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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Manufacturing Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a rare opportunity for ...

Recruitment Genius: Conveyancing Fee Earner / Technical Support

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced Fee Earner/Techn...

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This law firm is seeking a happy, helpful and ...

The Jenrick Group: Production Supervisor

£26000 - £29000 per annum + Holidays & Pension: The Jenrick Group: Production ...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'