Mancunians Matter: Obituary of Kath Fry, political campaigner and Manchester City Councillor

By Helen Le Caplain

Kath Fry, who died of cancer on May 5 this year, was a tireless political and social campaigner who sought to improve the life chances of the people of Manchester.

Such was the impact Kath had on her peers, following the news of her death there was an outpouring of both grief and gratitude to the woman who worked so hard, yet never sought recognition for her work.

Karen Cropper, Kath’s daughter, said: “The thing about my mum was that she wasn’t bothered about recognition, she just wanted to get things done and make things better.

“Some people go into politics because they like politics, she did it because she wanted to make things happen.”

And that is exactly what she did.

Born in 1943 to Mary and Leo Peters, Kath grew up in Leeds with her younger brother and sister, Mike and Barbara.

She married Tony Cropper in 1964 and they had two children, Karen and Peter, and moved to Derby, and then onto Bolton.

It was in Bolton that her political side came into play, and in addition to being a local agent for Shelter, she was active in the Bolton Women’s Liberation movement, and for one year was president of Bolton Institute of Technology’s student union.

In 1973 Kath and Tony separated, and Kath moved to Manchester with her children. During this time she was in her third year of a psychology degree at Bolton.

And in 1982, after the divorce was finalised, Kath changed her surname from Cropper to Fry, a name she chose herself from the old English for ‘free’.

The Labour Party

Kath was a Labour activist for over 30 years, and worked within the City Labour Party as secretary and minutes secretary from 1984 to 1988.

She was first elected in the Whalley Range ward in 1988 and served the ward until 2004, when she, like fellow Labour councillors, lost her seat to a Liberal Democrat candidate in a national backlash against the Iraq war.

During her 16-year tenure as a Manchester City councillor, Kath held a number of roles on council committees in the 1980s, a politically difficult period for the Labour party.

This is documented in her posthumous book, Manchester Council’s 1984 Revolution.

Tony Lloyd, MP for Manchester Central, knew and worked closely with Kath, and described her as a significant figure in Labour Party politics, both locally and nationally.

He said: “She was part of the change that took place in the mid-80s, some of it was generational change, but some was political change with a radical edge.

“She was very much involved with the equalities agenda with issues like race, gender and sexual orientation.

“It’s fair to say that Kath was one of the significant figures within that process of social change.”

Mr Lloyd also looked back at the period in the early 2000s when national opinion was against the Labour government’s decision to go to war with Iraq.

He said: “Kath was a councillor in my constituency and at a local level was seen as very hard-working and very committed.

“The paradox was people were astonished when she was no longer councillor following the 2004 election.

“There was a disconnect between the person they didn’t vote for and the person they wanted.”

Mr Lloyd said that on a personal level, Kath was not without faults.

He said: “Kath was hardworking, but also hard to work with. But the person she was hardest on, was Kath herself.”

He recalled a time when she was his election agent, and she would often be the first in the office and the last out.

Education and life chances

Her career has been varied and in addition to her political work, Kath worked as a careers officer and maths teacher, teaching initially in secondary schools before moving into adult education.

It was this passion for education that saw her excel in her roles as a member of the Socialist Education Association, Manchester Governors’ Association (MGA) executive committee, and founding member of the Friends of Ghyll Head.

For the last 20 years Kath was an ardent supporter of the Ghyll Head Outdoor Education Centre, a residential outdoor centre for young people situated in the Lake District.

Dave Rogers, former Head of the Ghyll Head Outdoor Education Centre, said that the centre had often been earmarked for closure to council budget pressures, and it was Kath who helped supporters successfully voice their protest.

He said: “Myself, the staff at Ghyll Head and the Friends were all inspired and motivated by her positive attitude and commitment.”

He added: “Kath was a formidable foe, a staunch ally and a compassionate friend.”

A spokesman for the Socialist Education Association was equally enthusiastic in his praise.

He said: “She was universally respected, in Manchester and beyond. Her reputation as an intelligent, efficient and dedicated councillor meant the local authority often called on her to assist in difficult situations, such as schools going into special measures and head teacher appointments.”

An MGA spokesman added: “Kath always worked hard for the people of Manchester as a councillor and a community activist.”

He added: “She was an outstanding woman and will be greatly missed.”

Even when Kath was ill, she was committed to her causes.

Over the last few years Kath suffered from several doses of pneumonia and pleurisy, but rarely complained.

In November 2010 she was diagnosed with non-small cell adenocarcinoma, a form of lung cancer more common in non-smokers.

Kath took a practical approach to her condition and started a blog to keep friends and family informed of her health so that, in her own words: “I don’t need to go through it over and over and we can talk about more interesting things if you call or visit.”

Kath undertook a short and debilitating course of chemotherapy which sadly proved unsuccessful in slowing the rate of the cancer.

It seems somewhat fitting that Kath passed away on May 5, the day of the council elections. A day when Labour reclaimed a number of Liberal Democrat seats across the Manchester borough.

In tribute Mr Lloyd concluded: “Kath, warts and all, was a good comrade and a good friend.”

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