22nd December 1933 to 19th February 2012
Last week Labour Peers and MPs attended the funeral of the much loved Chair of the Labour Peers Group, Lord Robin Corbett of Castle Vale. Robin spent a lifetime fighting for the Labour Party and the causes he believed in – as a journalist, as a Member of the House of Commons, on the Labour Frontbench, as Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and for the last eleven years as a Labour Peer, including six as Chair of the Party in the Lords. We reproduce here some edited highlights of the wonderful eulogies given at Robin’s funeral by his friend and Parliamentary colleague Lord Bruce Grocott and by Robin’s beloved wife Val, Lady Corbett.
Robin and I have been friends through all the ups and downs of political life for almost forty years. Val and my wife Sally have likewise been friends, united amongst other things by that toughest of challenges, being married to politicians.
Sally summed it up when Robin died, “life”, she said, “won’t be so much fun”.
Robin was a wonderful friend. He was an outstanding, hands-on, constituency MP for Hemel Hempstead then Birmingham Erdington, a politician of great skill in both the Commons and the Lords. He was a man rich in his interests and in the love of his family. By any standards he was a big personality. You knew when Robin was in the room.
Robin was born in Western Australia. He was there for just two years when his father, an active trade unionist, was deported and the family returned to England. During a demonstration his father had thrown a brick through a window of the Western Australian Parliament and decades later when Robin visited Australia as a Member of Parliament, he told them the story of his father’s deportation. He found that the Australian sense of humour matched his own when he was presented with a bill for the broken window.
Robin finally reached the Commons in October 1974, with a cliff edge majority of 485. I won as well for the first time after previous defeats. Robin took great delight in the fact that my majority of just 331 was even smaller than his. And the Labour Government’s overall majority was just three. Robin and I would joke that whenever Harold Wilson saw us together in the Commons, he would say “for heaven’s sake lads when you go home tonight drive carefully”.
Robin’s great achievement in that 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. He pretty well achieved the impossible – you are not supposed to be able to get difficult and controversial bills through Parliament as a backbencher. But Robin brought all his skills to bear – tenacity, courage, persuasion, and conviction – and the bill became law.
Robin symbolised Labour’s lost generation. Eighteen years in Opposition was precisely the time when Robin’s political talents were at their peak. Had Labour been in power during those years, he would undoubtedly have held high ministerial office.
Finally, with Labour back in power in 1997, Robin was then in his sixties, but he was never one to sit back. He became Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Here was a man, the architect of the Sexual Offences Bill, former Home Affairs frontbench spokesman, champion of civil liberties, with a coveted senior role which he relished.
In 2001 Robin was made a Life Peer. The title he chose was Lord Corbett of Castle Vale. Castle Vale, part of his former constituency, built over twenty blocks of high storey flats in the 1960s. Robin became Chairman of the Management Board. His leadership and energy brought new business investment into the community, including a modern shopping centre.
In 2005 Robin was elected unopposed as Chairman of the 239 strong Labour Group in the House of Lords. He was a natural for the job, popular and effective.
By any standards, Robin’s public life was hugely successful. But it is Robin the man who we remember most. His warmth, his humour, his loyalty, his deep concern for others, his generosity. In all the years I knew him I can hardly recall him ever speaking ill of anyone. There was no malice in him. And this warmth was reciprocated. If Robin had any enemies in politics, I never met one.
We shall all miss him enormously. But the loss above all is that of his wife Val. They say humour is at the heart of a successful marriage and they had it in abundance. And we all share the loss felt by Robin’s children, Susannah , Adam and Polly and all the other members of his family.
Robin and I had a marriage based on a shared sense of humour - we made each other laugh over the 45 years we had together. On the back page of the order of service you’ll read how we met. His version was different … he said he was walking down Fleet Street one day when he saw these little fingers trying to climb out of the gutter ….
He wasn’t a saint as I’ve had to point out to other people - including himself - from time to time. Once, I came into the kitchen and he was having a fight with a paper bag – and the bag won. But the biggest argument we ever had was over the Miliband brothers – both of whom have sent lovely messages.
I was very supportive of his political life because I once met a rather embittered wife in the family room of the House of Commons and she said: “Keep up with what he’s doing otherwise you will be locked out of the main obsession in his life.” I know what she meant. Once I looked up to find him staring at me with a particularly loving expression. When I asked him softly what he was thinking about, he said: “The Housing Finance Act.”
Robin was a very hands-on MP and Peer. He liked speaking to constituents, a fact so many have mentioned in their letters and cards. And the spread of the people he helped was surprisingly wide, from MPs and Peers who thanked him for mentoring them when they first entered the House to a taxi driver in Birmingham to refugees at Camp Ashraf under siege in Iraq – and a young man who reminded me that Robin had contacted him when his bicycle was stolen (it was in the local paper). Robin suggested that he did some odd jobs around our house so he could buy another bike. I know that wherever I went I met people who said: “Your husband helped me” … it was what he did. And enjoyed doing it. And that young man is here today.
Despite his busy political life and definitely because of his background he valued family life enormously and enjoyed spending time with his children and grandchildren. He was pleased granddaughter Ella became Secretary of her University Labour students; he sent snippets about market and craft stalls from newspapers to his jewellery designer granddaughter Maya and was pleased Tom was making a success of his company and that Bryn talked a company into giving him a job. We went to the graduation of his daughter Susannah at the Inchbald School of Design and earlier in the year visited Adam at his wood business in Wales. Both of us were delighted our daughter Polly followed in our journalistic footsteps and is a columnist on the Daily Mirror.
But never did I admire Robin more than when he was fighting this dreadful disease. Never once, I promise you, did he complain, never once said: “Why me?” never once said “It’s not fair”. He accepted what happened, dealt with it and had what he most wanted, an honourable and decent death in his own home.
I would be letting him down if I collapsed in a heap but oh, I shall miss him so much -hearing him sing The Wild Colonial Boy after several glasses of wine... and his funny little ways ... if you hug, you have to pat at the same time, always bash the corners of a piece of toast before spreading butter and above all, never trust a driver if they’re wearing a hat.
Robin was a good and faithful servant to his country, to his constituents, to the Labour Party, to Parliament and to his family. Today I pay tribute to the work he did and celebrate a life that was worth living.