We can do with more MPs of Ian Gibson's quality

The public meeting about the future of the Silver Rooms. Ian Gibson speaks. Picture: Denise Bradley

Former Labour MP for Norwich North Ian Gibson had strong opinions and stood by them, writes former EDP political editor Chris Fisher - Credit: Denise Bradley

In the years in which I kept an eye on him at Westminster as the EDP’s political editor, Ian Gibson stood out for a number of reasons.

First, he knew what he he was talking about in the Commons when he spoke on scientific matters.

And this made him a rare exception.

Ian had become dean of biology at the UEA six years before he was first elected (in 1997) as the MP for Norwich North.

When he spoke on matters such as Gulf War Syndrome, MPs on all sides of the chamber listened.

His knowledge made him well qualified to be appointed Science Minister.

But it never happened, because his face didn’t fit politically.

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Before joining the Labour Party, Dr Gibson had been in the (Marxist) Socialist Workers Party.

Moreover his concept of Socialism remained very different from Tony Blair’s.

So, when Mr Blair swept into power with a landslide majority, Ian’s joy was not unconstrained.

He knew that he would often be expected to support policies that he didn’t really believe in.

And the Blairites were very much aware of course that he wasn’t one of them.

This was reflected in the fact that when he succeeded in becoming chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, he did so despite, rather than because of, the Labour Whips.

Dr Gibson was one of the Labour MPs who voted against going to war in Iraq in 2003.

But, for me, the issue on which he was most conspicuous as a rebel was that of student tuition fees.

Indeed, he set himself up as the leader of the Labour backbench rebellion, and by no means the least of the problems about this was that the education secretary at the time was Charles Clarke, the MP for Norwich South.

Overall, I think Ian and Charles were an effective double act in championing the causes of Norwich.

But these two strong characters didn’t always get on well, and their conflict over tuition fees was an especially trying time for both of them.

I myself normally got on well with Ian.

He was never dull, and he had a mischievous spark that was good for producing stories.

But we had our difficult moments.

One such for me came at an East of England reception at a Labour Party conference in Bournemouth.

He spotted me from the other side of a  room and shouted out “Hey, Chris Fisher. We don’t want you here peddling your Tory c**p”.

It was meant as a joke (I think), but it put me in a bit of an awkward spot.

No reflection on Ian’s political career can skip over how it came to such a wretched end at Westminster.

He got caught up in the brouhaha in 2009 over MPs’ expenses, when it was revealed in the Daily Telegraph that he had been allowing his daughter to stay rent-free in a London flat for which he was claiming public money.

Yes, it can be argued that he should not have let this happen.

But it seemed to me at the time - and it still does - that the Labour leadership’s punishment of him far outweighed the offence.

The media wolves were howling, and it felt it had to be seen to be doing something.

Ian was deemed expendable.

He had probably upset too many people in the party.

A few days later I got into a public spat with prime minister Gordon Brown when I asked at a 10 Downing Street press conference whether Dr Gibson had been treated unfairly. 

Ian’s own sense of injustice at being banned from standing at the next general election was such that he immediately resigned his seat and forced a by-election.

Chloe Smith won it and the constituency has remained hers ever since.

Big Labour own-goal.

Ian had strong opinions and stood by them He was his own man. We can do with more MPs of his quality.