John Cummings was one of an increasingly rare breed of Labour MPs, schooled in the trade union movement, in industry, in local government and whose deep roots propelled him into Parliament.
John Cummings was “real” Labour, no airs or graces or false pride. John was comfortable with senior politicians, Prime Ministers, statesmen but never lost the common touch.
Following in the footsteps of Sidney Webb, Ramsay MacDonald, Manny Shinwell and Jack Dormand, John Cummings represented this totemic mining constituency of Easington for 23 years from 1987 to 2010. On being elected to Parliament – and at the same time as another fellow former miner and great friend, Ronnie Campbell – the pair were memorably described by the late Andrew Roth – the biographer and political journalist – as “rough diamonds, set to shine”. John had come to prominence well before going to Westminster. The journalist John Pilger recognised and admired Cummings having interviewed John underground at Murton Colliery in between the convulsive strikes of the early 1970s, which succeeded in toppling Edward Heath’s Conservative Government.
Prior to being elected to Parliament, John had been both Chairman (1975/76) and Leader of Easington District Council between 1979 and 1987 following his friend, Charlie Short.
By the early 1980s, and with John as one of the leading lights in the S.E.A.M, (Save Easington Area Mines) campaign, the Thatcher government finally moved against the National Union of Mineworkers with its controversial pit closure programme. The Durham coalfield came out solidly for the strike in 1984, but as the year dragged on and conditions became ever more desperate for the miners and their families, a small trickle of men began to return to work. Some of the more brutal confrontations of that bitter year were played out as police effectively occupied villages such as Easington Colliery and went on the rampage in pursuit of fleeing pickets.
At this time, Cummings was often accompanied by his little dog“picket pup” “Grit”, a wiry haired Jack Russell terrier. He would later claim that he had especially trained the dog to “growl when Margaret Thatcher came on the television. Grit’s exertions and loyalty to the cause were to later earn him an obituary in Tribune.
Born on 6th July, 1943 in County Durham, John Cummings was a fifth generation miner son of George Scott Cummings and Mary (nee Cain). Educated at Murton Council Infants Junior and Senior Schools and Easington Technical College, he trained as a Colliery apprentice electrician between 1958 and 1963. His period spent in local government also included a stint as a member of the Northumbrian Water Authority and Peterlee and Aycliffe Development Corporation. He was a member of the Environment Select Committee in its various guises from 1990 until he was promoted to become an Opposition Whip by Tony Blair in 1995.
In his entry in Who’s Who John’s list of clubs was far removed from those of a Tory grandee and included: Murton Victoria, The Democratic Club, Ex-Servicemen’s (Murton); Peterlee Labour and Thornley Catholic Club.
A founding member and National Vice-Chair of the Coalfield Communities Campaign which was instrumental in persuading the E.U. to establish RECHAR to provide regeneration funding dedicated for coalfield areas. He played an important part in persuading Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott to set up the Coalfield Regeneration Trust providing much needed practical support funding to coalfield areas and to approve the Dalton Park development. John campaigned unceasingly for miners who were victims of chest disease and industrial diseases, bringing a succession of Coal Ministers, including Peter Hain, to the area to press the case for justice for mineworkers including his late father, whose health had been destroyed by industrial disease.
John Cummings had a long interest and association with the Czech & Slovak Republics. He was Chairman of the All-Party Czech and Slovak Group between 1997 and 2010 and had many friends in the Czech Republic. He also had a long-time fascination with China and visited over a dozen times, to the extent that a succession of sometimes bewildered invited Chinese diplomats would find themselves downing pints of beer in Murton’s Colliery Inn (now ironically a Chinese Restaurant and wine bar) on the eve of the annual Durham Miner’s Gala. One – now a senior Minister in the Chinese Government – sent his heartfelt condolences on hearing that Cummings had passed away.
He loved people, he loved his family and valued his community.
John was never one dimensional, he had some great friends, Jack Hayton, Sam Lucas, Peter Bull, George Wilson, Graham Storey, Brian Duncan. He spent many happy times with Jack at the football, but he really went for the conversation “the crack” as we call it.
John and Jack had told Sammy Duran, who was landlord of Burton House where they go before the match that a new place was opening next to the Stadium of Light, 50p in and as much as you could drink all day. Sammy asked me if it was true Weatherspoons were opening a new establishment to which I replied No, it’s the new swimming baths.
Gordon Brown said.
‘John was a popular and a distinguished trade union leader, a great Labour spokesman, a committed socialist and more than that, a wonderful colleague and a great friend.
John was an MP who never ceased to remind us of our responsibilities to the people we represented and during all the years he was in parliament he never ceased to speak from the heart for his home communities that he loved.
His influence will live on and the whole Labour Movement stands as one in honouring John’s life and work.
Ambassador Ma Zhengang, who was in this very church for the wedding of John’s niece, Donna to Colin Forster, (Minister Zhang Zhijun, Ambassador Du Qiwen) said. “My thoughts are with you at the funeral service. I remember John Cummings as a great personal friend and a great friend of China who contributed markedly to the mutual understanding and friendship between our two countries and two peoples.
My visits to John’s constituency will always remain part of my fondest memories during which we were so warmly received.
I treasure the miner’s lamp he gave me. For me it stands for his working class tradition in the birthplace of the industrial revolution for which he fought all his life and in which he took so much pride.