In her maiden speech in the House of Lords, the former trade union leader Muriel Turner, Lady Turner of Camden, who has died aged 90, chose to speak on what was, for her, the highly appropriate subject of social welfare. It was the issue to which most of her professional life had been largely dedicated and she spoke with eloquence and compassion of how the prime motivation of the trade union movement had been to remove the deprivation, degradation and misery that had been the lot of many working people throughout history.
She could have added that it was a circumstance that still pertained in the years of her own childhood, growing up between the wars in a working-class household in Bromley, south-east London, a bright girl who longed for the university education her family were too poor even to consider.
The sense of having herself been trapped by poverty provided her with a determination that became the mainspring of her career. She left school aged 16, initially to work in an insurance company, but already anxious to avoid a lifetime in the traditional female employment market it led her to become a clerk in the trade union ASSET, which represented supervisors and technicians in the engineering industry.
Thereafter, she eagerly signed up for training courses offered by the union, including those offered by Ruskin College, Oxford, and became a specialist in the union’s industrial injury work. She won increasing regard for her negotiating skills and formidable authority in representing union members in disputed industrial cases, despite her lack of formal qualifications, and she always credited the labour movement for having provided her with the chance to extend her education.
She was appointed personal assistant to the general secretary and, in 1961, when Clive Jenkins arrived to run the union, became national officer and then assistant general secretary. The merger that led to the formation of the white- collar union ASTMS,(Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs), saw her remaining as Jenkins’ deputy – itself an unusual post for a woman at that time – and in an organisation with growing industrial clout in the labour movement. There were 65,000 members in 1970 when she took up the post and more than 500,000 when she retired from the office in 1987.
Turner was good at her job. She was knowledgable and persuasive on the benefits of trade union membership for bank staff and other institutional office workers and it formed part of her lifelong mission to combat inequality and to give a voice to the powerless, particularly poorly paid women struggling with social disadvantage. It was a commitment she later took to the Lords.
She had a sharp brain and, normally, a courteous manner, but she could be merciless when confronted by hypocrisy from those she felt did not consider the plight of the underprivileged. She was against what she termed “gesture politics” and said that “marvellous slogans” were never any good on their own.
The elder of two daughters, Muriel was strongly influenced by her father, Edward Price, a machine fitter and an active trade unionist, whose family came originally from Builth Wells, Powys. She was not close to her mother, a convert to Roman Catholicism whose faith Muriel rejected as a teenager. She later became a humanist and a member of the National Secular Society and in the Lords campaigned against discrimination in faith schools and the imposition of collective worship, both of which she regarded as antipathetic to equality.
By the same token she was an outspoken advocate of gay and lesbian rights, especially with regard to employment, and she sponsored a bill in 1996 to outlaw such discrimination at work. She had supported Stonewall since its foundation in 1989 and was recognised by members of the organisation as having been a pioneer on equality issues that are now taken for granted.
A member of the Communist party until the invasion of Hungary in 1956, she had moved into the mainstream of the Labour party left by the time she joined the Lords in 1985. The following year she was appointed to the opposition frontbench to speak on social welfare and pensions and in 1987 added the employment portfolio to her political responsibilities. This highly successful second career ended in ignominy, however, in 1996.
She had become a director of a company run by the Conservative political lobbyist Ian Greer five years earlier. This was a choice that itself exhibited an uncharacteristic lack of judgement for a Labour spokeswoman, and when Greer’s activities in the “cash for questions” scandal were exposed in the Guardian, Turner became an unwitting casualty of the political fall-out. She was obliged to resign from the frontbench, although there was no suggestion that she had acted improperly, and she was consequently denied the chance of ministerial office she would certainly otherwise have enjoyed when Tony Blair was elected prime minister the following year.
Turner was a member of the TUC General Council (1981–87) and a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission (1982–88). She was a member of the Occupational Pensions Board (1977–93) and of the Occupational Pensions Advisory Service (1989–2007). She chaired the Personal Investment Authority Ombudsman Council from 1994 until 1997 and was deputy speaker of the House of Lords from 2002 until 2008. One of her proudest achievements was the award of an honorary doctorate of laws by the University of Leicester in 1991.
After a short early marriage ended in divorce, in 1955 she married Reginald Turner, a wartime wing commander who became an artist. He died in 1995. She is survived by her two stepchildren, Richard and Gay, and two granddaughters, Ailsa and Lindsey.
• Muriel Winifred Turner, Lady Turner of Camden, trade unionist and politician, born 18 September 1927; died 26 February 2018