Politics and Crusades

Pictured right: Election Night 1974; Mrs Val Corbett and Mr Robin Corbett MP, Hemel Hempstead Civic Centre. Robin was elected MP at the 4th time of standing for Parliament with a massive majority of 481. (When a voter said she hadn’t got black rubbish bags so wouldn’t vote for him, Robin personally went to the council and delivered them - which is why the majority was 481 and not 480!)

Elected MP for Hemel Hempstead, 1974–79
His Private Members’ Bill in 1976 won the right to anonymity for rape victims – and defendants in rape cases unless convicted.
(“The Thatcher government revoked the right of defendants to anonymity.)

Elected MP for Birmingham Erdington, 1983–2001
Chairman of House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, 1999–2001.

Labour front-bench spokesman on broadcasting and media
(led for Labour in Broadcasting Bill,
1989–90) from 1987–94 and disabled people’s rights from 1994–95.

Appointed to House of Lords, June 2001, as a working peer

Elected Chair of Labour Peers, 2005–2012

Chairman of All-Party Parliamentary Penal Affairs Group; Chairman of British Parliamentary Campaign for Iran Freedom; Vice chairman of Indo-British Parliamentary Group; Chairman of Friends of Cyprus; Vice chairman of All-Party Motor Group; Member of sustainable Development and Renewable Energy Group; Foremost in dirty blood campaign. Former member Wilton Park Academic Council; Vice president Lotteries Council; Treasurer of ANZAC group & All-Party Multiple Sclerosis group; The Farm Animal Welfare co-ordinating executive; Secretary of Labour’s Civil Liberties group; Council member of The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, Save the Children & Rehab UK; Sponsor of The Terrence Higgins Trust;

“My parents were both political and while my friends were kicking a football around, some of my earliest memories involve standing on street corners handing out leaflets with my twin sister and elder brother. My first political campaign was to picket, with my siblings, for more pocket money. We marched round and round the back yard carrying placards calling for 6d a week more pocket money. And we got it – eventually. My siblings did not go into politics but I had the strong feeling that I wanted to help change the world and you need this attitude because there are days when you wonder why the hell you wanted to do it! As Fred Daly an Australian politician once said: ‘Politics is a funny game. One day you’re a rooster and the next you’re a feather duster."

“When I lost the seat in 1979, it was a horrible feeling. You feel hurt, it’s all your fault and it’s worse in a sense when you live locally, as we did. I’d had a book in me for some time so to try to cope with this dreadful situation I wrote 20,000 on my old sit-up-and-beg typewriter in about two days and this had a very bad effect on my wrists. I went to the doctor and he bound them up and I went off walking around the town. Within minutes Val got a phone call saying, “I’ve just heard the most terrible news that Robin’s slashed his wrists” – it had never crossed my mind!

“But Hemel Hempstead was a safe seat compared with my majority in 1983 in Birmingham Erdington of 221, after five gut-wrenching recounts. Mind, each time they did a recount I got a couple more votes so I asked them to keep going! “

 

In 1983, as MP for Birmingham, Erdington – back to his West Midlands roots – with another wafer-slim majority he once again worked his socks off for 18 years, particularly with the-then sink estate, Castle Vale. With many others, Robin was one of the moving spirits to transform the area into the internationally-acknowledged regeneration model it is now. So impressed with the input from residents was he that he took the name of this estate as his title and served as Chair to the Castle Vale Neighbourhood Partnership Board until his death. When I left in 2001 I had a majority of over 12,000 so I suppose I must have done something right.”

 

‘I came into the Commons in 1974, and I loved the place when I arrived, even the pink tapes hanging from pegs in the Members’ cloakroom. They were there to hang your sword before entering the Chamber. That should have warned me because one of the first things that happened was I got shouted at by the Speaker, Selwyn Lloyd – it’s the things people don’t explain to you, you see. I was speaking in the Chamber one day and I’d drawn my usual crowd, you know, about three, and I was talking to the Speaker. Then all of a sudden Selwyn gets up and shouts, “Order! Order!” and I thought, my God, I’m going to get six months. He barked at me,

“Will the Honourable Member stop staring at me!” ‘The trouble is, when you do finally get elected to the House of Commons, there’s no certificate or illuminated address. At least when you become a Lord, you get sent a Writ of Summons.

‘As a new MP, you just turn up at the Commons and the policeman on the gate ticks your name against the Daily Telegraph election supplement. So if they leave your name out by mistake, you don’t get in!"

 

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale took his title from a part of his former constituency, which in World War Two was a Spitfire airfield and then later a tower block estate. The residents there have rebuilt their lives through a Housing Action Trust – now a Neighbourhood Partnership Board of which he was chairman.

Looking back on this time, the then local MP Robin Corbett, who would become a major supporter of the HAT, recalled:


"I was absolutely appalled by what I saw, an estate of tower blocks like giant battery cages. It was a civic pigsty. It was clear that Birmingham City Council didn’t have the funds to make the necessary improvements."

Some 30 tower blocks have been demolished, replaced with double-storey houses and bungalows. Mortality rates in Castle Vale were reduced, crime was cut to the lowest in the City of Birmingham and educational standards improved. In this former sink estate there was now a waiting list for homes and schools. Mobile butchers and grocers even went out to deliver produce door to door. It seemed like Utopia. People wanted to be there and wanted to stay there.

