John Gunnell: Conscientious Labour MP who fought like a tiger for the regions

John Gunnell was a leading politician – but not at Westminster, although he served as a conscientious MP from 1992 to 2001. Gunnell's great days were as leader of the West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council from 1981 to 1986 and during his 12-year chairmanship, from 1981, of the Yorkshire and Humberside Development Association. He also served for many years as chairman of the North of England Regional Consortium. In these positions, Gunnell wielded in the 1980s more effective power over people's lives than any other member of the Labour Party.

Son of William Henry Gunnell, a sports editor at the Birmingham Post, John Gunnell had a lifelong attachment to West Bromwich Albion. For eight years he and I had London pads, doors six feet apart, within walking distance of the House of Commons and overlooking two taxi-drivers' loos, one of which is known as the "rose-scented bowl", the other a listed Edwardian sexagonal Sherlock Holmes lavatory called the "Iron Lung". Gunnell would knock gently on my door, and ask if I'd heard the West Brom score in an evening game. He was a man of infinite niceness, consideration for others and real friendly charm.

Evacuated to Kettering, Northamptonshire, in 1939, Gunnell went to local state primary schools, and then on a bursary to King Edward's School, Birmingham. At Leeds University he won a distinguished first class honours degree in Chemistry. As a pacifist he declined to do National Service, but spent instead two years, 1955-57, as a hospital porter at St Bartholomew's in London – an experience to which he constantly referred in later life. Both from his power base in West Yorkshire and later in the House of Commons he championed the rights and conditions of the lower-paid and essential workers in the public sector. "Unless you have actually been something like a hospital porter, you can have no idea, Tam," he said to me, "what it is like to do grinding hard work with very little recognition, let alone a poor financial reward."

In 1959 he became a science teacher at Leeds Modern School and within a year was head of department. However, by sheer chance, following a visit to the school by an influential American educationist, Gunnell was offered the post of head of chemistry, and later head of science, at the UN International School in New York. Not only did his experience there confirm his internationalism but it also brought home the urgent need to end class barriers in Britain while retaining the welfare state.

Partly on account of the fact that they wanted their children educated in Britain, Gunnell and his wife, Jean, herself a teacher of special needs children, decided to return to the UK in 1970, after eight years. Gunnell became a lecturer at the Centre for Studies in Science Education at Leeds University, and in 1975, with E.W. Jenkins, produced a widely used textbook, Selected Experiments in Advanced Level Chemistry.

During that year I stayed the night, after speaking to a Birmingham University undergraduate society, with the then Vice-Chancellor, Sir Edward Boyle, Harold Macmillan's Education Secretary. Boyle vouchsafed golden opinions of this bright Labour Party lecturer. Gunnell had come to prominence by contesting Sir Keith Joseph's impregnable seat in both February and October 1974. Joseph was later to describe him as "the most serious, sincere and nicest Labour politician that I know".

In 1979 Gunnell missed becoming a member of the European Parliament in the first directly elected contest, being pipped at the selection conference by Derek Enright by 49 votes to 48. This was a pity since he would have made an excellent MEP – in the 1970s Gunnell led delegations from Yorkshire to the parliament to plead the cause of the regions. Following the local elections of May 1979 he became leader of the opposition in West Yorkshire County Council and leader of the council when Labour came to power, locally, in May 1981.

In the mid-1980s he fought like a tiger for the retention of the metropolitan counties and, indeed, for the Greater London Council. In his maiden speech in the Commons, in 1992, he said:

I have been involved with the Assembly of European Regions; indeed as leader of West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, I was the only English person present when it was formed. Since then, I have acted as an adviser to the Strasbourg assembly and have been the only English person present at Euro meetings. I have seen the organisation involve regions not only from within the community but from Eastern Europe: they are part of it. I have seen it develop on the strength of the German Länder and the Italian and Spanish regions and I have seen it press for a senate of the regions. The Maastricht proposal for a committee of the regions is not a dissimilar idea. With 184 members, it is unlikely to be such an effective committee but it would nevertheless constitute the first official recognition of the significance of the regions.

It was for this sort of reason that he was so upset and angry that just as West Yorkshire was getting into its stride Margaret Thatcher, for reasons of dogma, should wish to destroy that which he was building up.

At the age of 58, perhaps too old, as he would often say to me, he became the Member of Parliament for Leeds South and Morley, the constituency which, since 1945, had been occupied with such distinction by Hugh Gaitskell and then Merlyn Rees, the Northern Ireland and Home Secretary. Gunnell's own gentle humour was encapsulated by his tribute to his predecessor, whom he had worked alongside as a Leeds councillor in the 1970s:

Merlyn was undaunted by any problem. I well remember the end of one surgery when a man came in somewhat breathless to complain that a herd of cattle had escaped from grazing land on a former open-cast site into council house gardens. What to do? Find the owner? Telephone the housing department? Explain that the matter did not fall within a Member of Parliament's remit? Merlin did none of those.

Instead, he took us up there in his car and in 10 minutes the cattle were back in place. But of course, he had a great advantage because, as he was Home Secretary, he was always followed by some plain clothes men and some members of the West Yorkshire Constabulary, so he had plenty of people on hand to make sure that the job was done efficiently.

When Gunnell reached the House of Commons, he established himself as a hugely liked and stupendously hard-working member of both standing committees and select committees. He contributed vast experience and genuine wisdom to the Community Care Bill. He highlighted the whole problem of inadequately staffed long-term residential homes, and was one of those who pressed for, successfully, the establishment of a Royal Commission on long-term care, the fruits of which we know as the Sutherland Report (1999). Gunnell was a glutton for work and beavered away without any thought of self-interest – he was the most selfless of men – on the Channel Tunnel Bill. He was about service and not self-advancement. It was highly appropriate that he should be a member of the Public Service Select Committee, looking in detail at the challenges facing public servants. His interest in education was undimmed, and it was fitting that such a contributor to chemistry education in schools, universities and at teacher training level should champion the cause of laboratory assistants in schools.

In truth, the Chamber of the House of Commons was not his scene. He would produce a long preamble to an intelligent and pertinent question and was the antithesis of the point-scoring MP who seems to be successful in that particular goldfish bowl. He remained the deeply responsible and committed local authority heavyweight that he had always been, wanting to do things for real people. Albeit that he came to Parliament so late in life, I passionately believe that Westminster would be much the better if more of John Gunnell's ilk were prepared to give a decade of their life to Parliament.

Tam Dalyell

William John Gunnell, teacher and politician: born Birmingham 1 October 1933; science teacher, Leeds Modern School 1959-62; Head of Science, United Nations International School, New York 1962-70; Lecturer, Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education, Leeds University 1970-88; Leader, West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council 1981-86; Chairman, Yorkshire and Humberside Development Association 1981-93; chairman, Yorkshire Enterprise Ltd 1982-90, 1994-96; Chairman, North of England Regional Consortium 1984-92; chairman, Crown Point Foods 1988-90; MP (Labour) for Leeds South and Morley 1992-97, for Morley and Rothwell 1997-2001; married 1955 Jean Lacey (died 2007; three sons, one daughter); died Wakefield, West Yorkshire 28 January 2008.

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