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Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: Labour lawyer who fought for the rights of workers


Bill Wedderburn, a large, ebullient figure, was an academic lawyer whose work had an immense practical impact on working life in Britain over the past 40 years. Having played a key role in helping unions thwart the Heath government's attempt to introduce a newlegislative framework for employment relations in the 1971 IndustrialRelations Act, he was then largely responsible for writing and defining the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act of 1974 introduced by the incoming Labour government.

Despite a succession of measures brought in by the Thatcher and Major governments in the 1980s and 1990s, all of which he opposed from the Labour benches in the Lords, and the new measures introduced by Labour after 1997, many of the changes he helped to bring in remain in force today, in the system of employment tribunals and the concept of protection from unfair dismissal.

Paying tribute, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "Bill Wedderburn was a lifelong, passionate supporter of the Labour Party, whose contribution in shaping British labour laws made an enormous difference to the lives of millions of working people. Bill was a brilliant scholar who chose to use his immense knowledge and intellectual prowess to champion the rights of ordinary citizens and improve their working conditions."

He played a significant role in helping the TUC define its role regarding employment rights and legislation, becoming chair of the TUC's independent review committee and serving on the Bullock Committee on industrial democracy. Lord John Monks, the former TUC General Secretary, worked closely with him: "He was the most brilliant labour lawyer of his generation with a passionate, perfectionist commitment to trade unionism and the advance of working people."

Born in Charlton, London in 1927 to Herbert and Mabel Wedderburn, who ran a scale-makers in New Cross Road, he was educated at Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham Grammar School, spending a year at Whitgift before winning a scholarship to Queen's College, Cambridge to study classics, changing in his last year to law. In 1949 he won the Chancellor's Medal when he graduated LLB.

After two years' National Service in the RAF, he returned to Clare College, Cambridge in 1952 as Fellow, where he remained until 1964, teaching, among others, Lord Irvine. Although called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1953, he preferred teaching, and lectured in the Faculty for Law for 11 years, introducing the first course on labour law. "In Deptford," he said, "this was what concerned people, yet it was not taught."

In 1964 he joined the LSE, the Cassel Chair of Commercial Law establishing his reputation for his knowledge of comparative law. The first edition of his 1965 book The Worker and The Law was a bestseller, remaining in print for 25 years and frequently updated to keep up with the changes in legislation which came with changes in government. Other publications on comparative studies, such as Labour Law and The Community and Employment Rights in Britain and Europe, were to follow.

His evidence to the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employment Associations, which resulted in the Donovan Report of 1968, added to his reputation, as did his support for the students protesting against the academic and political establishment. He would later become Emeritus Professor at the LSE, and be appointed a QC. In 1981 he was made a Fellow of the British Academy.

Made a life peer in 1977, taking the title of Charlton in honour of his favourite football club, he sat on the Labour front benches in the Lords, fighting the eight Thatcher anti-trade union bills which dismantled much of the legislation he had helped introduce. In 1984, he helped to found the Institute for Employment Rights – a labour think- tank supported by the unions which sought to influence legislation likely to be introduced by future Labour governments. The IER chairman, John Hendy QC, recalled the impact he made: "He was the greatest labour lawyer ever. His knowledge, wisdom and humanity made him internationally known. There was no one else of his stature throughout the world. His knowledge of comparative labour law in other countries was unsurpassed."

Wedderburn was under no illusion that a New Labour government would make adequate changes to trade union law reform. But it wasn't until 2006 that he resigned the whip over the Iraq war and "cash for honours", while remaining in the Party. He took the whip back once Gordon Brown became PM.

He was a supporter for many years of the British Humanist Association, and was a member of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. Taking part in a debate on "the position of those who profess no religion", Wedderburn defended the human rights of non-believers, whom, he said, suffer "anumber of disadvantages in a religious environment". He remained deeply concerned about religious discrimination in schools and in the field of employment, where he was a strong opponent of exceptions from the Equality Act which allow discrimination by religious groups.

The British Humanist Association executive Andrew Copson remembered: "Bill was an indispensable adviser to us on a range of issues and his support for humanist causes was comprehensive and unfailing. He would always turn out to a humanist event, even when very ill, and his indomitable character was a source of inspiration to us all."

He was proud of his links to his ancestor Robert, born to a slave in Jamaica – a fact only discovered in 1980 – who fought actively against slavery and who had linked the treatment of slaves to the treatment of Britain's industrial working class. He was equally proud that British workers had helped to support his ancestor in his fight against slavery: "British workers didn't stand to gain from the end of the slave trade but, because ordinary people demanded it, it did end."

He spoke against all forms of injustice. "Wedderburn," said Hendry,"dedicated his life to the ordinarypeople, 'the underdogs'. Bill put his skills, energy, commitment and teaching at the service of the workers, I think that's how he would like to have been remembered."

Peta Steel

Kenneth William Wedderburn, lawyer, academic and politician: born London 13 April 1927; Cassel Professor ofCommercial Law, LSE 1964–92, then Emeritus; cr. 1977 Lord Wedderburnof Charlton; QC 1990; married 1951 Nina Salaman (marriage dissolved; oneson, two daughters), 1962 DorothyCole (marriage dissolved), 1969 Frances Ann Knight (one son); died London 9 March 2012.