Joan Lestor by Godfrey Argent

Gwyneth Dunwoody and Joan Lestor

Labour MPs Gwyneth Dunwoody (1930-2008) and Joan Lestor (1931-1998) were first elected to Parliament at the 1966 general election, and served in Parliament for the rest of their lives. Both held ministerial office, but were willing to defy the party’s leadership when they believed it necessary.

Gwyneth Dunwoody. Plenary session Luxembourg, September 1976. © European Union 1976

Until 2016, Gwyneth Dunwoody held the record both for the longest total and for the longest continuous service among female MPs—records that are now held by Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman respectively.  Dunwoody was born into politics: her father was Labour party general secretary Morgan Phillips; her mother Norah had a career in local government and became a life peer; and both her grandmothers were suffragettes. Having previously worked as an actress and as a journalist in the Netherlands, Dunwoody achieved ministerial office barely a year after first being elected for the seat of Exeter in 1966, as a Parliamentary Secretary at the Board of Trade; her husband John was elected as MP for Falmouth in the same year. However, Dunwoody lost both this role and her seat at the next election in 1970.

Dunwoody returned to Parliament in 1974 as MP for Crewe, which later became the seat of Crewe and Nantwich, and took on a series of shadow roles during Labour’s long period in opposition between 1979 and 1997, including in the areas of transport, health, and foreign affairs. She also served as a member of the European Assembly during this period, in which role she endeavoured, in her words, to introduce a “healthy rudeness” into proceedings.  A prominent figure on the right of the party—she was described as the “Hammer of the Left”in the tabloids—she opposed all-women shortlists and reducing the age of consent for gay men to 16. She was a lifelong Eurosceptic, voting against the Maastricht treaty seven times. Dunwoody opposed reforming the working hours of the House of Commons to better suit Members’ family lives, arguing that the work of Parliament required long hours. Her son David recalled that her dedication to her work did not compromise her commitment to her family: “If we did not often return home to the smell of fruit cake baking in the oven, we received much else instead.”

Dunwoody became an outspoken critic of New Labour’s style of government, and had no scruples about refusing to toe the party line. When she was appointed Chair of the Transport Subcommittee in 1997, she gave full rein to her independent-mindedness, and was described as an “outstandingly forceful leader” who was unafraid to criticise Government proposals to privatise air traffic control or rebuke the Executive for under-investment in the transport sector. After the 2001 general election, the Labour Whips attempted to remove Dunwoody from her Select Committee role, but she was reinstated following fierce resistance from back benchers, and continued to chair what would become the Transport Select Committee until her death in 2008. In his tribute to his Labour colleague at her funeral in Westminster Abbey, Jack Straw recalled that even from her sickbed, Dunwoody had been organising an inquiry into the failures at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

Dunwoody’s obituary in the Times described her as “intelligent, obstinate, opinionated and hard-working.” Her daughter Tamsin, who went on to serve as a member of the National Assembly for Wales between 2003 and 2007, contested her mother’s seat for Labour in the by-election following her death, but it was won by the Conservative candidate Edward Timpson.

Joan Lestor by Godfrey Argent
Joan Lestor, Baroness Lestor of Eccles by Godfrey Argent, bromide print, 21 April 1970. NPG x165597

Joan Lestor was born in Canada in 1931. Her parents were members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which she joined as a teenager, leaving for Labour in 1955.  A teacher by profession, she was a staunch campaigner for the rights of children, and was active on many issues, including child poverty, poor nutritional standards and obesity among young people, day care for pre-school children, and maternity provision and daytime education for pregnant teenagers and teenage mothers. She took on caring responsibilities for six children, raising them as a single parent with the help of her mother, and adopted two of them.

Lestor became a Wandsworth councillor in 1957, and served on London County Council from 1962 to 1964. She stood unsuccessfully as the Labour candidate for Lewisham West in 1964 before winning Eton and Slough in 1966.   She was elected to Labour’s National Executive Committee in 1967, and became a junior Education Minister in 1969.  After Labour’s victory in the 1974 election she joined the Foreign Office ministerial team, but after clashing with more senior Ministers over her anti-apartheid views, she was moved back to Education. She resigned from that role a year later over the issue of cuts. In her resignation speech on 9 March 1976, she argued that the Government’s planned cuts to education spending were “biting into the opportunities for those children whose parents look to the Labour movement to articulate their needs and to create the means by which their aspirations may be fulfilled”. She served as chair of the Labour party from 1977 to 1978, and chaired its international committee from 1978 to 1982, and from 1987 to 1997.   

Lestor lost her seat in the 1983 general election, but was re-elected‑ in 1987 as the MP for Eccles, and became shadow spokesperson on children and families offenders, and later on overseas development. In her final speech to the House on 18 March 1997, she spoke on the issue of child poverty, citing the “appalling levels of poverty and inequality in this country”.  She was made a life peer in 1997, and became Baroness Lestor of Eccles. Michael Foot said that she gave “her heart and soul to the Labour Party.”

House of Commons Hansard Writing Team


Obituary: Gwyneth Dunwoody

Obituary: Gwyneth Dunwoody

Gwyneth Dunwoody—a tribute—a-tribute-5628022

Joan Lestor, resignation speech, 9 March 1976

Obituary: Baroness Lestor of Eccles

Joan Lestor, speech on child poverty, 18 March 1997