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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
From disaffection to defection
Charles Kennedy with his newest MP Paul Marsden
Nyta Mann

Until he ran headlong into battle with Labour's whips' office, Paul Marsden had been in danger of seeing out his second term at Westminster in much the same manner as his first: as a complete unknown.

But the Shrewsbury & Atcham MP's defection to the Liberal Democrats following his exposure to daylight of the Labour whips' routine brutality ensures he will be recalled as more than a mere electoral footnote.

That is what the 33-year-old might have remained were it not for his opposition to the war in Afghanistan, which lit the fuse for him to become the first defection from Labour - leaving aside the SDP breakaway Gang of Four - since the 1970s.

Hilary Armstrong
Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong: Private telling-off backfired
Being hauled in for a completely counter-productive dressing down by Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong back in October over that opposition plainly set him on the path that led him to the Lib Dem benches.

Up to that point he had betrayed no previous signs of potential candidacy for the "awkward squad", serving obediently and anonymously for New Labour's first term.

But suddenly, this previous model of modest loyalty found himself rubbing shoulders with the rebellious likes of Alan Simpson, Alice Mahon and Bob Marshall-Andrews.

And yet he was never really a rebel of their ilk. If he had been, he would most likely have been more able to weather the whips' intense ill-feeling, veiled threats, occasional accusations of lunacy and even near-physical assault as he alleged last week.

Likely lad

Paul Marsden came to Westminster on the tide of Tony Blair's 1997 landslide as one of the party's "unlikely lads", the first ever Labour MP for his seat, with a majority of just 1,670.

He very nearly didn't make it back in June's general election. Not as a result of votes cast - his majority more than doubled - but because Mr Marsden had at first refused to stand again, denouncing the antiquated ways of the House and the difficulty of squaring his family commitments with the demands of an MP's life.

But his initial equivocation may have played a part in his decision to stick to his guns on principle, as he sees it, on his second time round as an MP.

Low profile

The son of a Labour councillor, he joined the Labour Party in 1983 and soon became active in the Young Fabians, serving on its council and executive.

He took building studies at Teeside Polytechnic, then went on to get a management diploma through the Open University. He worked as a quality-assurance manager before entering the Commons.

His first four years at Westminster saw him campaign for greater access to the countryside, back a ban on fox hunting, gain a place on the Commons agriculture select committee and call for better cancer care.

Handy weapon for Kennedy

The Labour whips' office granted him time off on compassionate grounds from the Commons when his wife, Shelley, was seriously ill.

That his resulting absence, according to the transcript he published of his October showdown with Ms Armstrong, was later raised by the chief whip as part of a "poor attendance record" infuriated him and was seen as a clumsy error by other Labour MPs.

It is certainly arguable that Labour chiefs could have kept him on board with better handling. Instead, they have not only lost an MP but handed Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy a valuable propaganda victory and a useful symbol of the government's "control freakery".

On the other hand, as one Labour whip put it, and given the steamroller size of Labour's parliamentary majority, "one down, 400-odd to go".

See also:

10 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Labour MP defects to Lib Dems
05 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Colleagues 'attacked' me, says MP
22 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Dissent over 'war' allowed insists Hoon
17 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Anti-bombs MP defies 'whip's demands'
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