Bob Mitchell

Labour turned SDP MP never afraid of being explicit
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The Independent Online

Richard Charles (Bob) Mitchell, schoolteacher and politician: born Southampton 22 August 1927; Senior Master, and Head of the Department of Maths and Science, Bartley County Secondary School 1957-65, Deputy Headmaster 1965-66; MP (Labour) for Southampton Test 1966-70, for Southampton Itchen 1971-81, (SDP) for Southampton Itchen 1981-83; Member, European Parliament 1975-79; Lecturer in Business Studies, Eastleigh College of Further Education 1984-93; married 1950 Doreen Gregory (one son, one daughter); died Southampton 18 September 2003.

Bob Mitchell came to Parliament from schoolteaching and throughout his 17-year career as a backbench MP his passion was education, education and education. He represented Southampton Test and then Southampton Itchen from 1966, only losing his seat at the 1983 general election two years after he had switched from Labour to the SDP.

The cabinet minister and diarist Richard Crossman recorded in his diary for Wednesday 3 April 1968:

My main interest this evening was the junior appointments in the big shuffle and I took out of my pocket Roy [Jenkins]'s list and read it aloud to the meeting [with John Silkin, Chief Whip, and Fred Peart, Leader of the Commons].

Here it is: Richard Mitchell, Alex Lyon, David Watkins, Brian Walden, Eric Heffer, Joan Lestor, Paul Rose, David Owen, David Marquand, Ivor Richard, Donald Dewar, Michael Barnes, Bob Brown, Bob Cant and Arthur Davidson. I had been studying this list before and it was clear that Roy had tried to be broad-minded and included as well as his own Jenkinsites and right-wingers a number of people who are by no means right-wing intellectuals.

Bob Mitchell - no one in Parliament ever called him Richard other than formally - was top of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's list. He was also backed strongly by Tony Crosland, who in the 1950s had been Member of Parliament for Southampton Test. At that time, it was not in the least surprising that this personally formidable and effective colleague should have topped the list. Indeed, it was a bit of a mystery why he was not appointed.

As Crossman's PPS, I can say with certainty that one of the considerations that went against him in the mind of Harold Wilson and his Chief Whip was that Mitchell, while in no way anti-Zionist, had spoken out strongly in favour of a greater understanding of Arab aspirations. Years later, when we were colleagues in the European Parliament from 1975 to 1979, I saw first-hand the excellent work that Mitchell did to promote European-Arab relations, as a member of the Middle East committees of the parliament.

Mitchell was born in 1927, the son of a Merchant Navy officer who had emigrated from Scotland to Southampton and his wife, a nanny, who had served a number of well-known aristocratic Scottish families. He always had a healthy cynicism about the behaviour of the well-to-do. After attending Taunton's School in Southampton, and a brief period at Godalming County Grammar School, he did his National Service in the Royal Signals, where he admitted that, albeit he didn't take well to military discipline, his technical ability was much enhanced.

It was a source of merriment in later years that Mitchell made a great friend of one of the House of Commons' Badge Messengers who had been a sergeant-major in the Royal Signals and had put Private Mitchell on a charge. Not only was there no ill-feeling, but there was a genuine friendship and warmth, which mellowed Mitchell's view of the Forces, of which he was to become a champion in Parliament.

On demobilisation he took up his place at Southampton University, where he graduated BSc (Econ) Hons in 1951. After teaching maths and science in various schools he became Senior Master and Head of the Maths and Science Department of Bartley County Secondary School, becoming Deputy Head in 1965.

Then Chairman of Southampton Labour Party, Mitchell was adopted as candidate in the 1959 general election for the safe Conservative seat of the New Forest. He lost by 29,949 votes to 13,667 to Colonel Sir Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre. This pugnacious and veteran MP was my neighbour in the Public Accounts Committee in 1963-65. I gossiped with him a lot and he told me that his opponent in the 1959 election might well become the leader of the Labour Party: such was the high regard in which he had increasingly held his opponent - "This fellow Mitchell was very clever and very nice."

Crosthwaite-Eyre was genuinely sorry on personal grounds that after several recounts in the 1964 general election Mitchell was defeated by Sir John Fletcher-Cooke by 25,700 to 25,352, a nail-biting majority of 348. Had 175 people voted differently I have no doubt that Mitchell could not have been denied a ministerial career.

