18 April 2008

Gwyneth Dunwoody dies

She was one of the most high-profile campaigners for improving public transport in the UK and it was this morning with great sadness that we learned of Gwyneth Dunwoody's death, aged 77.

Gwyneth Dunwoody was the longest-serving female MP in the Labour Party and was synonomous with Old Labour. She was chairperson of the Transport Select Committee (TSC) for over a decade and in this role scrutinised the government's transport policy. She was nicknamed "Vinegar Lil" for the fright she gave many of those who had to justify themselves in front of her committee, being able to see through much of the 'Sir Humphrey' procrastination that was on display from time-to-time.

During her tenure as chairperson of the TSC Gwyneth Dunwoody examined major developments in the UK's transport system and produced reports that were often very critical of government policy – including the public private partnership of the London Underground; drawn-out decision making for light rail networks and flaws in the London 2012 Olympics transport planning. The most recent announcement by the TSC was an investigation into the disaster that was the Terminal 5 opening at Heathrow Airport.

In 2001, as a result of her vocal criticism of her own party's transport policy, Labour whips tried in vain to appoint someone less, er, outspoken as a replacement chairperson of the TSC, which saw a Commons revolt - such was the respect for Gwyneth Dunwoody - that the government were made to make a retreat on the issue and to allow her to remain in situ.

Somehow we felt that absolutely no stone would be left unturned with Gwyneth at the helm of the TSC and that, if nothing else, the real effects of transport policy on the man-in-the-street would be made public even if the TSC had no powers to revert policy in its area.

Gwyneth Dunwoody was born in Fulham in 1930 and joined the Labour Party in 1946, serving as a town councilor in Totnes, Devon before entering Parliament as MP for Exeter in 1966. From 1967 she was a minister on the former Board of Trade, before losing her seat in 1970.

She returned to Parliament as MP for Crewe in 1974, (later Crewe and Nantwich in 1983). From 1974-1979 she was a member of the European Parliament when MEPs were nominated by national parliaments. In December 2007 she surpassed Barbara Castle's record for the longest unbroken service for a woman MP.

She died peacefully in her sleep last night and had undergone emergency heart surgery last week. She was described by Tony Ben today as “an independent-minded woman who always spoke her mind and will be badly missed”. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said she “was always her own person..... a great expert on transport”. He described her as representing politics at its best.