Obituary: Bob Pritchard

ek focuses2Last night some of you may have been watching ‘Code of a Killer’ the story of the first murderer to be caught through DNA fingerprinting, pioneered by Dr Alec Jefferys at Leicester University.

Professor Robert (Bob) Pritchard, the man who set up and recruited him to the Genetics Dept at the University passed away over the weekend after a long period in a vegetative state. As well as being a notable scientist he was a prominent Liberal activist for over two decades.

Alec Jeffreys said that as soon as he met Professor Robert Pritchard, who founded the university department of genetics, he felt drawn to it.

Bob created a collegiate environment, almost on the lines of a commune: no prima donnas, just everyone interacting well with each other. I knew I could be happy within that, so I took a gamble, and have never regretted it.’

When the Tories in Leicester proposed to make Gary Lineker a freeman of the city in a fit of blatant populism the Labour administration responded by putting Alec Jeffreys forward. At the ceremony they were mortified when Alec spent part of his speech praising Bob as a professional inspiration. The Labour councillors hated Bob as the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the council and the most effective challenger to the Labour orthodoxy in what was effectively a one-party state.

After several unsuccessful attempts Bob was elected to represent East Knighton on Leicester City Council in 1987. (I was his agent in that campaign, and after a subsequent by-election his co-councillor). He became a county councillor two years later. Due to his diligent campaigning in the ward and his persistence in holding Labour to account in the council chamber he became widely respected by his electors. We would sometimes meet local Tory activists who would admit to voting for him (but not me!). In what had once been a ward with a four figure Tory majority, Bob polled over 2,000 votes and the Tories less than a thousand.   (Some of his election literature can be seen in early editions of ALDC’s  ‘How to Win Local elections’)

As a county councillor he provided astute leadership of the Liberal Democrat group at County Hall, on an authority where no one party had overall control. He was a firm believer that getting Lib Dem policies enacted was more important than getting special responsibility allowances. By avoiding formal alliances with other parties he ensured that the Lib Dem group flourished.

Bob was a champion of the individual against the state and often cited DNA fingerprinting as a great advance in shifting the balance from the disbelieving and arbitrary state to the disenfranchised asylum seeker who was now able to prove his or her genetic inheritance.

At a local level he firmly believed in empowering people, and his attitude to much casework and many local issues was that his role was not to serve the local community, but to empower it and the individuals within it – a true advocate of community politics as originally envisioned by Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman.

Bob remained a councillor in Leicester until illness hospitalised him in 2002. He was a frequent speaker at Party Conference and involved in policy formation at the national level. Above all he inspired those who worked closely with him; I know I am not the only activist in the party who would describe him as a formative political influence.

He is sadly missed.

* Arnie Gibbons is a former Chair of East Midlands Region, former member of Federal Conference Committee and has been a Liberal Democrat councillor in Leicester, Islington and Richmond.

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14 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 14th Apr '15 - 8:30pm

    A really good Liberal. Many thanks for this piece, Arnie.

    Tony Greaves

  • As with other recent memorials to party members, and as a member with, hopefully, many decades of Liberal campaigning ahead, of them I find such articles truly inspirational. I owe a great debt to those who fought to keep the party going and will certainly do what I can to ensure it continues.

    My best and many thanks to Bob, his friends and family.

  • Mark Smulian 14th Apr '15 - 11:00pm

    Very sad news. I didn’t know Bob while I was a student at Leicester, my course having nothing to do with his department, but came across him later at party conferences. I was pleased to hear from him about the progress the party had by then made in a city where the Liberals had been more or less derelict in the mid-1970s – and he sometimes contributed to Liberator. A fine liberal.

  • After such a long and cruelly debilitating illness this is at last a merciful release for Bob. As Arnie says, he was an inspirational figure and mentor for many of us who were at some time involved in Liberal politics in Leicester and beyond.

    He deserved to be better known in the party than he was, but was interested in promoting his own, sometimes quixotic, causes, rather than in belonging to any faction or in self-promotion for its own sake.

    Years before the scandals around top people’s pay, he ran a campaign on behalf of Dunlop shareholders in response to the managing director preaching pay restraint while accepting a big rise himself. He was disappointed that although the campaign achieved much media coverage, the party nationally would not pursue the issue more seriously.

    As a councillor in Leicester he was an early advocate for bringing life back to city centres by bringing back residential accommodation – something which is now conventional wisdom. He also opposed ill-thought out greenfield development on the edge of the city, which he felt would lead to poor quality residential neighbourhoods lacking access to services and public transport.

    He was unafraid to challenge the expertise and conventional wisdom of council officers, developing a detailed knowledge of the planning system and local government finance. As a result, despite the Lib Dems being the smallest group on Leicestershire county council when it was in no overall control, he often got his way on the budget. He was a strong and consistent champion for local government, opposing centralised ringfencing, especially when it was proposed by Lib Dem spokespersons who should have known better. It is a sign of his sharp mind and effective debating skills that he became leader of the Lib Dem group on Leicester City and then Leicestershire County Councils very quickly after gaining his seat.

    Bob might best be described as a sixties Liberal. Despite becoming a professor at the age of 34, he retained a strong anti-establishment, anti-authority streak, feeling it was the job of Liberals to hold those in power to account. This applied equally to big business as to insensitive state bureaucracies. He was ever willing to take up issues that he thought right even if they were not electorally popular – for example speaking up for a constituent he felt had been badly harassed by the police. he also served as a prison visitor.

