Peter Law

Labour rebel who saw off the 'official' candidate in the 2005 general election at Blaenau Gwent

Peter John Law, politician: born Abergavenny, Monmouthshire 1 April 1948; chairman, Gwent Healthcare NHS Trust 1999; AM (Labour) for Blaenau Gwent 1999-2005, (Independent) 2005-06; Environment and Local Government Secretary, National Assembly for Wales 1999-2000; MP (Independent) for Blaenau Gwent 2005-06; married 1976 Patricia Bolter (two sons, three daughters); died Nantyglo, Blaenau Gwent 25 April 2006.

The applecart of Welsh Labour politics was well and truly upset when, on 5 May 2005, a former party stalwart in Blaenau Gwent - an upland, post-industrial, heavily populated, working-class constituency, with Ebbw Vale at its heart - was elected as its Independent MP. The shock was all the greater in that the parliamentary seat, a Labour bastion since the days of Aneurin Bevan, and more recently Michael Foot, was considered the safest in Wales and the fifth safest in Britain.

The local Member of the Welsh Assembly, Peter Law, had defied his party by standing against the official Labour candidate and had demonstrated, like S.O. Davies in Merthyr Tydfil some 35 years before, that grass-roots loyalty can sometimes prevail over the party machine. Once again, Labour's control freaks had egg on their face.

Peter Law had been a member of the Labour Party since 1963. Born in Abergavenny in 1948 and educated at Llanfoist Primary School, King Henry School, Nantyglo Community College and the Open University, he first earned a living as a grocer and public relations consultant but was soon devoting more and more of his time to politics. He served as chair of Gwent Healthcare NHS Trust and as a member of the Blaenau Gwent Borough Council, where he earned a reputation as an intelligent, articulate and hard-working Labour activist; in 1988-89 he was the borough's Mayor. A gentle and cultured man, he learned Welsh and was a member of the consultative committee which preceded the establishment of the Welsh Language Board in 1988.

Standing down from local government in 1999 in order to seek election to the National Assembly, he became AM for Blaenau Gwent and was duly appointed to the first Labour cabinet in Cardiff Bay with a brief for Local Government, Environment and Planning, only to be dropped when the coalition with the Liberal Democrats was formed in October of the year following, in a move calculated to ensure the Labour Party would hang on to power. He subsequently proved a persistent critic of the coalition administration, voting on a number of occasions against the Welsh Assembly Government's proposals.

He was punished when, after the second Assembly election of 2003, he ran for the post of Deputy Presiding Officer and was defeated by a single vote - his fellow Labour AMs voting against him en bloc in favour of John Marek, another ex-Labour man, thus ensuring that with Marek's election a non-Labour member would, for procedural reasons, be removed from the voting process. By now Law had the reputation of being a loose cannon and his erstwhile comrades closed ranks against him with that special animus which is often reserved for family feuds.

When Llew Smith, MP for Blaenau Gwent, announced his intention of retiring from Parliament before the general election of 2005, a major row broke out as the National Executive of the Welsh Labour Party insisted that selection of new candidates be restricted to all-woman shortlists. Law and Smith argued passionately for the right of the local party to select a candidate in Blaenau Gwent from an open list but in this they were overruled by the party's central office.

Immediately after Peter Law's election as an Independent MP he was expelled from the Labour Party, together with all those who had publicly taken his side and worked for him. After an intense campaign which had brought many of Labour's big guns to Blaenau Gwent - a sight about as common as a butterfly on an iceberg - and a high turn-out of 66 per cent, reflecting keen public interest in the contest, he had polled 20,505 votes (58 per cent of the votes cast), against 11,384 (32 per cent) for the Labour candidate. In his victory speech on polling night, he told the stony-faced Labour supporters, "This is what you get when you don't listen to people."

But the party, always unforgiving of its rebels, was vitriolic in its denunciation of him and the bad feeling in the constituency has persisted to this day. The flames were fanned again by the announcement this month that the defeated Labour candidate, Maggie Jones, had been made a life peer - the jiggery-pokery of which Law and Smith had complained seemed to be confirmed. The Labour Party has now changed its all-women rule in elections for the parliamentary seat but not for the Assembly.

The expulsion of Peter Law, who held a dual mandate as both MP and AM, had disastrous consequences for the Labour Party in Wales in that, after May 2005, it was deprived of its majority in the National Assembly and would henceforward suffer a series of defeats at the hands of the combined opposition parties who, when they could muster a degree of agreement, voted down a number of Labour initiatives, notably an attempt by the Arts Minister to strip the Arts Council of most of its powers and to fund five of its major clients directly, thus removing the arm's-length principle.

Peter Law, the first Independent Welsh MP for many years, was chosen as Welsh Politician of the Year 2005 by the Wales Yearbook, a manual much thumbed by the political class that aspires to climb the greasy pole. Not least among the facts taken into consideration was that he had fought the Blaenau Gwent seat while recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumour, which he announced just before his electoral triumph.

The accolade also recognised that he had been spurred not by personal ambition but by what he perceived as gross interference in local Labour affairs by an overweening party headquarters. He nevertheless kept his sunny temperament throughout the bitter controversy and the opprobrium it brought him. To watch him work the busy streets of the old steel towns of Ebbw Vale, Tredegar and Abertyleri of a Saturday morning - he seemed to know everyone and everyone recognised him - was to see a genuinely popular politician among his own people.

Meic Stephens

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