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  Gwyneth Patricia Dunwoody (1930–2008), by Jane Bown, 2003 Gwyneth Patricia Dunwoody (1930–2008), by Jane Bown, 2003
Dunwoody [née Phillips], Gwyneth Patricia (1930–2008), politician, was born at 25 Rosaville Road, Fulham, London, on 12 December 1930, the elder child and only daughter of , political organizer, and his wife, Norah Mary [see ], schoolteacher and politician, and daughter of William Lusher. Her father had been a coal miner in south Wales and subsequently an official in the West Fulham Labour Party. He rose through the party's organization to become national secretary in 1944. Her convent-educated mother worked as a teacher and became an extremely active life peer in 1964.

Educated at Fulham County Secondary School and the Convent of Notre Dame, Gwyneth Phillips left school at sixteen and worked as a local journalist, an actress in repertory, and at Radio Hilversum in the Netherlands. Her most significant education was within the culture of the Labour Party, not least the convivial political evenings at the Phillipses' home. There she met a medical student, John Elliott Orr Dunwoody (1929–2006), son of William Orr Dunwoody, medical practitioner. They married at the Roman Catholic Church of the Most Holy Trinity, Brook Green, Hammersmith, on 29 May 1954 and had a daughter and two sons. From 1956 the family lived in Totnes, Devon, where she became a rare Labour presence on the local council in 1960.

Both Gwyneth Dunwoody and her husband had parliamentary ambitions. In the 1964 election she was narrowly defeated in Exeter but became the city's first Labour member in the March 1966 landslide. Her husband joined her, successful in the marginal Cornish seat of Falmouth and Camborne. She became a junior minister at the Board of Trade in 1967; late in 1969 her husband went to the Department of Health and Social Security. They were the first husband and wife team to hold ministerial office. However, in June 1970 each lost both office and seat. They responded to defeat in contrasting ways. John Dunwoody became a family doctor in south London. Gwyneth Dunwoody returned to the Commons in February 1974 as MP for Crewe. Their marriage was dissolved in 1975.

Dunwoody's return to the Commons did not mean a return to ministerial office. A critic of the European Economic Community, she served as a nominated member of the European parliament from 1975 until the introduction of direct elections in 1979. Greater influence came with the ideological disputes and personal antipathies that engulfed the Labour Party after its 1979 election defeat. Dunwoody became thoroughly involved in the tough loyalist response to the left's growing influence. She was a member of the loyalist slate for elections to the party's national executive committee in 1981 and became a member of the executive's women's section. This bloc of politically reliable women was thoroughly hostile to the agenda of the left and Dunwoody's opposition was expressed in notably robust terms. The major unions, and therefore a largely male electorate, had the preponderant role in determining the membership of the women's section. Successful candidates were rarely sympathetic to the increasing demands of Labour women for institutional and procedural reforms to end the marginalization of women within the party. Dunwoody aroused anger among women delegates at the 1982 conference when she spoke for the national executive committee in opposition to their proposals.

Dunwoody became more significant within the parliamentary party as defections weakened the resources of the right. Michael Foot as leader from November 1980 was desperate to reconcile the contending factions. He gave Dunwoody responsibility for leading the opposition attack on the Thatcher government's health policies. In 1981 she was elected to the shadow cabinet. Elevation did not assuage her reservations about Foot's leadership. By August 1982 she was complaining to him that she and her fellow loyalists felt taken for granted. Foot's resignation as leader after the heavy electoral defeat in June 1983 meant contests for leader and deputy leader. She was a late and hopeless entrant to the latter contest. Her vote was derisory (amounting to around 1.3 per cent of the weighted ballots). Under Kinnock she retained her front bench position with responsibility for transport but her standing declined. She lost her shadow cabinet position in 1985 and by 1989 diminishing union support meant her removal from the national executive committee. The initiative within the party was shifting to a younger generation. Her personal circumstances deteriorated; financial problems led to her acceptance of a retainer from the Fur Trading Association. Her response to critics was a blunt insistence that she needed the money. At one point her house was repossessed. Even her electoral position had become perilous. Secure Crewe had become highly marginal Crewe and Nantwich; she survived in 1983 and 1987, but with small majorities.

Dunwoody's renaissance came as an effective critic of misgovernment, most notably from 1997 as chair of the select committee on the environment, transport, and regional affairs. She presided with authoritative rigour over hearings, not least on the problematic legacies of rail privatization. New Labour ministers became apprehensive about her ability to probe their vulnerabilities. In mid-2001 the Blair government clumsily attempted to remove her and another committee chair. The strategy failed spectacularly as Labour backbenchers revolted. She became a powerful symbol of resistance to New Labour's intolerance of dissent. Her opinions like her dress sense were emphatically ‘off message’ (she was described as looking ‘as if she had not so much dressed but rolled herself up in the bedroom carpet’ (Daily Telegraph, 19 April 2008)). She was Eurosceptic, opposed to electoral reform, dismissive of changes in the Commons' working hours, and voted against the equalization of the age of consent for homosexuals. She was president of Labour Friends of Israel from 1988 to 1993. Her effectiveness was enhanced because this one-time paragon of party discipline personified the ethos of the party's old right that was insensitively dismissed by New Labour zealots. She was named ‘Battle-axe of the Year’ in 2002 by The Oldie magazine. A further redrawing of constituency boundaries in 1997 proved beneficial and she remained MP for Crewe and Nantwich until her death. She died in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, on 17 April 2008 of sepsis and bronchopneumonia a week after heart surgery. She was survived by her three children.

David Howell


T. Benn, The end of an era: diaries, 1980–90 (1992) · T. Benn, Free at last! Diaries, 1990–2001 (2002) · J. Golding, Hammer of the left (2003) · R. Cook, The point of departure (2003) · D. Hayter, Fightback! Labour's traditional right in the 1970s and 1980s (2005) · The Times (19 April 2008) · Daily Telegraph (19 April 2008) · The Guardian (18 April 2008) · The Independent (19 April 2008) · C. Mullin, A view from the foothills: the diaries of Chris Mullin, ed. R. Winstone (2009) · C. Mullin, Decline and fall: diaries, 2005–2010, ed. R. Winstone (2010) · WW (2008) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


People's History Museum, Manchester, Michael Foot Papers, MF/M10/5/1; Labour Party National Executive Committee minutes; Parliamentary Labour Party minutes · University of Hull, Brynmor Jones Library, Labour Solidarity Campaign archives  



BFINA, current affairs and party political footage




BL NSA, current affairs, documentary, and interview recordings


photographs, 1954–87, Getty Images, London · photographs, 1966–2001, PA Photos, London · photographs, 1966–2005, Photoshot, London · Madame Yevonde, bromide print, 1967, NPG · V. Carew Hunt, photograph, 1998, repro. in V. Carew Hunt, One two one: women in parliament (1998), 31 · J. Bown, photograph, 2003, Camera Press, London [see illus.] · J. Bown, photographs, 2003, Camera Press, London · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£578,576: administration, 24 Sept 2008, CGPLA Eng. & Wales