Gwyneth Dunwoody: Labour MP who was a formidable fighter for parliamentary democracy

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Had such a position emerged, Gwyneth Dunwoody was entitled to be "Mother of the House", as the longest-serving female Member of the House of Commons. As Father of the House from 2001 to 2005 – and having known her since she first became the candidate for Exeter in 1963 – I am in a position to say that Gwyneth Dunwoody was not only a great parliamentarian, but a uniquely formidable fighter for the rights of Parliament.

Gwyneth Phillips was the daughter and apple of the eye of Morgan Phillips, one of the great general secretaries of the Labour Party, who in 1945 alongside Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison led the Labour post-war victory. Gwyneth was born into the Labour Party purple and would remind us that she first attended party conference in swaddling clothes.

Her father, to whom she was very close, was a miner until he was 19 years old, when he was blacklisted. It is a taste of Dunwoody's self-deprecating humour that she would tell us that he was leading a strike, "but coming from such an inoffensive family as mine I find it very difficult to believe he could possibly have been causing any trouble." No politician in my 43 years in the House of Commons was less inhibited about causing trouble when she thought it was justified.

Morgan Phillips went to the Labour college in Earls Court alongside Aneurin Bevan and Ness Edwards, later chairman of the Trade Union Group of Labour MPs; he then became the Labour agent in Fulham, where he met Gwyneth's mother Nora – who was ennobled in 1964 by Harold Wilson after Phillips's death and then played a prominent role in the House of Lords.

Dunwoody delighted in telling us that her father informed her mother when they were married that it would be nice if they could have a boy and a girl, on the grounds that it would look good on an election address. Gwyneth was born at the end of 1930, and educated at Fulham County Secondary School and the Convent of Notre Dame. (Her brother came nine years later.) After leaving school she worked in repertory as an actress and briefly as a journalist.

Her grandmothers on both sides had joined the Labour Party as soon as there was a Labour Party to join, so Gwyneth considered herself a third-generation politician. During her childhood she went everywhere with her parents, to every Labour Party meeting and every conference for every year as long as she could remember. Curiously her parents never particularly encouraged her to go into politics. But she joined the Labour League of Youth and enjoyed herself.

She told us, truthfully I believe, that her early political career was fighting places which she didn't particularly want to fight – first as Labour candidate for Totnes Council in Devon (serving 1958 to 1964) and then as Labour candidate for Exeter for the 1964 general election. She polled 16,673 votes to the 18,035 of Sir Rolf Dudley Williams, who had founded Power Jets Limited in 1936 with Sir Frank Whittle to develop jet propulsion. In 1966 the tables were reversed and Dunwoody beat Williams, a formidable opponent, by 3,586 votes. It was in this year that Gwyneth's husband John, prominent in the Socialist Medical Association and a highly regarded doctor, won Falmouth for Labour with a majority of 3,263 votes.

In 1967 when she had been in the House of Commons for barely a year – and at a time when MPs were deemed to become eligible as ministers only after at least a five-year apprenticeship on the back benches – the young Gwyneth Dunwoody was catapulted into a ministerial job at the Board of Trade. Many of her jealous contemporaries (of whom I was one) thought that it was the Prime Minister's way of paying tribute to his benefactor Morgan Phillips, and that this dishy slip of a girl did not deserve such rapid advancement. We were wrong. She proved to be an extremely effective minister.

The strains on the marriage became evident to their friends after John Dunwoody was also appointed a minister, serving in the Department of Health. As PPS to Dick Crossman, the Secretary of State, I saw John Dunwoody every day and know his total commitment to his ministerial post. The marriage ended in divorce in 1975. There was some bitterness at the time – albeit no other party was involved – but for many years they had a very civilised relationship and worked together to help their beloved children (one of whom, Tamsin, was a successful member of the Welsh Assembly from 2003 to 2007). At the time of his death in 2006, Gwyneth told me that she was grief-stricken that John should have lost his life, after an accident carrying a tea-tray down a spiral stair and sustaining fatal injuries.

In 1970, on the same night that John Dunwoody lost Falmouth, Gwyneth Dunwoody was to lose Exeter to the formidable Conservative candidate John Hannam. In subsequent party meetings in Exeter and Exmouth, I learnt what a well-loved champion Gwyneth Dunwoody had been in the south-west for the Labour cause, albeit in a cathedral city that was not capricious for left-wing politics at that time.

With the help of Sydney Scholefield Allen QC, the retiring member, and his son John Allen, Dunwoody secured endorsement as the Labour candidate for Crewe, while holding the job of director of the Film Production Association of Great Britain, and got back into Parliament in February 1974. Since Crewe was a railway town, she applied herself to the problems of the railway industry. As a fellow sponsored member by the National Union of Railwaymen, I know the high regard in which she was held by both Sid Weighell, general secretary of the union, and his successor Jimmy Knapp, along with their senior colleagues.

Dunwoody was disappointed not to be restored as a minister. Brian Walden, then MP in Birmingham, recalled:

"She was classic Wilsonite Old Labour. Although Wilson took the view that "retreads" should not be immediately promoted, she had every expectation of resuming ministerial office. As soon as Wilson had gone, she didn't fit in anywhere, in either the left or the Callaghan loyalists."

