Gwilym Roberts obituary

Labour politician who fought for issues that mattered to his constituents

There are a multitude of ways in which an MP can make a mark at Westminster. When first elected, Gwilym Roberts, who has died aged 89, vowed to follow the advice of Theodore Roosevelt. The former US president once said that the most successful politician “is he who says what the people are thinking most often in the loudest voice”. During two spells as a Labour MP, Roberts pursued this course relentlessly and with vigour.

Although initially the MP for South Bedfordshire, from 1966 to 1970, and then for the Midlands seat of Cannock, from 1974 to 1983, Roberts was a Welsh speaker who never lost the cadences of his birth and education in rural north Wales, and never failed to use this voice powerfully from the Labour backbenches to iterate what his constituents were thinking.

The variety of subjects on which he pursued ministers at question time in the House of Commons was immense, but he was most often concerned with issues of public safety and always with those of public interest. In his 13 years in parliament, this included the fire dangers of foam-filled furniture, the need for proper control of fireworks, the risks from abandoned old fridges, motorway safety measures with particular reference to coach travel, and moves to control football hooliganism at matches abroad, all of which have since been subject to changes in the law.

As a local councillor, as well as an MP, Roberts was a man who went out and talked to people to find out popular concerns, such as the future of the sixpence, the quality of spectacle frames offered by the NHS, why there was a different retirement age for men and women and, a much pursued question, the price of potatoes. In 1968, a year after the launch of Radio 1, he argued for a ban on the continuous broadcasting of pop music (because it gave his constituents headaches). He also sought legislation to make the week between Christmas and New Year an annual holiday. Yet what distinguished him from other populist MPs was that he was not in pursuit of personal promotion. His purpose was always to secure what he believed was a necessary change in the law.

Roberts did encounter some public mockery when he tried to get legislation to outlaw witches: a newspaper cartoon in 1970 showed the then home secretary, James Callaghan, asking: “How’s your campaign going?” and caricatured Roberts as a frog at his feet.

But one of his most consistent campaigns was for a proper understanding and treatment of industrial diseases, and compensation for those suffering from pneumoconiosis and quarry dust disease, suffered by miners and quarrymen. This was a subject about which he knew personally, not only because his father was a quarryman but because of his knowledge of the industrial heritage of Wales and, later, of the collieries in the Cannock area which he represented for nine years and in which he made his home for the remainder of his life.

The son of William Roberts and his wife, Jane, Gwilym went to Brynrefail grammar school, Gwynedd, and then the University College of Wales in Bangor. He qualified as a lecturer in scientific management techniques and developed a lifelong interest in the application of automation and the use of computers in industry at the beginning of such advancements.

The Daily Mirror cartoon of 1970 making fun of an attempt by Gwilym Roberts to outlaw witchcraft.
The Daily Mirror cartoon of 1970 making fun of an attempt by Gwilym Roberts to outlaw witchcraft. Photograph: Franklin/Mirrorpix

He taught at the Northampton Institute from 1952 to 1957 and was principal lecturer at Hendon College, now Middlesex University, from 1957 until he was first elected to Westminster in 1966. Between his times in parliament, from 1970 to 1974, he taught at City University, London. He lost his seat, renamed Cannock and Burntwood, to Gerald Howarth for the Conservatives in 1983, and stood again unsuccessfully in 1987. He also tried to seek selection for the South Wales Cynon Valley seat, subsequently won by Ann Clwyd at the 1984 byelection.

He first ventured into politics when he unsuccessfully contested Ormskirk in the 1959 general election and then Conway in 1964. He was elected to Luton borough council in 1965. After his time at Westminster came to an end, he was elected to Cannock Chase district council, of which he was a member for the Rugeley area, where he lived from 1983 until 2002.

He was leader of the council from 1992 to 1999 and was instrumental in helping to introduce new industry into the area following colliery closures, specifically with the multimillion-pound redevelopment of the Lea Hall pit at Rugeley into what is now the Towers business park. He was a member of Staffordshire county council from 1985 to 1993 and from 2001 to 2009.

Roberts married Mair Griffiths in 1954. She predeceased him.

• Gwilym Edffrwd Roberts, lecturer and politician, born 7 August 1928; died 19 March 2018


Julia Langdon

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Paul Flynn obituary
Veteran Labour MP who campaigned against nuclear weapons and was a strident critic of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Julia Langdon

18, Feb, 2019 @5:48 PM

Article image
Denzil Davies obituary
Brilliant Labour MP and Treasury minister who opposed Welsh devolution and campaigned against the UK joining the EEC

Julia Langdon

15, Oct, 2018 @12:08 PM

Article image
Ednyfed Hudson Davies obituary
Maverick Labour MP, broadcaster and academic who was an early exponent of Welsh devolution

Julia Langdon

20, Feb, 2018 @1:46 PM

Article image
Maureen Colquhoun obituary
Crusading Labour politician who was the first openly gay MP

Julia Langdon

08, Feb, 2021 @5:45 PM

Article image
Lord Morris of Aberavon obituary
Veteran Welsh Labour MP who served for more than 40 years and became attorney general in the late 1990s

Julia Langdon

08, Jun, 2023 @2:17 PM

Article image
Lord Stoddart of Swindon obituary
Astute Labour politician admired for his decency and independent mind

Julia Langdon

23, Nov, 2020 @6:28 PM

Article image
Paul Hannon obituary
Other lives: Long-serving politician who served on various local councils for the LibDems and Labour

Leighton Andrews

29, Jan, 2023 @5:37 PM

Article image
Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland obituary
Long-serving Labour party chief whip noted for his loyalty and steadfastness

Julia Langdon

07, Jan, 2019 @5:15 PM

Article image
Lady Hollis of Heigham obituary
Labour peer who served as a welfare minister under Tony Blair and was a powerful figure in the House of Lords

Julia Langdon

18, Oct, 2018 @1:54 PM

Article image
Frank Dobson obituary
Former Labour health secretary and candidate in the London mayoral election of 2000

Julia Langdon

12, Nov, 2019 @6:24 PM