LOOKING BACK it is difficult to believe that so diminutive a figure could have held such sway in County Hall for so long. Freda Corbet was a municipal career politician, whose horizons barely extended beyond London and her beloved London County Council.
She was born Freda Mansell, in Tooting, and educated at Wimbledon County School and University College London, where she read history. She began a career in teaching in Cornwall before her marriage to William Corbet in 1925 took her from a potentially promising career to an unpromising one as an assistant to her husband in a newspaper shop. Only later did she embark on another career, being called to the Bar by the Inner Temple in 1932.
She joined the Labour Party in 1920, and was elected to the London County Council in the 1934 landslide Labour victory. In 1935 she became a whip on the Labour group, serving faithfully a succession of leaders, Herbert Morrison (1934- 40), Lord (Charles) Latham (1940- 47) and Sir Isaac Hayward (1947-65) and was chief whip from 1947 until her deposition in 1960. Although elected as an MP for North-west Camberwell (later to become redrawn as the constituency of the Peckham division of Camberwell) in 1945 and continuing as an MP until 1974 she regarded her parliamentary work as essentially an adjunct to her work at County Hall.
It is as chief whip during the 12 years of office that Corbet will be principally remembered. Her regime was authoritarian and her politics reflected the Cold War positions that dominated the attitudes of the Labour Party at the time. The regime in the Labour group had its equivalents in many capital cities in the Eastern bloc during that period. Even Hugh Gaitskell was eventually moved to complain about the authoritarian regimes then operating in London and Birmingham.
The Labour landslide in 1958, with a 4-1 victory, set in motion the process that was eventually to bring about her downfall. A group of younger new councillors were elected from Putney, Dulwich and Norwood who challenged the autocratic practices of the leader and his chief whip and together with figures such as Hugh Jenkins, Nancy Silverman, Donald Chesworth, Barry Payton and Lord Soper, then an alderman, they voiced demands for a more open and democratic group in such journals as Tribune and New Statesman. Even a number of leading colleagues of Sir Isaac Hayward's circle began to express dissatisfaction. After abortive challenges led by Ted Samuels, Bill Fiske, who had been chairman of the housing committee, eventually displaced her in 1960.
Corbet was rewarded for her loyal services by being made chairman of the General Services Committee by Hayward, but, with the abolition of the LCC looming and the creation of the Greater London Council in 1964, her influence began to wane. She had little or no sympathy for the newly elected Labour group that swept into power in 1964 and during the awkward transition year 1964/65 she, together with Sir Isaac Hayward, made life difficult for the incumbent GLC reformist machine of Bill Fiske.
Her remaining years in Parliament were of no great significance. She retained to the end a fierce, almost irrational hostility to the Left. For those who during her life at County Hall and Parliament had opposed German rearmament, the views of Nye Bevan who supported nuclear disarmament were beyond the pale. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to deselect her in her safe seat, she finally stepped down in 1974, when she was awarded the Freedom of the London Borough of Southwark.
She was a sad figure who faithfully reflected the Cold War attitudes of municipal paternalism that dominated the philosophy and practice of the Labour Party after the Second World War.
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