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Gwyneth Patricia Dunwoody (née Phillips; 12 December 1930 – 17 April 2008) was the longest ever serving female Member of the Parliament of the United Kingdommarker, by both length of total and length of continuous service. A right-winger by the traditional standards of the Labour movement, she served as MP for Exetermarker from 1966 to 1970 and then MP for Crewe and then Crewe and Nantwichmarker from 1974 to her death in 2008. She had a reputation as a fiercely independent parliamentarian, described as "intelligent, obstinate, opinionated and hard-working".

Early and private life

Dunwoody was born in Fulhammarker, London, where her father was Labour parliamentary agent. She belonged to an experienced political dynasty: her father, Morgan Phillips, was a former coalminer who served as General Secretary of the Labour Party between 1944 and 1962; her mother, Norah Phillips was a former member of London County Council who became a life peer in 1964, serving as a government whip in the House of Lordsmarker, and as Lord Lieutenant of Greater London from 1978 to 1986. Both of her grandmothers were suffragettes, and all four grandparents were Labour party loyalists.

She attended the Fulham County Secondary School for Girls, now known as the Fulham Cross School and the Notre Dame Convent. She left school aged 16, and became a journalist with a local newspaper in Fulham, covering births, marriages and deaths. She joined the Labour Party in 1947, and spoke the 1948 Labour party conference in Scarboroughmarker. She worked as an actress in repertory and as a journalist in the Netherlands, learning fluent Dutch, before suffering a bout of tuberculosis.

Married life

She married John Dunwoody in 1954, the same year he qualified as a doctor. Her husband became a general practitioner based in Totnesmarker in Devonmarker. They had two sons and a daughter. Their daughter, Tamsin Dunwoody, was a member of the National Assembly for Wales for one term between 2003 and 2007 and from 2005 was Deputy Minister for Enterprise, Innovation and Networks in the Welsh Assembly Government.

Her husband stood as Labour candidate in the safe Conservative seat of Tiverton in 1959, and came close to winning Plymouth Suttonmarker in 1964, losing by just 410 votes (David Owen would later hold for several years for Labour).

Meanwhile, Dunwoody was a councillor on Totnesmarker Borough Council (now South Hamsmarker) from 1963-6. Her husband was finally elected as Labour MP for Falmouth and Cambornemarker in 1966 (she was elected at the same time in Exeter). He served as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Health and Social Security from 1969 until 1970. A well-regarded orator at the Labour Party Conference, John Dunwoody was spoken of as a future leader of the Party but lost his seat in the 1970 general election and did not return to Parliament. They were divorced in 1975.

Parliamentary career

Dunwoody stood as the Labour Party candidate for the Exetermarker seat in the 1964 general election. She was elected as Member of Parliament for Exeter in 1966, emulating her husband in nearby Falmouth and Camborne. Like her husband, she also served as a junior minister, as a Parliamentary Secretary at the Board of Trade, and also lost her seat at the 1970 general election.

From 1970 to 1975, she was Director of the Film Producers Association of Great Britain and Consultant to the Association of Independent Cinemas.

She returned to the House of Commons after the February 1974 general election, becoming MP for the safe Labour seat of Crewe, having received the sponsorship of the National Union of Railwaymen (later part of RMT). Dunwoody was also a Member of the European Parliament between 1975 and 1979 (alongside John Prescott) at a time when MEPs were nominated by national parliaments — MEPs have been directly elected since 1979.

In 1983, Dunwoody stood for election as deputy leader of the Labour Party, alongside Peter Shore, on a Eurosceptic platform (a position she consistently maintained throughout her career - she voted against the Maastricht Treaty seven times). The position was won by Roy Hattersley, and Dunwoody came last out of the four candidates with 1.3% of the Electoral College.

She did not return to ministerial office, but served as a front bench spokesman on, by turns, transport, health, and foreign affairs during the 18 years of Labour opposition from 1979 to 1997. She also served on the Labour National Executive Committee for seven years, from 1981 to 1988, collaborating closely with Betty Boothroyd. She opposed all-women shortlists, and resisted Militant.