    He was very proud of the achievements of the Leicester University Genetics Department, which he founded, and how the genetic fingerprinting technology helped the vulnerable and the wrongly accused. He was also a strong advocate of the benefits of biotechnology. He felt that the LIb Dems and the environmental movement had taken a wrong turn in opposing GM technology, refusing to see the benefits of the science in their haste to attack multinationals. Along with Tim Farron and Sharon Bowles, he would get up at conference to fight a minority battle against what seemed like annual anti-GM motions.

    He was a kind man, who didn’t mind his house being taken over as a campaign HQ and indeed virtually a Liberal drop-in centre. Since his illness he has been much missed by Liberal friends and colleagues. Rest in peace, Bob.

  • Chris Rennard 14th Apr '15 - 11:52pm

    Thank you for these comments and for letting many of know about this sad news, I was asking about him only recently. He was a very clever man, although it took me a long time to persuade him that tactical voting could be relevant in East Knighton as it was a Tory v Liberal fight as opposed to the Lab v Lib fight in Crown Hills ward. I remember very well our 1985 Leicester breakthroughs in which won our first two wards for over 20 years, but Bob missed out by just 98 votes before then going on to win in 1986 and with Arnie make the ward a stronghold for us, with Ian doing many of the leaflets. Bob was a great man and it was a pleasure to have been part of the team at a crucial time.

  • Like so many people in the Liberal family, I knew of Bob Pritchard rather than knowing him in person.

    We had maybe one or two conversations at obscure conference meetings a while ago.. He had a reputation as someone worth listening to. He wrote interesting things in the political sphere which were individual and thoughtful; whilst I did not always agree with him but he made you think.

    Like so many people in the party I knew of him for what he did for the party. Until reading this, I had no clue of his academic work in genetics. Many of us have lives outside the party, a ‘daytime job’ far removed from our political life and it is always interesting to see a fuller picture. So many thanks for this obituary, Arnie.

    Other comments here have already said Bob Pritchard was a proper Liberal and a decent bloke. You cannot ask for a better obituary than that.

  • The funeral will take place at Gilroes Crematorium on Friday 24th April at 2.30pm. Wake at The Cradock Arms, Knighton Road, Leicester LE2 3TT. All welcome, please confirm via e-mail on [email protected] if attending.

    PS Thanks to Iain for all those additional memories. I keep thinking of more – like his attempt to popularise low-energy light bulbs by selling them through Focus

  • Very sorry about Bob. I did think of him during the programme.
    It was good for trust in DNA that it’s first use about crime was to clear their suspect .
    The Smith family lived in Knighton and my mother in law, Winifrid kept the membership going in the tough years. She always had good support from the University.
    Bob struck me as an outstanding Cllr..

  • I remember Winnie well, a fine woman, and how delighted she was in 1985 when Anne Crumbie won the West Knighton County Council seat – the first time in her life that she had voted for a winning Liberal candidate.

    Co-incidentally Winnie and Alec Jeffreys lived on the same street.

  • David Pollard 15th Apr '15 - 10:34am

    Great man, friend and political colleague.

  • Very sorry to hear of Bob’s passing – a real gentleman and a superb listener. I attended many Leicester Group Away Days and the chance to have coffee and lunch with Bob Pritchard and Anne Crumbie always made the trip (and the sacrifice of the Saturday) worthwhile. A sad loss, but as Iain Sharpe says, a merciful release.

  • Liberal Neil 15th Apr '15 - 5:08pm

    Bob was a lovely man, a genuine liberal, incredibly intelligent and huge fun. I had a bit of a cry yesterday reading this obituary and the comments.

    He took my under his wing as I got involved in campaigning as a student in Leicester and, along with Arnie and Iain, was a huge influence on the development of both my approach to campaigning and to political thinking.

    Thinking back now I recognise a lot of Alec Jeffreys’ description of working with him. He gave me a huge amount of leeway in organising his campaign and producing campaign literature when I was completely untested. He was always encouraging and, even on the odd occasion I got anything wrong, very forgiving.

    Adding to the above, it is also worth noting that he was an early pioneer of online communication, using message boards as they were then to discuss things with a handful of other liberals round the country.

    And as well as his efforts to promote low energy lightbulbs he was also obsessive about getting more trees planted in his ward, and hugely successful at doing so.

    I have very fond memories of spending evenings chatting to him about politics which would distract us from artworking the leaflets we were meant to be doing. And of producing plates for his litho printer in his ‘dark room’. To this day it is the only place I’ve ever printed B4 leaflets!

    Most of all I remember the intellectual challenge of discussing things with him. He was charming, but would really make me think through my views and I am the better for it.

    I didn’t see him after his illness but think of him often, and I certainly wouldn’t be half the campaigner I am now without his influence. I always missed his company after I left Leicester and am missing him dearly now.

    (And I had completely forgotten that I was ever credited in the East Knighton Focus Team!)

  • I’m greatly saddened to hear of the passing of Bob Pritchard. We served together on Leicestershire County Council where we had many happy times. In truth when I was leader of the group it was Bob who ran the show. His advice and intellect were second to none and without him I could not have done it. His sense of humour was marvellous and I quickly learnt also never to get a lift with him!
    Though we had very different backgrounds and of different generations we became in those few years in the early 90’s close friends. I miss him very much and the world is a poorer place without him.

  • Amazing man, I was very lucky as a Leicester city councillor to receive quite words of encouragement from him, someone who always believed in me as an individual, as a Liberal Democrat Councillor. The highly respected honourable man. A quite persuader. I have fond memories of Bob at his 70 birthday party and the people he brought together. I Remember his focus leaflets that he delivered to the Leicester City reference library ‘ for the future’. Sadly missing when ill. Rest well.

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