"The worst part of this great moment was keeping it secret from our family and friends," said Lady Corbett. "The day before the announcement we invited our daughter Polly to lunch in a hotel in London, something we had never done before.

“Which one of you is dying?” she asked before saying hello. When we replied neither, she said, ”Please don’t tell me you’re getting divorced.”
Then she saw the waiter bringing the champagne to our table and relaxed.

Robin quickly adapted to life in the Lords, regularly contributing to debates until just a few weeks before his death when he went to vote to give prisoners the vote – it failed.

The popularity and respect in which he was held led in 2005 to his election as Chairman of the 200-strong group of Labour peers, a post to which he was unanimously re-elected in 2010. It was a role he relished, involving as it did representing the views of Labour peers to the Labour leadership and speaking to the media on the group's behalf.

 

This century has thrown up three categories of political leaders. The good which includes Winston Churchill and Franklyn Roosevelt; the bad which is Hitler and Stalin and the third is the special, the person who transcends politics. I can think of only three in the last century who fall into this class – Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. And because of my job I have met two of the three, within two weeks.

The Dalai Lama simply shook my hand, acknowledged my interest in his homeland of Tibet when I asked. “When do you think you’ll be able to go home?"

“I am always hopeful that China will want this to happen and we do keep talking.“ He said it was important that, just as China had waited 100 years to return to Hong Kong to what it sees as its family, so he thought it would eventually be with both Tibet and Taiwan. I applaud his optimism but must say I don’t share it.

Both Houses welcomed President Mandela in 1996 with a spectacular ceremony in Westminster Hall – a triumphant occasion complete with trumpeters and the full pomp and ceremony for which we are rightfully known. Speaker Baroness Betty Boothroyd told me later that at a state dinner at Buckingham Palace the night before, she had told the President about the many stone steps leading into Westminster Hall. At the time there were no hand rails and he was a frail 78 years old. But when she met him just before the ceremony he told her he had done a recce at 6 am that morning! Though she had to support him as his legs and eyesight were not too good (his eyes were damaged by the bright sunlight while breaking rocks in the Robben Island quarry) they managed well enough.

Despite his physical frailty, he was mesmerising when he spoke and he captured the full attention of everyone in that historic Hall. He spoke without resentment about the denial of democracy to the majority of the population for 85 years and illustrated his greatness by adding … “we return to this honoured place neither with pikes, nor with a desire for revenge, nor even a plea to your distinguished selves to assuage our hunger for bread. We come to you as friends."

When we heard President Obama speak in that same Hall, Val and I thought he displayed that same quiet authority and powerful presence of the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.

For more of Robin's stories please read the book Robin Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: A Life Well Lived. This book, written by Val Corbett, costs £10 +£1.50 p and p. If you would like it personally inscribed please include the name. Order via

 

As an MP at the fourth time of asking, Robin relished the role. He was a ‘hands-on’ politician when dealing with constituents' problems, visiting people at home, no issue being too small. He put his skills as a journalist to considerable effect and achieved extraordinary levels of coverage in newspapers. His great achievement in his first parliament was the Private Member's Bill he sponsored, rightly described by The Times as ground-breaking, which provided for anonymity for victims of rape. In this he achieved what was widely thought to be the impossible: piloting a difficult and controversial bill through parliament as a private member. He brought all his skills to bear—tenacity, courage, persuasion, and conviction—and in 1976 the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act was passed.

"A man of honour who rose to defend the Iranian people's Resistance for freedom democracy amid the reign of religious fascism in Iran. Your courageous defence of the competence of freedom will be recorded in the annals of Iranian history for years to come".
- Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran

 

Where he sprang from

Pictured left: Robin at 16 in full flow at the debating society at Holly Lodge grammar school, Smethwick, West Midlands. A foretaste of what was to come.

One afternoon in 1935, a small crowd gathered outside the Western Australian Parliament protesting at the cut in unemployment benefit. It was a peaceful protest until a tall man with reddish hair - and so, easily identifiable - threw a stone at the building and broke a window. That man was Tom Corbett and his impetuous action had a life-changing result. Quite against the trend, Tom and his family including his two-year-old son Robin, were immediately deported to Britain.

Years later, Robin was on a parliamentary trip to Western Australian and told the story to the Premier. The following day, proving the Aussie sense of humour, he presented Robin with a bill for the window.

If it wasn't for that deportation, Australian politics might have been very different as Robin would always have been a political animal wherever he lived. Indeed, he started young ...

“I didn’t really like school until about the last year. It had been a private school but the first year I went there it had come into the State sector but of course all the masters were from that background and I adjusted to this with great difficulty so I kept getting into trouble and getting generous doses of the cane. Then somebody had the bright idea of making five or six of us who used to get into scrapes, prefects and things changed overnight.”

Robin's version of meeting: He was walking along Fleet Street when he glanced down and saw some little fingers. A good-hearted chap, he leaned down and hauled me up out of the gutter.

Wedding day 22nd May 1970: "Oh for the days when he could lift me up!"

Val's version of meeting (What really happened!): I was wearing a new dress and was unsure about it. As I passed through a swing door to go to lunch, I asked a woman colleague: “Does this dress make me look dumpy?” A voice to my right said: “Yes it does.” I looked all the way up from my 5ft 2 inches to his 6ft 3 ins … up … and up .. - and saw the cheeky grin on the face of my life’s companion. (He called me Dumpy for ages afterwards).