"A man who gave his life to the scientific and political betterment of humankind." Clive Lewis pays tribute to Ian Gibson
Former Labour MP for Norwich North Ian Gibson (left) with Clive Lewis (right) circa early 2016
Known for his personal warmth and sense of humour, Ian’s intelligence, independence, and insight won the respect of the people of Norwich. He will be remembered as someone who spoke for our city – and especially those without a voice
Before I sat down to write this tribute to Ian Gibson, I took the liberty of contacting local party members, social justice activists and fellow MPs, whom I thought knew him best.
The stories and anecdotes they shared confirmed what I’d suspected — that as a politician and as a human being, Ian had that rare quality of authenticity.
Ian first fought for his eventual seat of Norwich North, unsuccessfully, in 1992.
Despite the near miss, Ian wasn’t daunted. As one party activist who campaigned with him said: “Ian always told it like it was. He might have been an academic at UEA, but he never lectured voters.
“Instead he connected with them, often by humour but also by engaging with them at the human level.
“He spoke his mind, passionately at times! But people liked that. They respected it – respected the fact he didn’t say what they wanted to hear and it’s why, eventually, they would have no other represent them in Parliament.”
Once in Parliament Ian wasted no time applying the same spirited approach that had earned him the respect of his constituents.
But it also earned him the respect of many of his fellow MPs, as did his sharp wit. A wit that found its natural place as much on the green benches as it did the green fields of the Parliamentary football team which, when he no longer played for, he helped organise.
Along with ex-England manager Lawrie McMenemy, they coached the squad as best they could with the “talent” they had.
Key to their messaging was that the back line of defenders needed to see themselves tied together by a long string. If play drew a defender to one side of the pitch, others in the back line should be drawn across to provide cover.
“Line of string! Line of string!” was the instruction frequently roared out from the touchline by the pair of them. On one occasion, Lawrie said frustratedly: “I don’t get it. Your lot are socialists. I’d have thought that supporting each other would be second nature.”
Quick as a flash, Ian replied “For Christ’s sake, Lawrie, don’t mention socialism. If they think it’s about socialism, they’ll all run off in different directions and we’ll never get them back!”
As friend, fellow teammate and former MP, Alan Simpson explained, “Of all the biggest issues of our time, Ian never did run off in the wrong direction.”
As politician and as a human being, Ian had that rare quality of authenticity
Alas, in the tight “command and control” atmosphere of New Labour, let alone the football pitch, such independent and spirited temperament was always going to have a hard time.
Indeed the “clunking fist” of orthodoxy, when it did strike, was swift and merciless.
Much has been written of those painful events of 2009, so I won’t dwell too much on them here, other than to say that was not the end of the story. So much of the Ian I personally knew was from the time after his resignation.
For many, such a bruising and painful episode would be enough to put them off political involvement ever again. But not Ian. He threw himself into local activist politics, fighting austerity, cuts to disability benefits and championed many other causes, becoming a local figurehead to many of the campaigns that sprang up across the city.
As one activist told me: “Ian’s desire to see change in the world never left him. Nor did the way he put his politics into action.”
My own memories of Ian at this time are of someone who, underneath the jokes and the politics, hid a deep sadness. He knew the national party and leadership had let him down. But I think, deep down, he also felt his own actions had let his local comrades and city down as well.
I’m not sure if he believed this at the end. I really hope he didn’t. Because I believe he will be remembered as someone who spoke for our city, especially those without a voice.
His ability to use his intelligence, independence, and insight to take people into his political space and win their respect was a rare quality and one the people of Norwich will not forget in a hurry.
Because that and his cutting wit, which it would be remiss of me not to mention, will be the enduring memory of this formidable socialist.
A man who gave his life to learning and the scientific and political betterment of humankind. One whose personal warmth, wit and passion shined through in all he did.
Clive Lewis is Labour MP for Norwich South