipt of £1,766 from Poulson. Total benefits to the Cunninghams were put at £6,756, including the “salary” for his wife, May, whose prosecution was not proceeded with.
Cunningham blamed Poulson’s persistent generosity for his disgrace, declaring: “I made the biggest mistake of my life when I accepted the offer of that two-week holiday in Portugal from John Poulson. I just didn’t think it would have led to all this. What is so annoying is that I tried and tried to get invoices for him for the holiday. I kept badgering him, but he was an overwhelmingly generous man and in the end I just gave up asking.”
However Poulson accused Cunningham of having “held me to ransom” by demanding £4,000 worth of holidays; he gave in, he said, because he feared Cunningham might harm his business if the largesse stopped.
Lord George-Brown praised Cunningham in court as “one of the most outstandingly forthright, courageous, solid and loyal men I have met throughout my political life”. Mr Justice Waller nevertheless sentenced him to five years, and the Labour government set up an inquiry into standards in public life.
At a further trial in April 1976 it was alleged that Cunningham, through his union contacts, had bought at half price the bungalow at Chester-le-Street to which he had moved from a 37s 6d a week council house; he was cleared of having a corrupt relationship with the builder Sidney McCullough, but three fellow councillors were jailed.
Cunningham’s sentence was reduced to three years on appeal, and in June 1976 he was paroled from Ford open prison. Within weeks he had tea with Prime Minister James Callaghan at the home of his son, Jack Cunningham, the GMWU-sponsored MP for Whitehaven, whom Callaghan had retained as his Parliamentary Private Secretary despite the scandal.
Jack (now Lord) Cunningham went on to restore the family name and serve in Tony Blair’s Cabinet. But there would be no rehabilitation for his father; Andy Cunningham’s days of power were over and for three decades he lived quietly in retirement at Chester-le-Street.
Andrew Cunningham was born on June 8 1910, the eldest of nine children of a Durham miner. He left school at 14 to work in the Tyne docks and built a formidable power base first as chairman of Felling council; then as a county councillor and alderman; chairman of the Police Authority (in 1962); chairman of the county council (1963) and, the following year, regional secretary of his union.
The appointments continued to flow and on top of those posts previously mentioned, he was a founder member of the Northern Economic Planning Council and a director of Fairfields Shipbuilders.
In 1965 he was elected to the trade union section of Labour’s NEC, his support peaking in 1967 when he came fifth with 4,934,000 votes.
Andrew Cunningham died on June 14. He outlived his wife, a former teacher and JP with whom he had three children.
from the Telegraph , 31/10/10
Of interest only to a few oldies from the north-east. Lucky for Cunningham that his sins were not visited upon his son, Jack, now Baron of Felling.
T Dan Smith reappeared a number of times in various films and tv documentaries about the 1960s and 70s. He died in 1993. His autobiography provided the material for a recent long poem pamphlet of mine, Let’s Build A City, which you can read on Scribd.