Janet Anderson, Labour whip and minister described as ‘a force of nature’ – obituary
Janet Anderson, who has died aged 73, was a gregarious and strong-willed Labour MP for Rossendale and Darwen from 1992 to 2010; in government she was a whip, then minister for broadcasting, film and tourism.
Trenchantly loyal to John Smith and Tony Blair, she was dropped by the latter after suggesting to MPs that, to show support for Britain’s tourism industry after the foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001, the Blairs would take a staycation instead of holidaying in Tuscany.
As a minister, Janet Anderson brought in free television licences for over-75s and discounted ones for the blind. From the back benches, she promoted the first Bills to outlaw stalking and establish a register of paedophiles, and was influential in securing liberalisation of the Sunday trading laws.
Having lobbied for Sunday opening before becoming an MP, she told the Commons in 1993: “As the mother of three teenage children, I must tell the House that the only time I get to do my weekly shop is on Sundays; the same is often true for more than 70 per cent of married women who now work outside the home.”
Janet Anderson had previously been personal assistant to the Blackburn MPs Barbara Castle and Jack Straw. After her sudden death, Straw praised her as “a force of nature. She was terrific company, but better to be a friend and not foe of hers. She took no prisoners in argument. She was a committed socialist all her life, outraged by social injustice wherever she found it.”
Her friendship with Straw survived her speaking out in 2001 against moves to take military action in Iraq. Two years later Straw, by then Foreign Secretary, threatened to quit if Labour MPs refused to back the invasion – but he turned out to have shared her misgivings.
She had been married to Vincent Humphries, a solicitor, for 20 years when she arrived at Westminster; their son David would later be her office manager. She became close to Jim Dowd, MP for Lewisham West, and in 1998 divorced her husband; she and Dowd eventually wed in 2016.
When The Daily Telegraph exposed MPs’ expenses in 2009, it rated Janet Anderson “one of the most prolific claimers.” One of 98 MPs who voted to keep such information secret, she had successfully claimed £16,612 in car mileage for 60,118 miles travelled – more than any other MP and equal to five round trips to her Lancashire constituency every week.
She had also claimed £23,039 in second-home allowance, despite staying during the week with Dowd at his house at Forest Hill and claiming for its upkeep. Dowd himself received the supplement intended to cover an MP’s additional cost of living in London. For three years she also claimed the highest Additional Costs Allowance of any MP – eventually repaying £5,750 in overclaimed petty cash.
Janet Anderson was born in Newcastle on December 6 1949, the daughter of Thomas Anderson and the former Ethel Pearson. Both her grandfathers were miners; her father was a Labour Party agent.
Educated at Trowbridge Girls’ High School, and Kingswood Grammar School and Kingsfield comprehensive in Bristol, she joined the Labour Party at 17. She completed her studies at Central London Polytechnic and the University of Nantes, taking a diploma in Bi-lingual Business Studies in French and German. Graduating in 1971, she went to work at The Scotsman and The Sunday Times as a secretary.
Three years later she became personal assistant to Barbara Castle, then Social Services Secretary in Harold Wilson’s government. After her boss’s election to the European Parliament in 1979, her work took her to Brussels and Strasbourg. From 1981 to 1987 she worked for Straw, who had taken over Mrs Castle’s seat at Blackburn.
Janet Anderson first fought Rossendale and Darwen in 1987, losing to the Conservative David Trippier by 4,982 votes. Afterwards she became campaigns organiser for the Parliamentary Labour Party, then northern regional organiser for the Shopping Hours Reform Council. She also ran her own public relations company, with clients including Airbus, the Royal College of Nursing and Safeway.
At the 1992 election, she defeated Trippier by 120 votes, Labour’s narrowest win. At Westminster she became PPS to Labour’s deputy leader Margaret Beckett – resigning a year later over Mrs Beckett’s failure to support John Smith’s drive for “one member, one vote” in the party.
She ousted Peter Hain, whom she reckoned insufficiently loyal to Smith, as secretary of the Left-wing Tribune Group of MPs, then after Smith’s death in May 1994 backed Blair for the leadership and ran Straw’s campaign for a seat on Labour’s National Executive Committee.
Blair made her an Opposition whip, then in 1996 appointed her Shadow Minister for Women. That October, she told the Telegraph’s Petronella Wyatt that women would become more promiscuous under a Labour government, adding: “That’s an election promise.” She later claimed this was meant as a joke.
That May, in response to an upsurge of complaints of stalking, she presented her Stalking Bill. It failed to gain government support, ministers considering its wording too vague. Soon after, she put forward her Bill for a register of paedophiles.
At the 1997 election, Janet Anderson’s majority rocketed to 10,049 as Blair secured a landslide victory. He appointed her a Government whip, and that November also Vice-Chamberlain of the Household; this involved being “held hostage” in Buckingham Palace during the State Opening of Parliament, and writing the Sovereign a daily letter on events in Parliament.
Told the Queen did not care for dry-as-dust missives, Janet Anderson adopted a gossipy style which she was told went down much better. While she covered the heavyweight decisions as Blair’s government set to work and war loomed over Kosovo, she spiced up her reports with some of the gossip, rumours and drink-fuelled humour sweeping the Palace of Westminster.
In a chatty, increasingly informal – but always proper – way she referred in her missives to pre-menstrual tension, champagne parties, Christmas shopping and which MPs were rumoured to be pregnant.
She was unashamedly forthright about the personalities of the day, telling the Queen that John Bercow, later Mr Speaker, was a “nasty piece of work” who raised “bogus” points of order; Glenda Jackson constantly missed debates as transport minister; the Ulster Unionists were a “sour bunch”; the anti-sleaze former war correspondent Martin Bell was “a pathetic joke figure”; and the future Tory leader Michael Howard just “loathsome”.
Such daily reports remain confidential between the Whips’ Office and the Palace, but Janet Anderson unprecedentedly kept copies of hers, in 2016 publishing them under the title Dear Queen.
In July 1998 Blair promoted her to Parliamentary Under Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport. Early on, she appealed to the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, when MI6 blocked filming around the exterior of its Vauxhall headquarters for the James Bond film The World is Not Enough (1999). Cook overruled them.
She complained to the Home Office that housing asylum seekers in cheap seaside hotels was ruining the resorts’ tourist trade. And when foot and mouth struck, she warned that rural tourism was losing £100 million a week – with Americans deterred by images of burning cattle carcasses.
Her majority was halved at the 2001 election. Dropped as a minister, she served on the Home Affairs and Culture, Media and Sport select committees, the Commons’ Administration Committee and the Speaker’s Panel of committee chairman. She also chaired the all-party Intellectual Property, Writers’ and Performers’ Alliance groups.
At the 2010 election, the Conservative Jake Berry overturned her majority of 3,616 to capture Rossendale and Darwen by 4,493 votes. Informed of her death, Berry said: “Although we had our political differences, I have only the utmost respect for her service, hard work and commitment to Rossendale and Darwen over the 18 years that she was our MP.”
Out of the Commons, she set up Pearson-Anderson Communications.
Janet Anderson is survived by Jim Dowd, and by a daughter and two sons from her first marriage.
Janet Anderson, born December 6 1949, died February 6 2023