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Maverick MP John to retire at next election

PUBLISHED: 17:04 06 August 2008 | UPDATED: 15:06 25 August 2010

FORMER MAYOR: John Austin as the Mayor of Greenwich with Princess Diana

FORMER MAYOR: John Austin as the Mayor of Greenwich with Princess Diana

A LEFT-WING MP has announced he will retire at the next general election.

A LEFT-WING MP has announced he will retire at the next general election.

John Austin, Erith and Thamesmead's 63-year-old MP, told his constituency party members of his decision at Abbey Wood Community Centre last Friday.

The Socialist politician started out as a councillor on Greenwich council in 1970, before becoming council leader in 1982, Greenwich mayor in 1987, and Woolwich MP in 1992.

Mr Austin is known for openly speaking and voting against his own party on matters including the Iraq War and replacement of nuclear arms.

He wanted to oust Tony Blair as Prime Minster after the 2005 election and suggested he might stand against Mr Blair for party leadership unless he quit.

But it was regarded as a hollow threat as Austin failed to accumulate the necessary nominations to oust the leader.

The humanist MP said: "It was rather blown out of proportion. I said if he didn't go he should be challenged. I said there was a chance of a stalking horse.

"I never did stand. It became a myth."

Having watched the Labour Party change to New Labour, Mr Austin, who sits firmly in the traditional Labour camp, is largely happy with the party's progress.

Being in the government that introduced the "tremendous breakthrough" that was the minimum wage was an honour, he said.

However, he still feels that there should have been a wider redistribution of wealth in the UK.

He added: "I think there were a lot of missed opportunities. We could have done more on the environment and more to relieve poverty."

Mr Austin has always favoured Mr Brown over Mr Blair, claiming the ex-Chancellor's "roots are in the party and his instincts for fairness and equality and more rounded".

As such, he maintains that his retirement has nothing to do with the current leadership question hanging over the Labour Party.

He told his constituency party last Friday: "It is unlikely that there will be a General Election before late next year or 2010.

"Whilst I feel fit, active and enthusiastic now, I am not sure that I will want to be working a seven-day, 70 hour week when I am 70.

"Of course there will be some regrets but it has been a great privilege to represent the area and I am grateful for the good comradeship and support I have received over the past 16 years as MP.

"I will not be slowing down during my remaining period as MP. It will be business as usual."

Mr Austin worked for Bexley council's social services and worked in the voluntary sector for 18 years before becoming an MP.

Born in Leicestershire, the father-of-three has lived in Thamesmead and Belvedere since with his wife Sylvia.

Having watched over Erith and Thamesmead since it was formed after the 1997 elections, Mr Austin feels the greatest challenges to the area have lain in its infrastructure.

He said: "Its biggest problem is that it is an isolated area with a substantially under-privileged population.

"But it is also very vibrant. Crossrail and the DLR extension are going to make a big difference in years to come.

"We spend too much time looking at what's going wrong here."

Since going to Parliament in 1992 Mr Austin has been chair of Greenwich MIND, and chaired or sat on various committees and borough and London-wide level.

In Westminster he chairs the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and has chaired an international body, the Inter Parliamentary Union.

He also had a hand in overseeing the Council to the British Caribbean Association and the Advancement of Arab British Understanding.

Both Labour and Conservative politicians from Bexley and Greenwich praised Mr Austin's dedication to his constituents and lively character.

David Evennett, Tory MP for Bexleyheath and Crayford, laughed when asked if John was independently minded.

He said: "Yes, John has always had strong views. We have always disagreed on lots of issues, but we have worked happily together on a number of issues."

Meanwhile his colleagues all praised his "tireless endeavours for an area that throws up a large amount of case work."

Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford said: "He led Greenwich council through a very, very difficult period of unemployment during the decline of the traditional industries.

"He helped lead south-east London out of that period."

Derek Conway, the Old Bexley and Sidcup MP who will leave Parliament at the next election after the expenses scandal surrounding the employment of his son, said it had been a pleasure working with Mr Austin.

Mr Austin added: "I certainly won't be leaving politics.

"It's been a great privilege getting to do things you never thought you would do like meeting Nelson Mandela. I will be working hard until the next election. The best times might still be ahead."

jules.cooper@archant.co.uk

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