In 1966 he won Southampton Test by 24,628 to Fletcher-Cooke's 22,188 with a Liberal vote for Graham Cloverly of 4,120. In 1970, like many Labour colleagues, he lost but in May 1971 when the Speaker, Dr Horace King, was elevated to the House of Lords, a by-election ensued in the then safe Labour seat of Southampton Itchen; Mitchell was the obvious candidate.

Mitchell gained the reputation of being on the extreme right of the Labour Party. In fact, his was not so much right-wing politics but the politics of principle and being outspoken on certain causes which were not conducive to the conventional wisdom of the Labour Party of the time. I shall never forget the way in which he went against the grain in a speech on the 22 February 1975 on the delicate question of the Civil List. Mitchell opened:

I am a very strong believer in the maintenance and continuation of the constitutional monarchy in this country. The large majority of the Royal Family, including those most disliked by my honourable friend the Member for Fife Central [Willie Hamilton], do a very thankless task in very difficult circumstances. I do not believe that any other system would be preferable or more desirable, nor do I believe that any other system will be cheaper.

If we examine other systems throughout the world, we find that nearly all are more expensive than our constitutional monarchy. Furthermore we do not want to skimp unnecessarily on the monarchy. It is no bad thing for our people occasionally to have a little pomp and circumstance, which some of my intellectual friends so often decry. It is very interesting to note that, when the Queen visits any town, the flags are put out very largely in the working-class areas rather than in the intellectual, middle-class areas.

Many Labour MPs might have thought this; few of us had the guts to be quite so explicit! But being explicit was Bob Mitchell all over.

I will never forget his challenge with ferocity to Margaret Thatcher on 10 July 1980:

Will the Prime Minister find time today to telephone the leader of the Conservative group on the Hampshire County Council and ask him to withdraw the proposal to cut £10m from the education budget, which, among other things, will lead to the sacking of 1,000 teachers by Christmas? Is the Prime Minister aware that the Chief Education Officer of Hampshire has said publicly that, if these cuts go through, the Education Committee will no longer be able to fulfil its statutory duties?

Although he had the reputation among the people of Southampton for being an excellent local MP, he didn't have his troubles to seek in the Southampton Labour Party, where his new parliamentary neighbour Bryan Gould was more to the taste of young Turks such as John Denham, until recently Minister of State at the Home Office.

These were difficult years in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Mitchell's great friend and colleague James Wellbeloved says:

Bob and I were Labour to the core. Our feeling was agonising; it was like a divorce, and a marriage between us and the Labour Party splitting up. In retrospect we think that we contributed to a change for the good in the party, and Bob's personal sacrifice was enormous.

This was not how most of the parliamentary party saw the position in 1981 when Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams left to form the SDP and Mitchell joined them. In 1983 Mitchell was defeated, standing as an SDP candidate for Southampton Itchen, by the future Conservative minister Christopher Chope.

As has been the case for many other former MPs, people are wary of employing men and women who have had a considerable status and may be uncomfortable employees. Mitchell suffered more than most and was conscious of never regaining the status that he had once had as a deputy headmaster. The tag of "honourable gentleman" does not help when it comes to getting a position in a difficult labour market. He was appointed to be a lecturer in Business Studies at Eastleigh College of Further Education between 1984 and 1993, when he retired.

His joy in life was a marvellous wife and the fact that he represented the British Correspondence Chess Association in matches against other countries. He was the second best chess player in the House of Commons in all my 40 years there (the best was the grandmaster Julius Silverman, MP for Birmingham Erdington).

Mitchell flowered as one of the first indirectly elected delegation to the European Parliament at Strasbourg in 1975, led by Michael Stewart. Mitchell was not only extremely effective but very popular with our European colleagues.

The former Mayor of Amsterdam, Schelto Patijn, who was Mitchell's close colleague, recalled yesterday:

At first sight, we thought he was a quiet, reserved man. As soon as he started talking seriously, we discovered that he was a really good thoughtful socialist. He lived according to his background. Once he was convinced of a point of view, he went for it. He turned out to be a really good European and the major contributor to the work of the indirectly elected European Parliament.

Tam Dalyell