Obituary: Sydney Bidwell

The death of Sydney Bidwell brings to an end a life that was typical of the left-wing activist and organiser of his own and other times. In the days of the revolting sound-bite and whizz-kiddery which so disfigure politics now his way of thinking and working are held in no regard whatsoever by those who wouldn't know a pamphleteer and street-corner orator if they found them in their soup.

Like all of us who left school at the age of 14 Bidwell was totally committed to widening the definition of "education" and desperately wanted something better for his own, and the world's, children than what he got for himself. The fact that he was born to a family where his father was a carpenter on the old Great Western Railway was a source of pride to him. "A time- served craftsman/tradesman" was the aim of every worker and also of working- class families. The claim of God's Wonderful Railway was always a matter of intense curiosity to the rest of us . . . not to a railwayman or his family though.

Syd started work as a van boy on the GWR and rose through the ranks there (as shunter, marshaller and goods guard) and through his union (the NUR). However, despite his closeness to the General Secretary, Sid Greene, he never won election to any executive thanks to the combined efforts of the right wing and the Communist Party, who resented his membership of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Trotskyite wing.

After 20 years, he left the railways to become a Tutor/Organiser for the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC) and like many people from similar backgrounds knew the width of interest of working people and helped organise appropriate courses and lectures in London and the Home Counties. In 1964 the NCLC was taken over by the TUC, and Bidwell became the London Regional Education Officer for the TUC.

He fought parliamentary elections in 1959 in East Herts and 1964 in South Herts, and in 1966 succeeded George Pargiter as Labour MP for his native Southall, in Middlesex. Again his affection and pride in his own family was palpable as his father had been a founder - if not the founder - of Southall Labour Club.

It did not need the fact that Southall had a large Asian community to see Bidwell enter the battle against racism strongly. He, to his eternal credit, was at the forefront of the response to the dockers and meat porters who marched to the Commons in support of Enoch Powell in 1968, after his inflammatory speech on the dangers of immigration, and he played an honourable role in this whole field. Having been present at the riot in Red Lion Square in which the student Kevin Gately was killed in the 1960s, Bidwell came forward to give evidence to the Scarman Tribunal. In 1976 he saw through Parliament a 10-minute bill exempting Sikhs from wearing crash helmets on motorbikes - this was contrary to their faith, which required them to wear a turban. Other countries followed suit.

Bidwell was the only member of the Select Committee on Race Relations to serve for the whole of its existence. He visited India, the West Indies and the United States to gain a broader racial perspective, and wrote a book, Red, White and Black (1976), on the subject.

He chaired the London Committee of the Movement for Colonial Freedom and served as Chairman of the Tribune Group in the Commons but, again, parted company with others on the Left over the Common Market. He claimed that the Left's opposition offended his internationalism: we argued back that it would be the ruination of any hopes of the internationalism we all shared and tried to live our lives by.

He was deeply knowledgeable about Labour history in the widest possible sense of that term long before the Oral History Movement came into being. Again to his credit, he never attempted to rewrite the events and characters of Labour history as have some published diarists who for unfathomable reasons are always chosen to speak on it, and whose versions are accepted without question.

In 1992 there was a long-running and turbulent reselection battle which Bidwell finally lost. The NEC turned a blind eye to the irregularities he and others perceived to have been allowed to get him out. Bidwell stood as "The True Labour Candidate" in protest, and there was widespread concern in the Labour Party that he should have done so. This led to his exclusion from the party.

The truth behind what happened and also the bypassing of the rules to readmit him to the party not long afterwards are for another place and another time, but since they have many parallels today the truth will emerge.

Whenever my husband, Norman Buchan (the Labour MP for Paisley South from 1983 until his death in 1990), and I urged everyone to listen to the songs and jokes generated by strikes, demonstrations and so on, but particularly at elections, Bidwell clearly thought we were at best frivolous and at worst absolutely nuts. When the Red Review group came together and enlivened the end of party conferences and the audience clearly delighted in their savaging of the Pretentious Tendency (worse than Militant any day) and sang and sang with them, we still couldn't enlist him.

Never mind - even with the ruthlessly drilled and excluding team in charge at the moment there were two songs around of which audiences at either end of the country roared their approval; and the words of which I spent time faxing all over the place to lift the spirits of those whose long efforts to secure a Labour government are of long standing and were often at considerable personal loss. We shall keep the memory of people like Syd Bidwell in a true way if we refuse to be swept below the carpet or anywhere else.

He loved politics and argument. He loved painting, the game of football and his wife, Daphne, and his family were the centre of his being. He practised what he preached; a bit more of that nowadays would not go amiss.

Sydney James Bidwell, trades unionist and politician: born Southall, Middlesex 14 January 1917; member, Southall Borough Council 1951-55; MP (Labour) for Southall 1966-74, for Ealing, Southall 1974-92; married 1941 Daphne Peart (one son, one daughter); died Hillingdon, Middlesex 25 May 1997.

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