Paul Flynn obituary

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

In many respects the Labour MP Paul Flynn, who has died aged 84 after nearly 32 years in the House of Commons, was the quintessential backbencher of his generation. He was an admirably energetic constituency MP, a tireless campaigner on a vast range of issues and fearless in the face of authority. It was thus a measure of his success that he was as much an irritant to his own party in government as he was to the Conservative frontbench, and that this was indubitably countered by the personal affection he generated among his Newport electorate.

Born in Grangetown, Cardiff, and raised with his brother, Michael, by their widowed mother, Kathleen (nee Williams), he experienced the heady days of the post second world war Attlee government. As a 10-year-old lad, he cheered the election of James Callaghan as the local Labour MP in 1945 and recalled hearing Aneurin Bevan speak in the city in 1948, as the minister of health, establishing the new NHS.

It was a topic of close family interest. His Irish father, James Flynn, had gone to the trenches of Belgium as a teenager in the first world war and had been shot and subsequently captured as a prisoner of war. He survived and returned home to work as a postman, but the family finances were defined by means-testing and doctors’ bills before his early death in 1940.

Paul Flynn speaking at a legalise cannabis tea party outside parliament in 2017.
Paul Flynn speaking at a legalise cannabis tea party outside parliament in 2017. Photograph: Mary Turner/Reuters

Paul was raised as a Roman Catholic by his Welsh mother, and won a place at St Illtyd’s college, Cardiff, which was then a Roman Catholic boys’ grammar school. He qualified as an industrial chemist at University College, Cardiff, and in 1955 began work in the steel industry, first in the docks area of Cardiff, where he suffered serious hearing loss working in a nail factory, and subsequently at Llanwern, in Newport.

In 1983 he was made redundant, and after a brief period in broadcasting started work the following year as a researcher for the MEP Llewellyn Smith. His election to Westminster as MP for Newport West came in 1987. He had joined the Labour party in 1956 and was elected as a member of Newport borough council (1972-81) and of Gwent county council (1974-82). He fought the second general election in 1974 in the safe Conservative seat of Denbigh.

In the Commons Flynn’s brief experience of the frontbench came at the very beginning and end of his career. Neil Kinnock made him a junior spokesman for Wales shortly after his arrival in the house, aged 52. In 1988 he was moved to social security for two years, but then began his long sojourn on the backbenches, where he rejoiced in being described by the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart as “the thinking man’s Dennis Skinner”, a soubriquet he felt was suitable for his epitaph.

Few could have been more surprised than he when, aged 81 in 2016, he was appointed by Jeremy Corbyn as shadow leader of the house and then also shadow Welsh secretary. They were temporary posts after a wave of frontbench resignations had hit the Corbyn leadership, and while Flynn spoke approvingly of his leader’s job creation for older people he found himself retired once more after three months to a less prominent parliamentary role.

It was never one of obscurity. Flynn had strong opinions on most things and a vivid vocabulary with which to articulate his views. He had the eloquence of his Welsh and Irish forebears, which he could exhibit in both his native English and the fluent Welsh he learned in his teenage years. He could also do an unintelligible, but apparently accurate, rendition of Chaucerian English. A passionate advocacy of the use of the Welsh language was one of his lifelong concerns and he was a member of the Gorsedd of the Bards.

Other topics with which he was very much involved included the medicinal use of cannabis, for which he started campaigning in 1999, and the dangers of overdosing from the use of paracetamol. He was opposed to nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and a strident critic of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On one occasion in 2009 he recited to the Commons a list of the 176 names of the UK military personnel who had been killed serving in Iraq. He was suspended in 2012 for accusing the Defence ministerial team, then headed by Philip Hammond, of lying about Afghanistan.

He was a republican who, in 1996, proposed a private member’s bill for a referendum to abolish the monarchy. He believed in an elected second chamber and opposed the honours system. Other concerns included mis-selling of pensions, public corruption, ferry safety, daylight saving for road safety and the use of bull bars on cars, which he opposed.

He was always near the top of any list of diligent parliamentary questioning, topping it in 1991 with a total of 928 parliamentary questions, costing an estimated £46,000 to answer. He won an award for campaigning for freedom of information that year and in 1996 was named the Spectator’s Backbencher of the Year.

He was a member of the select committee on Welsh affairs and on transport, and was a delegate to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. He was a passionate European, regarding Brexit as “the biggest political disaster of my lifetime”, and was not afraid to say so although his constituency voted 56–44 % in favour of leaving Europe. Before election to parliament he was a member of the Broadcasting Council for Wales (1975-80), the South Wales Docks Board (197680) and the National Museum of Wales (1978-82).

Flynn suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which was first diagnosed when he was nine years old. Although he recovered from a mini-stroke in 2007, his health had recently deteriorated with the onset of pernicious anaemia and he announced in October that while he wanted to go on being an MP “for ever”, he would stand down as soon as possible. He was a highly competent user of all forms of digital technology, having won awards for his MP’s website, and continued to work from his bed.

He published a number of books about politics, including a guide to being a backbencher (1997), updated as How to Be an MP (2012). It includes the somewhat cynical advice for aspirant ministers: “Cultivate the virtues of dullness and safety. Be attuned to the nation’s lowest common denominator of conscience, idealism and cowardice. At all costs avoid any appearance of humour, originality or interest in your speeches.” It was advice he, of course, ignored himself.

In 1962 he married Anne Harvey and they had a son, James, and daughter, Rachel, the latter of whom predeceased him in 1979. He and Anne divorced in 1984, and the following year he married Samantha Morgan (nee Cumpstone). She survives him, as do James, a stepson and a stepdaughter.

• Paul Phillip Flynn, politician, born 9 February 1935; died 17 February 2019


Julia Langdon

The GuardianTramp

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