Baroness Fisher of Rednal

Gutsy Birmingham MP

Saturday 24 December 2005 01:00

Doris Mary Gertrude Satchwell, politician: born Birmingham 13 September 1919; member, Birmingham City Council 1952-74; MP (Labour) for Birmingham, Ladywood 1970-74; created 1974 Baroness Fisher of Rednal; member, Warrington and Runcorn Development Corporation 1974-89; Member of the European Parliament 1975-79; married 1939 Joe Fisher (died 1978; two daughters); died Birmingham 18 December 2005.

In 1969, Victor Yates, the long-serving MP for Birmingham, Ladywood, died unexpectedly. The Labour government of Harold Wilson was at its nadir, in the middle of dreadful arguments about Barbara Castle's White Paper In Place of Strife.

Of the 60 by-elections I have participated in, none has been more gruesome than the one that took place that year at Ladywood, where the issue was slum clearance and all its attendant problems. Both locally and nationally, the people wanted to punish Labour. The result was that the Labour candidate, Doris Fisher, got 2,391 votes to the Conservatives' 1,580 and the National Front's 220, with Colin Jordan injecting unpleasantness into the campaign, to the victor Wallace Lawler's 5,104 for the Liberals. Lawler has rightly been called "the inventor of pavement politics".

It was hugely to Fisher's credit that her gutsiness and resilience directed her to contest the seat again in 1970. In a hard-fought campaign, when Labour seats were tumbling all around her, she regained Ladywood, beating Lawler by 5,067 votes to 4,087, with 2,523 to the Tory candidate.

In the House of Commons, she concentrated on Birmingham and housing issues and chose, on boundary redistribution, not to contest the February 1974 general election, when her inner-city seat was merged with those of Brian Walden and Jeff Rooker. In days when Birmingham was represented by such national figures as Roy Jenkins, Roy Hattersley and Brian Walden, it was thought that the quintessentially Birmingham Doris Fisher played an important role in the representation of the city and in 1974 she was created Baroness Fisher of Rednal.

The following year she became a member of the European Parliament. As a member of the Labour Party European delegation 1976 to 1979, led first by the former foreign secretary Michael Stewart and then by John Prescott, I can say how valuable Doris Fisher's contribution turned out to be. She flowered in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg as she had never been able to do at Westminster. This was partly on account of her natural warmth and gregariousness which appealed to European colleagues and particularly to women like Kirsten Dahlerup, the Danish sceptic who would take out her knitting during sessions of the budget committee whenever she thought that her male colleagues were going on at excessive length.

Over a period of 15 years from 1974, Fisher also played a very important part in the Warrington and Runcorn Development Corporation. The former MP for Warrington Douglas Hoyle (now Lord Hoyle) expressed gratitude for Fisher's input, particularly in relation to the social services which are required by the incoming population, often shifting, of a new town.

She was born Doris Satchwell in 1919 in Birmingham, the daughter of a soldier, Frederick Satchwell, who had won the British Empire Medal in France in the First World War. After education at Tinker's Farm Girls' School and Fircroft College, she improved her secretarial skills at the Bournville Day Continuation College, working at various points for Cadbury's and in wartime factories. In 1939 she married Joe Fisher, a sheet-metal-worker at the Austin plant at Longridge (later the British Motor Corps, then British Leyland).

In 1952 Doris Fisher was elected to Birmingham City Council and made her name by leading a successful campaign to remove the penny entrance charge to women's lavatories in the city. She contended that women had every right to have free toilets, no less than men, since their needs were the same and the sexes should be treated equally.

Many years later, returning to London from Strasbourg on a small French aircraft with no separate lavatory facilities, she confronted a Frenchman who unblushingly had gone to the back row of the aircraft, where one of the seats had been converted for the purpose, and did his business somewhat noisily. If the rest of us were embarrassed and suppressing giggles, it was typical of Doris Fisher to confront him and tell him that he was unsociable and that she knew more about lavatory customs than anybody else in politics. It was true.

Her husband, Joe, kept her well informed about the industrial problems of the motor industry as they pertained to the Birmingham City Council. Although her speciality was housing - she was the chairman, on and off, of the Birmingham Housing Committee - she played a part in the economic affairs of the council. Somewhat flamboyant, when her husband was sick she made a point of selling newspapers outside the factory gates. When she was over 70, she slept rough one night outside St Philip's Cathedral in Birmingham to draw attention to the plight of the homeless.

Lord Rooker, Labour's deputy leader in the House of Lords, who was for many years a Birmingham councillor himself and MP for Perry Barr, says that "Doris was a big Birmingham city politician, the like of which we do not see today." He says:

Her gossip was wonderful, especially on the train back to Birmingham where, for 90 minutes, the rest of us, enthralled, could not get a word in edgeways to the ebullient "Did you know?", "Have you heard?" Since she had a voice like a foghorn, the whole carriage tended to be rapt in attention and amusement to what she was saying.

Lord Morris of Manchester remembers her in the House of Lords as being utterly and unquestionably sincere, without pretence in championing the concerns of the working women of the West Midlands whom she was so proud to represent.

Tam Dalyell

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments