With his penchant for sporting camel hair coats, driving fast cars, attending the opera and smoking cheroots, Tony Crosland – author of the highly influential The Future of Socialism – seemed the most jarringly incongruous of the Labour Party’s rising stars in the early 1950s. By his own admission, Crosland’s privileged Highgate background and Oxford education made him “a highly unlikely Socialist”, but after being elected MP for Grimsby South in 1959, Crosland became an altogether more unlikely supporter of Grimsby Town. It was a passion which lasted until his untimely death from a stroke in 1977.

Forty years or so before New Labour’s front bench embraced football for (mainly) populist purposes, Crosland’s love of the Mariners was genuine, as was his affection for the town. The political commentator Alan Watkins noted, “He was devoted to Grimsby, devoted! He talked about it all the time; it became extremely irritating.” Political meetings had to be arranged so that Crosland could get to Blundell Park for home matches, and no Saturday evening gathering with Crosland present was complete without Match of the Day available for his full attention. (Though his boorish behaviour saw Labour politician Roy Jenkins note, “He was too hazardous a guest for house parties.”) His wife later wrote of Crosland’s “passionate affair with Match of the Day” and he insisted on aides not telling him the results prior to broadcast.

In his biography of Crosland, Kevin Jefferys claims that he “sometimes enlisted his step daughters’ help to say that the Prime Minister was on the telephone if he wanted to slip away from guests to watch a match.” Crosland also wrote to the Director-General of the BBC in 1967 about the “dreadful Kenneth Wolstenholme”, although he admitted that his disparaging views of the 1966 World Cup Final commentator “were highly likely to represent a minority viewpoint.”

Crosland wasn’t the only prominent Labour figure who loved football. Michael Foot followed Plymouth Argyle religiously and later became director of the club. The Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had been a regular at Leeds Road throughout his youth and could reel off Huddersfield Town sides dating back to the Herbert Chapman era in the 1920s. He carried around with him “the little card from a newspaper called Chums – which I’m sure went out of existence a long time ago – with a picture of the (title-winning) Huddersfield Town team in 1926”. Yet both Foot and Wilson had been immersed in football from a very young age by their fathers. Crosland’s lengthy metamorphosis into a fan was altogether more improbable.

Raised by Plymouth Brethren parents, Crosland and his sisters enjoyed a privileged upbringing, with nannies and servants living in their sizeable London residence. His father allowed alcohol in the house but only in strict moderation, forbade his teenage children to smoke and “disapproved of pleasure for its own sake.” Crosland later commented: “My father disapproved of spectator sports like football, mainly due to the associated vices that sometimes tend to go hand in hand [with it] – namely drinking, smoking, gambling and swearing.” As Crosland rebelled in his teens, he gravitated towards those pleasures of which his father so disapproved, recalling: “I saw plenty of football in London throughout the 1930s and 1940s. I enjoyed the matchday experience, the community feel, the irreverence of the crowds and the fact that one could relax and enjoy time in one’s own skin. At football, every fan is the same as they’re all following their team.”

Idealistic and ambitious, Crosland didn’t reject all Brethren teachings and passionately believed that all humans were created equal in God’s eyes. “I was an egalitarian. My socialist roots and my religious roots went hand in hand,” he later wrote. In the 1930s, his concern for the plight of the underdog was revealed in an essay he wrote in late teens entitled “Bread for the Masses, Cake for the Few.” He wrote, “Non-conformity must be regarded as a virtue, as a proof of a bold and independent spirit.” Crosland’s love of the underdog would later serve him well as MP in Grimsby, and when he joined the army as an officer, he discovered that he had more in common with the conscripts, noting, “These Cockneys, although rather coarse and loud-voiced in the mass, are astonishingly decent and generous when taken singly and altogether I get on exceedingly well with them.” For Crosland, football remained the great social leveller. One colleague recalled him “as relaxed and waiting for the end of the war, joining in with football matches at the Divisional HQ while trying to convert the soldiers to Socialism.”

