A feminist but not a sister

Anne Perkins pays tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody against whom the charms of Tony Blair crashed and brok

Gwyneth Dunwoody won't, yet, be mourned by many of her female colleagues at Westminster. She was notoriously unkind about the new intake of 1997 and she was elaborately rude about the idea of being a sister. But years ago, I, a callow graduate, worked for her for a few months, just before her switchback political career peaked and set off on the long downhill run that was triumphantly reversed with the arrival of new Labour. And to me and to all the women who alone in those days did the endless, menial back-room tasks in Westminster's danker corridors, she was a star: generous in her support for ambition and utterly unflinching in her loyalty. And she was always great craic.

Part of the hereditary working class, Gwyneth's beloved father, Morgan Phillips, had been a contemporary of Nye Bevan's. Phillips became a long-serving Labour Party general secretary, and even as the postwar prosperity cracked the old solidarity, he and his daughter embodied the powerful tradition of the pre-war years that made Labour into an extension of the family, a place of safety. Gwyneth's genetic family, parents and children, demanded and got her utter loyalty (to the extent that she tried to defend her father's reputation with an ill-judged attempt to make it possible to libel the dead), and there was never a question in her mind that her version of the Labour Party, which she knew to be the correct one, also demanded unfading support, at whatever personal cost.

With both her grandmothers suffragettes, and with Norah Phillips, for whom the word indo mitable might have been coined, as her mother, Gwyneth was never going to be anti-women. In an early recorded utterance during her first term as an MP in the 1960s, she made it plain she intended to tackle the inequalities married women still endured.

But I suspect she did not like the demands that she felt feminists made on the party. Sectarianism of any kind was abhorrent: she hated the SDP break away (even though David Owen had been a personal friend) and, equally, she hated Militant. The party was not intended to meet the needs of one group or another but to promote the interests of the greater working class from which she descended. It was harsh for those who wanted to use sisterly solidarity at Westminster to force through lasting change, but, as Trollope might have said, she knew she was right.

Many successful female politicians of earlier generations sheltered a susceptibility to criticism behind passionate convictions - Margaret That cher, obviously, and Barbara Castle, too. Gwy neth was never an ideologue, unless the version of Labour that she learned from her father was an ideology. Instead she was robustly tough-minded - an attribute that is at last, and slowly, becoming general among women - in pursuit of objectives that became more and more fashionable as Labour got newer and newer.

Like Thatcher and Castle, she never demanded privilege, at least not on the grounds of gender, and she belonged to the school that regarded those who did as not being up to the fight. And also like Thatcher and Castle, she was unblushingly, stomach-churningly, girly when tackling people whose support she needed. "I'm just a little puddy cat," she would wheedle, and then she would guffaw a great, wobbly guffaw; but the eye never lost its glint. The housing officers and the benefits agency (for her constituents) and the bank manager (for herself, and for a limited time) seemed made of the proverbial putty.

That success in getting her own way may be why, to an onlooker, her life seems to have been one glorious, generous, chaotic sweep, embracing serial misjudgements (the mink coat . . . the near-bankruptcy . . . the mishandled spell in the shadow cabinet) that might have sent a frailer character into easy retirement. Instead she rolled on, maybe a little quieter for a while (though never without a self-deprecating joke), but cre scendoing in the last 15 years to a slow-building but ultimately triumphant climax.

And that is why she belongs up there in any feminist's pantheon of the greats. Nothing would annoy her more, of course. But take her as a prototype for the female politician - enduring principle, capable of commanding the bearpit of the Commons, someone against whom the charms of Tony Blair crashed and broke as harmlessly as a wave on the quay, and able to make everyone laugh while she did it - and think to yourself: how could you improve on Gwyneth?

Anne Perkins is the author of "Red Queen: the Authorised Biography of Barbara Castle" (published by Macmillan)

Kira Cochrane is away

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!