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John Lee, Labour MP who was Left-wing on everything but crime – obituary

A former colonial civil servant, he was anti-nuclear, anti-EEC and anti-American, but attacked ‘misguided leniency’ in the courts

John Lee in 2013
John Lee in 2013 Credit: Michael Waller-Bridge

John Lee, who has died aged 92, was a colonial civil servant and barrister who became a fiercely Left-wing (on everything bar crime), Labour MP for Reading and, later, the Handsworth division of Birmingham.

2020欧洲杯体育投注开户Anti-nuclear, anti-EEC and vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War, Lee told the Commons in 1968: “Everything I hear of the Americans makes we wish we had nothing further to do with them.”

Lee even publicly advocated the assassination of foreign leaders. He startled the House by saying in 1967: “Although of course assassination is not to be encouraged, there are circumstances in which I believe it can be exercised if the object of the assassination is a sufficiently vicious and obnoxious person.”

2020欧洲杯体育投注开户He argued that democracy could maintain its influence far better if Britain trained its soldiers for such a purpose, suggesting as targets the “racist rulers of South Africa”, “Stalinists behind the Iron Curtain” and, less urgently, “banana republic bosses”.

John Michael Hubert Lee was born at Bagshot on August 13 1927, the son of Victor and Renee Lee. From Reading School, where he supported the far-Left Common Wealth party at the 1945 election, he won an exhibition to Christ’s College, Cambridge, to read History.

2020欧洲杯体育投注开户Lee joined the Colonial Service in 1951, serving as an administrative officer in the Gold Coast as it became Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah. He stayed on in its Ministry of Communications, then in 1959 joined the BBC’s legal department. He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1960.

Selected to fight Reading in 1964, Lee failed to regain the seat Ian Mikardo had lost five years before. In 1966 he ousted the Conservative Peter Emery2020欧洲杯体育投注开户 with a majority of 4,133.

In the Commons he joined a Labour Left made more vocal by Harold Wilson2020欧洲杯体育投注开户’s adoption of crisis economic measures including a prices and incomes policy. Lee championed “planned growth” as an alternative, and rebelled sporadically.

Before the 1970 election he was ordered to withdraw a charge that Edward Heath had acquiesced in “near treasonable” activities by some Tories over Rhodesia.

By now Lee was practising on the Midland and Oxford Circuits. In 1966 he attacked the removal of the appeal court’s right to increase sentences; with crime out of control, “misguided leniency” did not help.

Later that year he urged the government to stand up to Spain over Gibraltar. “Some of us,” he said, “have a sneaking feeling Gibraltar is being traded in to satisfy the Americans in their Cold War policy.”

2020欧洲杯体育投注开户Lee earned the Prime Minister’s anger when he suggested that if Australia wanted British troops east of Suez it should “pay the market price”. Wilson retorted: “British troops are not mercenaries.”

In 1967 he voted against Wilson’s application to join the Common Market; he voted against “strings” imposed by the IMF after devaluation and in 1968 was one of 23 rebels summoned before the parliamentary party to be censured.

Defying the whips again over the defence estimates, In Place of Strife and an increase in Selective Employment Tax, Lee faced a two-month suspension in 1969 – but escaped because a new chief whip, Bob Mellish, wanted to start with a clean slate.

Lee urged Wilson not to bother with reforming the Lords, but to wait until Tory peers overstepped the mark, then scrap it. He called for Lord Hill’s dismissal as chairman of the BBC after a programme about Charles Richardson2020欧洲杯体育投注开户, central figure in the Old Bailey “torture case”, was shown while his appeal was pending; Hill apologised.

In 1970 Lee lost Reading to the Conservative Dr Gerard Vaughan by 1,154 votes. He was selected for Handsworth, and at the snap February 1974 election took it from the Conservatives by 1,623 votes.

Re-elected comfortably that October, Lee was one of six MPs behind a march advocating withdrawal from Northern Ireland, which the police banned from Fleet Street and Whitehall. However, after the Birmingham pub bombings days later, in which several constituents were killed and many injured, he urged the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins to adopt identity cards and signed a Tory motion urging tougher penalties for terrorism.

When Walsall North’s MP John Stonehouse, a constituent of his, turned up in Australia having faked his death in Florida, Lee grew impatient at Parliament’s failure to resolve the situation and demanded Stonehouse’s expulsion – though with the right to speak first.

Two years later he took an equally robust line over MPs implicated in the Poulson affair, proposing that they be jailed until the summer recess, then expelled. Fellow lawyers told him he was advocating imprisonment without trial.

Lee upset many in 1975 by opposing a Bill from his colleague Jack Ashley2020欧洲杯体育投注开户 making it easier to secure convictions for rape, saying it relaxed the burden of proof. A year later, he caused anger in the House by blocking an identical Bill. Lee later urged the Home Secretary to make it possible to prosecute “lustful, over-sexed, physically strong women” for the rape of a man.

Lee was a leader of backbench resistance to direct elections to the European Parliament. In 1978 he told the government he would vote with the Conservatives if it guillotined the direct elections Bill, joining “a kamikaze squad to hold up legislation we consider a constitutional outrage”.

Lee announced in 1975 that he would stand down at the next election; he blamed illness, having a constituency away from London, late-night sittings and the demands of a young family. Later he changed his mind, taking soundings about succeeding Lena Jeger at Holborn & St Pancras South, then considered standing as an independent at Newham South East or Northampton North to qualify for severance pay.

Before leaving the House at the 1979 election Lee became a deputy circuit judge, and in 1981 he was appointed an assistant recorder, sitting until 1987.

2020欧洲杯体育投注开户John Lee married Margaret Russell in 1960; they had a son and a daughter.

John Lee, born August 13 1927, died April 14 2020