In 1983, boundary changes abolished the constituency of Crewe and created the constituency of Crewe and Nantwichmarker, with many Conservative voters from Nantwich included in the new seat. She narrowly won the election in 1983, by, 290 votes. She remained MP at Crewe and Nantwich until her death in 2008, having benefited from a further redrawing of the boundaries in 1997 which increased her majority substantially.

In 1998, she gained headlines around the world when she clashed with New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani urging the return of the original Winnie the Pooh dolls from Donnell Library Centermarker to the British Museummarker after she said she "detected sadness" in their display behind bulletproof glass in the United States library.

In October 2000, she was one of several candidates for the speakership of the House of Commonsmarker. The election was won by Michael Martin MP.

As a member for a constituency with a strong connection with the railway industry, she had considerable expertise on transport matters, and was Chair of the House of Commons' Transport Committee from 1997 to 2008. In this role she was a credible, independent-minded critic of the government, and she and her committee discomfited witnesses from the rail and air transport industries. Her involvement in railways extented beyond parliamentary responsibilities, and in December 2007 she presented the coveted National Railway Heritage Award plaque to a Swanage Railwaymarker team of volunteers for the installation of a historic footbridge at Corfe Castle railway stationmarker.

An attempt by the Government Whips to remove her and Donald Anderson, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, from their positions after the 2001 general election led to a revolt by back-bench members of Parliament, which resulted in them both being reinstated.

She was President of Labour Friends of Israel from 1988 to 1993, and was a parliamentary consultant to the British Fur Federation. She was one of 13 Labour MPs to vote against a reduction of the age of consent for homosexual acts to 16.

She had a house in her constituency, and a flat in the Barbicanmarker. She suffered from financial problems in the late 1980s, with a house in her constituency being repossessed due to mortgage arrears, was threatened with eviction from her London flat, and had furniture seized by bailiffs to meet rent arrears. She was sued by Barclays Bank due to an unpaid loan.

A formidable backbencher, Dunwoody was voted "Battle-axe of the Year" by Oldie magazine.

The Daily Telegraph described her as "Clever, acerbic, fiercely independent and often just plain funny", noting her willingness to cast party allegiance aside

Death

Dunwoody died peacefully during the evening of 17 April 2008 in John Radcliffe Hospitalmarker, Oxfordmarker, following emergency heart surgery.Her funeral was held at St. Margaret's, Westminstermarker on 8 May 2008. She is buried at North Sheen Cemetery.

Her former husband died in 2006. She was survived by her daughter and two sons.

Her daughter Tamsin Dunwoody was selected as the Labour Party candidate in the by-election for Crewe & Nantwich. The by-election was announced by chief party whip Geoff Hoon on Wednesday 30 April 2008 and was held on Thursday 22 May 2008. Dunwoody failed to win the by-election and the Conservative candidate, Edward Timpson, became her mother's successor.

Records

In late September 2007, Dunwoody beat Irene Ward's record of the longest total service for a woman MP, at 37 years, 9 months. In early December 2007, she beat Barbara Castle's record of the longest unbroken service for a woman MP, at 33 years, 9 months.

Irene Ward continues to hold the records for the oldest woman to be re-elected to the House of Commons (75 years, 3 months), the longest span of service for a woman MP (42 years, 4 months), and the oldest ever woman MP (at 79 years, 0 months).

References

  1. The Times, 18 April 2008
  2. The Daily Telegraph, 18 April 2008
  3. The Independent, 18 April 2008
  4. The Guardian, 18 April 2008
  5. Swanage Railway Plaque installed at Corfe Castle station footbridge
  6. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/1895942/Gwyneth-Dunwoody-was-%27one-of-a-kind%27.html
  7. BBC Tributes paid to Gwyneth Dunwoody
  8. Daily Telegraph Gordon Brown Fails to Attend Gwyneth Dunwoody's Funeral 9 May 2008
  9. BBC Tories hail remarkable victory


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