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Ian Gibson: Cancer expert and Labour MP who challenged Tony Blair

Anthony Hayward
·6-min read
<p>Gibson at a rally in 2003</p> (PA)

Gibson at a rally in 2003


Ian Gibson, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 82, was a maverick whose eventful life moved from captaining a non-League football team to becoming a member of the Socialist Workers Party and a leading cancer expert before gaining public office as Labour MP for Norwich North.

After entering parliament as one of the new 1997 intake following Tony Blair’s first election victory, he not only pressed for improvements in cancer treatment, but also ruffled feathers on his own benches by voting against the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Gibson revealed later that in the run-up to the war he was recruited by Britain’s security services to question a leading Iraqi scientist – whom he had taught at university – to discover whether she was involved in the development of weapons of mass destruction.

“It was like one of these secret bus trips to Sheringham or somewhere,” he recalled. “You didn’t know where it was. It did look like the Middle East. It wasn’t Brussels!”

Dr Rihab Taha, nicknamed “Dr Germ” in the west, told Gibson that Saddam Hussein’s biological warfare programme had finished. “I believed her,” he added.

Both in the chamber and as chair of the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Select Committee from 2001 to 2005, the MP was able to draw on his academic background.

Within a month of being elected, he was pressing for Gulf War syndrome – unexplained illnesses ranging from “depression to cognitive dysfunction”, he said – to be officially recognised.

The Ministry of Defence had refused to do so and denied the war disablement pension to many veterans suffering from these illnesses after taking part in the 1991 US-led campaign to expel Iraq from Kuwait.

In 1998, Gibson posed the question in the Commons: “Has not the time come to pay up?”

Eventually, seven years later, parliament accepted a pensions appeal tribunal ruling that Gulf War syndrome was a “useful umbrella term” to cover conditions causally linked to the conflict – and almost 3,000 veterans were receiving the pension by 2006.

While coaching the cross-party parliamentary football team as its joint manager (1999-2005), Gibson’s left-wing views further unsettled the Blairites when he opposed parts of the government’s counterterrorism legislation.

Another of his notable stands against the right-of-centre Labour government came in 2004 when he led a backbench rebellion against university tuition fees that brought him into conflict with Charles Clarke, the education secretary and MP for his neighbouring constituency, Norwich South.

But Gibson fell on his sword when, five years later, he became embroiled in the expenses scandal that rocked parliament and fuelled contempt for politicians from the public.

His “crime” – selling for below the market price his taxpayer-subsidised second home, a London flat, to his daughter, who had previously lived in it rent-free – was seen by some on the left as a convenient excuse for Gordon Brown, by then prime minister, both to get rid of one of the “awkward squad” and placate the public by showing that heads were rolling.

The MP had made no money out of his action, but he offered to resign if that were the wish of his Norwich constituents. They supported Gibson, but he was still prevented from standing for Labour at the next election after he and four others were deselected by a three-person panel from the National Executive Committee – which his local party called a “kangaroo court” and others dubbed Brown’s “star chamber”.

In the event, he resigned immediately, saying his position was untenable, and forced a by-election in June 2009 that was won by the Conservative Party with a striking majority.

He spent the next decade campaigning on local issues in Norfolk and was cheered by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader.

Ian Gibson was born in Dumfries in 1938 to Winifred (née Kerr) and William Gibson, a clerk.

On leaving Dumfries Academy, he gained a degree and doctorate in genetics from Edinburgh University and, while there, played football professionally for Airdrie, St Mirren and Queen of the South.

He then trained as a teacher at Moray House College before completing his studies in the US at the universities of Indiana and Washington.

Gibson returned to Britain in 1965 to begin his long association with the University of East Anglia (UEA), starting as a research scientist, then switching to lecturing in 1968, becoming a senior biology lecturer three years later.

He also put his football boots back on to play at left-back for Norfolk amateur team Wymondham Town, which he also captained, during a glorious 1965-66 season, when they won promotion to Division One of the Anglian Combination league.

But his academic work took precedence and, with expertise in the biology of cancer and drugs targeting leukaemia, he was promoted in 1991 to dean of UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, where he headed a research team investigating cancer.

Politically, Gibson was a member of the ASTMS (originally Manufacturing, Science and Finance) union’s executive (1972-92) and motivated to join the Socialist Workers Party in 1976.

He had previously held right-wing views, but a Damascene conversion came when he supported technicians and other university staff when they were given pay rises significantly below those awarded to academics.

Gibson switched to the Labour Party in 1983 and, on contesting the Norwich North seat in 1992, lost by just 266 votes to the Tory candidate.

He was eventually elected in 1997 with a majority of more than 9,000 and his parliamentary career included a long stint (1998-2009) as chair of the all-party group on cancer.

His call for stroke support to be put on a par with that given to cancer followed his own minor stroke in 2004.

On leaving parliament – after being re-elected twice – Gibson became a visiting professor at University College London and other academic establishments, campaigned on local issues in Norfolk, such as NHS funding, the redevelopment of a shopping centre and the rescue of a community centre, and was Norwich branch chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign from 2015.

One fellow campaigner described him as “a great warhorse for the people of Norwich”.

He was made president of Wymondham Town FC in 2016 and in Who’s Who, alongside football coaching, he listed his recreations as “watching, listening and questioning”.

In 2003, UEA made him an honorary professor and Macmillan Cancer Relief named him a “champion” for his work supporting patients.

Gibson is survived by Dominique, the daughter of his 1962 marriage to Verity Cooper, Elizabeth (née Lubbock), his second wife, whom he married in 1977, and their daughter Helen. Ruth, the other daughter of his first marriage, died of a genetic illness in 1993.

Ian Gibson, politician and scientist, born 26 September 1938, died 9 April 2021

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