By the late 1950s, Crosland was viewed as the high priest of Socialist revisionism following the publication of The Future of Socialism. One of his arguments was that wholesale nationalisation of industries “was wholly irrelevant to socialism” post 1945, as it didn’t establish social equality. A mixed economy was acceptable if the ends justified the means. The conclusion to the book also revealed Crosland’s libertarian side and he looked ahead to a time where “personal freedom, happiness and cultural endeavour; the cultivation of leisure, beauty, grace, gaiety and excitement… might be pursued.” After he was elected MP for Grimsby in 1959, he referred to the above passage in an early speech, insisting (to much laughter, cheering and applause from the audience) that “it is possible to achieve all these things in Grimsby, and especially at Blundell Park.”

In 1959, he spent two weeks on a Grimsby trawler as it pitched in the North Sea. The town was home to some major concentrations of ships, including the Ross Group, which operated more than 40 trawlers. The entire experience reminded him of his army days – “the rugged physical life, the camaraderie and the good-natured arguments with the Tory-supporting skipper.” Cynics suggested that it was simply the narrowness of his victory (by 101 votes) in the election which made him work tirelessly in his constituency but Richard Crossman noted that Crosland “became fish- and football-obsessed remarkably quickly.”

Grimsby Town’s heyday in the 1930s and 1940s was long gone when Crosland hove into view. In We Are Town, an anthology of writing from Grimsby Town fans, Jack Waterman wrote, “The prosperity of the fishing industry and the confidence of the town were reflected in the performances of the team.” As swarms of trawlers made their way into the North Sea, netting the town a small fortune for each gigantic haul, legends such as Joe Robson and Pat Glover steered Grimsby to fifth place in Division One in 1934-35 and two FA Cup semi-finals. Although relegated from the top flight at the end of the 1940s, Bill Shankly’s brief tenure at Blundell Park in the early 1950s saw the Mariners narrowly miss out on a return to the top flight.

Yet by the late 1950s, Grimsby’s fishing industry was gradually shrinking as rival countries began fishing further from home and Icelandic trawlers began reaping the benefits of rich cod supplies off in their own waters, once largely the preserve of Grimbarian trawlers. In We Are Town, the Guardian writer Steve Bierley notes that from the 50s onwards, “The trawling industry collapsed, while the footballing knowledge of the Grimsby board could have been written on the dorsal fin of a small cod.”

A cursory glance at Grimsby’s league record in the 17 and a half years that Crosland was MP tells a meandering tale of under achievement in Divisions 3 and 4, save for a couple of second tier campaigns in the early to mid-60s. All of this was set against a backdrop of plummeting crowds and Crosland’s turbulent political career. Slightly removed from the Labour Party’s inner circle by 1970, Crosland, who’d served as Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning, put Labour’s 1970 General Election defeat a few days after England’s loss to West Germany in the World Cup quarter-final down to the “disgruntled Match of the Day millions”. Harold Wilson, meanwhile, told Bill Shankly, “When I heard we [England] lost 3-2, I thought there’d be an effect. And I did hear a lot of voters saying ‘Oh, I can’t stand anything after this.’ It had some effect on the election. Not decisive, of course.”

Always keen to bring matters back to the travails of Grimsby Town, Crosland added, “Although I’m very disappointed with the election result, and the fact England lost I’d just like to add that I hope Grimsby Town can avoid the disappointment of finishing 16th again in Division Four this season, and, like the Labour Party, look to a more positive future.”

There were some highlights during the 1960s and 70s. An active member of the Grimsby Supporters Club, Crosland helped campaign for an upgrade to the Blundell Park floodlights, which the Football League had deemed unfit for use. In September 1960, Grimsby hosted its first floodlit match against Newport County. Locals may have been initially sceptical of Crosland’s plummy accent but the Mariners fan and Labour activist James Barron recalled, “Tony Crosland was at ease in the supporters club with a beer and a cigar. He was himself in there – loud, sarcastic, funny, sometimes rude, and opinionated. Just like most of us in there. He often said he felt most relaxed in that environment. Harold Wilson had his ‘man of the people’ garb – his raincoat and his pipe, but Crosland didn’t feel the need for all that. We accepted Tony for who he was, just as he accepted us.”

Crosland also heartily approved of the Mariners’ new boss Lawrie McMenemy, who led Grimsby to the Division 4 title in 1972: “Here is a manager who has earned the trust of the players and the fans, and who really understands what the town means to its inhabitants.” Crosland’s praise was in no small part due to McMenemy’s decision to rouse his weary players from their beds at an ungodly hour, take them to the Grimsby docks and remind them that this was how many fans earned their money to pay for tickets to home games. Yet the town’s fishing community was becoming increasingly squeezed. In 1976, with McMenemy poised to win the FA Cup with Southampton, Crosland, by then Foreign Secretary under James Callaghan’s leadership, discovered that his loyalties to Grimsby constituents took second place when it came to Britain’s foreign relations as the Third Cod War reached its zenith.

