At the age of 25, Pakenham joined the Conservative Party, but was soon convinced to become a socialist, partly by his future wife, whom he married on November 3, 1931. He embarked on a political career, serving as a junior minister in the Labour government of 1946-1951 and as a Cabinet member from 1964 to 1968. In 1945 he was created a Baron Pakenham in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, and in 1961 he inherited the Irish title of Earl of Longford from his brother. Longford was created a Knight of the Garter in 1971. Over the years he gained a reputation as an eccentric, becoming known for his efforts to rehabilitate offenders and campaigning for the release from prison of the "Moors murderer", Myra Hindley.
Under the House Of Lords Act (1999) the majority of hereditary peers lost the privilege of a seat and right to vote in the House of Lords. Lord Longford, as the recipient of a hereditary peerage of first creation (from his creation as Baron Pakenham), was, along with others in the same situation, made a life peer so that he could retain his seat in the Lords. He was thus created Baron Pakenham of Cowley.
He and his wife, who died in October 2002 at the age of 96, had eight children, among them the writers Antonia Fraser, Rachel Billington, and Thomas Pakenham.
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