However, in 1976 she was chosen to be a member of the first Labour delegation to the European Parliament. I saw a lot of her because Michael Stewart, leader of the delegation, Dunwoody and I were members of the "bureau" in 1976-77 responsible for the logistics of the group. Dunwoody would go to infinite pains to look after the rights of the staff members whom we chose. And indeed for the rest of her parliamentary life there was no-one who cared more about the staff conditions of those who worked in the less glamorous jobs of the House of Commons.

Dunwoody also worked closely with John Prescott, another member of the delegation. He recalled: "Gwyneth never compromised. Had she been willing to compromise, she and not I would have succeeded Michael Stewart as leader of the Labour delegation to the European Parliament. With Gwyneth what you see is what you get. That was the spirit of the woman."

Although Dunwoody was chosen as one of the representatives who had been against joining the EEC in the first place and could be vitriolic about the European Commission and its directives, she was superb in establishing excellent personal relations with colleagues from European countries.

It helped that she had fluent Dutch, acquired when she had spent a period before marriage working at Radio Hilversun in Holland. "When I'm really angry," she told me, "I still swear in Dutch because they have such marvellous guttural tones so you sound as if you're spitting even if you're not." And I know how angry Dunwoody could get. When some remarks were attributed to me out of context about a "cabal" of prominent Jewish people on both sides of the Atlantic causing the war in Iraq, she was spitting with rage; she was a passionate pro-Israeli and could get waspish with gentiles who took some rather different views of Middle Eastern affairs.

Dunwoody's later work in Parliament will inevitably be remembered for her chairmanship of the Transport Select Committee from 1997. When the whips tried to remove her in 2001, there was the biggest parliamentary dissent since the Labour government came to power. Dunwoody believed that her select committee was capable of getting behind the bland general statements made to the Commons on the floor of the House. She thought that sometimes the whips were of the opinion that they could control the work of her committee by putting people on who were not obvious choices. She did not seek as a committee to have a pre-conceived view of what she and her colleagues wanted from a report:

The real thing that you do is that you frame the terms of reference, wait to see who approaches you and if the evidence is interesting, you then question them. Now that, inevitably, will bring up aspects of a subject that you haven't even thought of.

Dunwoody believed passionately that select committees were not there to do the work of the Government. She believed that it was the job of herself and her colleagues to ask detailed questions which might be inconvenient to ministers when they haven't thought the whole thing through and would have preferred the issues to have been raised more tactfully.

John Prescott [then Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions] is a very great friend of mine and I am his great admirer. Equally he is the head of a very large department with very diverse responsibilities. Now if I were to say to you that a department consisting of some thousands of people never ever makes mistakes, then it's the equivalent of papal infallibility. We try very hard not to be unfair, but you can't pull your punches because you like the individual in charge. He wouldn't do that with me and I wouldn't do it with him. If he wants to say something to me, he says it.

It was to Dunwoody's credit, in my view, that she was vocal in saying that chairmen of committees should not be paid because that would instantly make it an office that the whips would be inclined to regard as part of their patronage. She fought for extra staff for committees. What committee chairmen did need, she argued, was a support system to cope with the thousands of extra, often very detailed, letters that they got. She told me sincerely that she would much rather be a select committee chairman than a junior minister.

Gwyneth Dunwoody was a stimulating colleague in every kind of situation. In the middle 1980s we were both members of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. Her acerbic comments were directed at every kind of personage, however important they might think that they were. She was vehemently against women-only shortlists and annoyed many feminists; at the same time, no-one was kinder than Gwyneth Dunwoody in their relations with other women, not least the wives of her male colleagues. As a wonderfully gifted mimic she could be wounding, but she was a lady given to an infinite number of acts of great kindness to those in adversity.

Tam Dalyell

Gwyneth Dunwoody was greatly respected amongst those in the transport profession, be they operators, public servants, researchers or commentators, writes Professor Stephen Glaister. She was also considerably feared by anybody who appeared before her Transport Select Committee – and it is right to refer to it as "hers". We knew that she would expose sloppy argument and factual inaccuracy and she would pounce on the slightest whiff of special pleading, often achieving complete deflation with a deft stab with her acerbic wit.

In fact there was much to be gained from giving evidence. She was a good chairman: courteous, ensuring due process, ensuring that a competent witness had their opportunity and, equally, making space for those of her members with a useful contribution to make. She used her staff and advisers effectively. She might not agree, and would often say so, but it was always clear that she had listened. Witnesses felt that there was a real chance that their evidence might make a difference (even if they rather wished it would not!)

Her reports had something that is increasingly rare in official documents: facts and argumentation. One would not always agree with the conclusions and recommendations but the reports together with minutes of evidence have become important source documents.

It was not her fault that Parliament often failed to use them properly to scrutinise policies especially since she was so effective at presenting her arguments in debate and in the media: she had that elusive skill of expounding the core of the argument in a few simple phrases. This came from her deep knowledge of the subject, rigour and an absolute willingness to speak as she saw without regard to the embarrassment it might cause to officials or ministers.

When she was not reappointed after the 2001 general election, possibly because of her committee's criticisms of Blairite policies on railways and the PPP for the London Underground, there was such an outcry from the transport world and parliamentarians that she was forcibly reinstated. This was an extraordinary and unique compliment, well-deserved.

Gwyneth Patricia Dunwoody, politician: born London 12 December 1930; MP (Labour) for Exeter 1966-70, for Crewe 1974-83, for Crewe and Nantwich 1983-2008; Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade 1967-70; MEP 1975-79; Chairman, Select Committee on Transport 1997-2008; married 1954 Dr John Dunwoody (died 2006; two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1975); died 17 April 2008.