With clashes between British and Icelandic trawlers deemed worthy of the Royal Navy’s attention, Crosland was urged by representatives from Grimsby’s fishing industry to establish a 100-mile exclusion zone around the UK which “would keep us going forever.” He was also instructed to “get tougher” on Icelandic trawlers who were ramming British trawlers and cutting their nets in the North Sea. From the outset, Crosland knew that he would have to concede on both of these points, due to EEC regulations, and Iceland’s thinly veiled threat to leave Nato, leading to concerns that the Soviet Union might target Iceland’s deep-water ports.

Crosland announced that from 1976 onwards, a 200-mile exclusion zone would operate off Iceland, and that British waters would henceforth be known as “common waters” for EEC members. Almost instantly, Grimsby’s trawlers lost access to many of their traditional rich cod stocks, and the town’s fishing community was devastated.

There are no reports of Crosland being jeered or suffering any adverse reaction in the town or at Blundell Park afterwards, although in 1976 he referred to “the conflicting demands on Government ministers which are so difficult to balance”. He also admitted that the impact of the Third Cod War was “extremely hard to bear for Grimsby’s fishing community.” In the midst of the conflict, the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew to the UK early on a Saturday to discuss the problem of Rhodesia with Crosland, only to be informed that the Foreign Secretary insisted on an early morning meeting in Grimsby, so as to avoid missing the Mariners’ home match with Gillingham. Kissinger, a keen football fan himself, accompanied Crosland to Blundell Park later that day in order to further the talks. Later that year, both Crosland and Kissinger watched Chelsea play Wolves at Stamford Bridge.

In early 1977, with many football clubs affected adversely by the decline in traditional industries, Crosland spoke of the need for clubs to “embrace partnerships with non-nationalised industries in order to secure much needed funds.” The Findus frozen fish factory had been flourishing in Grimsby since the early 1960s and Crosland urged his local club to “liaise closely with local factories and firms in light of changing economic pressures.” Crosland was revisiting The Future of Socialism and advocating a more pragmatic modus operandi for clubs. “With so many fighting against going to the wall,” he argued, “football as a whole needs to deploy a new approach.”

By the early 80s, the club finally announced the construction of the gleaming new Findus Stand, to reflect their ambition of making it back to Division One in the future, and Findus provided £200,000 towards the total cost of £425,000. Sadly, Tony Crosland didn’t live to see his ideas bear fruit, although by the end of the 70s and at the start of the 80s, numerous clubs embraced sponsorship deals and cash-strapped Crystal Palace received £2 million from a supermarket chain in return for the redevelopment of the Whitehorse Lane terrace. Crosland would have approved of football’s revisionist thinking wholeheartedly.

After Crosland’s death from a brain haemorrhage in February 1977, the Yorkshire-born Austin Mitchell, who’d chaired the famously awkward Calendar face-off between Don Revie and Brian Clough on the day Clough was fired by Leeds in 1974, won the subsequent by-election, and remained MP for Grimsby until 2015, when he retired from frontline politics. Mitchell, who changed his name by deed poll in 2002 to Austin Haddock in support of the fish industry, took the “biggest fish finger in the world” to the House of Commons and occasionally sported a Grimsby Town shirt.

As national newspapers debated whether Crosland was the best leader the Labour Party never had, his ashes were scattered by his widow from a trawler in the Humber and at the Westminster Abbey memorial service seats were reserved for representatives from Grimsby Town and local businesses. The minute’s silence afforded to Crosland at Blundell Park following his death was heartfelt and the Mariners manager John Newman remarked, “Our supporters liked Mr Crosland whatever their politics, because he showed a genuine and heartfelt interest in our club.”

In his recently released memoirs, Austin Mitchell claims he “never felt accepted by locals,” adding: “It prefers its own to outsiders.” Yet in the case of the ultimate outsider Tony Crosland – the singular politician whose views and actions shaped the country, the town, and the football club – Grimsby made an exception.