Gerry Bermingham, who has died aged 82, entered the House of Commons as a Labour MP 40 years ago with a working knowledge and understanding of the legal system in England and Wales, and immediately set about attempting to redress some of the many shortcomings of which he was aware.
He was thus ahead of his time in drawing public and political attention to the need to speed up court proceedings, to lower the prison population by reducing jail sentences imposed for minor civil offences and to compensate those detained in custody and subsequently proved innocent. He also wanted more control on police operations.
The lodestar of Bermingham’s career as a politician, and as a solicitor who also practised at the criminal bar, was his profound belief in civil liberties.
In his maiden speech, on the second day of the new parliament in June 1983, he invoked the basis for England’s civil liberties established at Runnymede, and criticised what he saw as the attack upon them in the queen’s speech the previous day, when the programme for the second term of Margaret Thatcher’s government had been unveiled.
Later that year he introduced the first of a series of private members’ bills on legal issues – this one was to shorten trial delays and limit imprisonment without bail – using the Commons’ procedure to publicise his cause but without realistic hope of success.
Bermingham was a cheerful and gregarious MP, who enjoyed a drink and a smoke in the Commons’ Annie’s Bar, although he gave up cigarettes after the first of two heart attacks in 1997. He acquired an early reputation as something of a lothario after a series of revelations about his love life shortly after his election and this in turn led to the first of many calls for his resignation from his constituency Labour party in St Helens South.
Thereafter the rest of his time at Westminster was spent in almost constant dispute with the Militant Tendency, the Trotskyist group, which had widespread influence within the party in the north-west of England and controlled the local activists in both constituencies in St Helens.
It was nevertheless a surprise in 2001 when, aged 61, he announced his resignation on the eve of that year’s general election. It transpired that this was to facilitate the installation as the Labour candidate of Shaun Woodward, the MP for Witney who had defected from the Conservatives 18 months earlier and who would thus be set to inherit Bermingham’s majority of nearly 24,000. Amid widespread party disapproval, the Labour national executive committee imposed a shortlist of four candidates, none of whom was local; Woodward was chosen by four votes, after second preference votes were reallocated. He won the seat with a majority reduced by 7,000, was appointed a junior minister in 2005 by Tony Blair and joined Gordon Brown’s cabinet as Northern Ireland secretary in 2007.
At the time it was widely suggested that Bermingham had given up his seat in a backstairs deal for a subsequent peerage, as he himself privately told MP colleagues at the time. While he publicly asserted, clearly tongue-in-cheek, that it was his intention to spend more time with his two-year-old son, Franklin, and the idea of a compensatory seat in the Lords was derided as “complete rubbish” by Labour’s then general secretary, Margaret McDonagh, he was said to have been bitterly disappointed when no such offer materialised.
In reality, the Labour party had proved reluctant to reopen the issue by elevating Bermingham after the embarrassment of Woodward’s election campaign, which had attracted public ridicule for imposing on a working-class seat a millionaire former Tory MP who was revealed to have deployed his personal butler as part of his election team.
Gerry was born in Dublin, the son of Patrick Bermingham, a medical officer of health, and his wife, Eva (nee Robinson), and was sent to be educated in England. He attended St John’s, Alton, Staffordshire, a Roman Catholic preparatory school, before boarding at Cotton college. He studied for A-levels at Wellingborough grammar school and studied law at Sheffield University.
Bermingham joined the Labour party aged 20 and worked as a teacher and lecturer before qualifying as a solicitor in 1967. He then joined the Irwin Mitchell law firm in Sheffield, became a senior partner two years later and remained there until his election to Westminster. He was a Sheffield city councillor from 1975 until 1979. He stood unsuccessfully as the Labour candidate in South East Derbyshire in 1979 and returned to Sheffield city council from 1980 until 1982.
At Westminster he was a longstanding member of the home affairs select committee (1983-97), where his independent-minded approach was valued by his colleagues. He was also vice-chair of the parliamentary Labour party’s home affairs committee. He was a realistic leftwinger, a member of both the Tribune and Campaign groups, which carried considerable sway in the party at the time, and his politics were also informed by his Irish background: he opposed the proscription of Sinn Féin and voted against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, arguing that it legalised partition. Having been called to the bar as a member of Gray’s Inn in 1985, he was particularly proud also to have been called to the Irish bar.
He survived his first round of constituency problems in 1983 when publicity about two love affairs led to the words “pervert” and “fornicator” being painted outside his home.
Rather more political problems in 1985, involving Militant, led to the suspension of both St Helens constituency parties by the Labour NEC and in the 1987 election he was imposed as the Labour candidate by the national party. He won an increased majority, but was then deselected by his local party in 1988. He was again rescued by the NEC and restored as candidate before the 1992 election. In 1990, wheel nuts on his car were found to have been loosened and the incident was investigated by police as attempted murder.
Two marriages ended in divorce: the first to Joan Baldock, a fellow lawyer, in 1964; and the second, to Judith Barnes, a solicitor with the Crown Prosecution Service, in 1978. He is survived by his third wife, Jilly (formerly Foster), a Birmingham city councillor, whom he married in 1998, their son, Franklin, and the two sons of his first marriage, Henry and James.
• Gerald Edward Bermingham, lawyer and politician, born 20 August 1940; died 2 August 2023