champion of the underdog: Maria Fyfe MP, who over the years has fought the battle for equal pay and women's rights, among other things

Rebel has been the adjective most often applied to Maria Fyfe MP during her 14-year guardianship of the Glasgow Maryhill constituency for Labour, but it is a complete contradiction of how she sees herself.

As a loyal member of the party for 40 years, she reveals her true colours by considering the ''rebel'' charge very seriously. ''I always thought long and hard about whether I should defy the whips on any issue and I only did it when it was an issue of principle,'' she says, despite a voting record which shows her almost always outside the whip, along with left-wing stalwarts such as Dennis Canavan, John McAllion, Tony Benn, and Tam Dalyell.

One of the most recent occasions was over changes to lone-parent benefits. Her explanation: ''There are a large number of single parents living in my constituency and I know several of them who struggle to get by, denying themselves the tiniest of pleasures to get things for their children, in a world of plenty where there are people who are so well off that they will never spend the money they have,'' is typical in linking the immediate personal problem with the wider economic issues.

Just how torn she was on these occasions becomes clear only now when she adds: ''Since then the government has done a lot to help low-income families. Gordon Brown has brought in a number of measures, such as increasing child benefit and introducing children's tax credit, for example. If only they had said at the time they were going to make other provision . . .''

No-one has ever before set a target for alleviating child poverty. It is achieveable in the time-scale they have set, but only if the electorate signs up for it.

Born in the Gorbals in 1938, Fyfe's interest in politics was nurtured through her family. ''My dad was a tram driver and a very active member of the Transport and General Workers' Union. He was out of work for four years during the Depression, and although that was before I was born, it was something that had a huge effect on the family. My big brothers always talked about him not having the same spirit afterwards.''

In many ways it was a classic working-class aspirational upbringing, shaped by a powerful belief that education would unlock for the next generation the opportunities that had been denied to their parents. That remains with her as she retires from her own successful career. ''As a youngster my dad won a university scholarship, but he couldn't take it up because, as the eldest of five, he had to leave school at 14 to start contributing to the family budget. He started work in a lawyer's office, but because he was paid so little had to go to work in a grocer's.'' As a result both parents were always very keen that their children should get the best education they were capable of.

When she got her first job, her father's first question was ''How much are you getting paid?'' To her consternation, he told her to turn it down because it wasn't enough. She started a better-paid one the following week, but it is that memory of growing up in an age where there was the expectation of getting a job, even being able to choose between jobs, that makes her an enthusiastic champion of New Labour's welfare-to-work philosophy. She points out that jobs bring social benefits in addition to the financial, such as connecting with fellow employees. ''I don't know how many people have told me that older workers have been a mentor to them,'' she adds.

She joined the Labour Party at the age of 21 when, spurred by newspaper comments that Labour was finished after losing three elections in a row, she went along with a group of friends and said: ''Is there anything we can do to help?''

She married Jim Fyfe in 1964 and they had two sons, but the quest for education never left her. Jim was a Herald journalist before becoming one of the Strathclyde Region's first press officers, but died tragically young between Fyfe's selection and election at Maryhill. ''After Jim finished his degree as a mature student, I started mine,'' she recalls.

The degree in economic history led, after a spell lecturing at Falkirk Technical College, to a job that fitted her ideals and experience like a glove. She became senior lecturer in the trade union studies unit at the Central College of Commerce, where the students were shop stewards learning about employment law and ''were very keen and lapped it up''. She adds: ''I loved that job'', but the enthusiasm in her voice has already conveyed that. She recalls that in the days when employers were required to give time off for such classes, some of the students were women workers from the garment trade who were shocked to discover exactly how the pay and profit structure worked.

''One of them told me she could never understand percentages at school, but now that it meant how much she would get to keep her children, she had no problem,'' adds Fyfe, revealing that the mainspring of her own motivation has remained constant not just over 14 years in the House of Commons, but throughout her life.

Elected to Glasgow City Council in 1980 for Blairdardie as part of a clean sweep of SNP seats in the Garscadden constituency, she made her mark as personnel convener, hoisting the issue of equal pay into the consciousness of surprised local government employers. Suddenly questioned about why their office cleaning bill was so low, they found that the answer of: ''We just pay wee Annie a few bob'' was completely unacceptable to the personnel convener, who insisted that wee Annie received the full amount - and backdated. Compared with that, opening council apprenticeships to girl school-leavers was child's play.

That championing of the underdog - whether they were school cleaners or Partick Thistle - was to become the hallmark of her tenure in Maryhill. While her support for the Jags is ''a bit of fun'', support for individuals springs from first principles and is, for her, the whole point of the Labour Party which founded the NHS and was brought into being to defend workers' rights.

Allied to that is her support for women's rights, and she now says: ''Campaigning to get more women into elected office has been as successful as it has despite the fact that we were laughed at when we first said we wanted an equal number of men and women in parliament.''

Extraordinary as it now seems, when she became MP for Maryhill in 1987, she was the only woman to be returned for Labour in Scotland, and only the tenth woman ever to be elected for Labour in a Scottish seat. Now, of course, there have been more women than that elected in one year, and Fyfe is delighted that the Scottish Parliament is heading towards Scandinavian levels of parity between men and women. Though never likely to be labelled one of Blair's babes, she has sprung generously and publicly to the defence of the last intake of New Labour women. In the heady days of her own initiation to Westminster, she was conscious of her very formidable predecessors such as Jennie Lee and Margaret Herbison, who she felt were ''sometimes looking over my shoulder''.

If so, she took on some of their feistiness. Her identification with her constituents in Maryhill has tended to bracket her with social issues such as health, but she has always had a keen interest in international affairs. Currently chair of Labour's committee on international development, she resigned as a shadow spokeswoman on women's affairs over Labour's backing for the Gulf War in 1991. Later she emerged as the diplomat among Scottish Labour MPs angry over the shelling of retreating Iraqi soldiers, acknowledging ''a difficult time in the recent past in the Labour movement''.

The following year she was made a Scottish front-bench spokesperson by John Smith, but resigned in 1995 in advance of Tony Blair's pre-election reshuffle. ''It was obvious that Labour was going to win the election and I did not want to be a junior minister at the age of 60,'' she said. Clearly finding the back benches her natural home, she admitted: ''I have always felt constrained in the role of official spokesperson. Obviously there have to be opposition spokespeople, but the fact that I could only speak publicly on subjects related to a particular job I found irksome.''

Being a back-bencher, on the other hand, she describes as ''a wonderful job which gives you the freedom to take up all sorts of causes that seem important to you''. It is equally clear that, despite her enthusiasm for doing all the things which have been squeezed out for lack of time over the years - from going to concerts and travelling to exotic places to spending time with her 15-month-old granddaughter, with whom she's besotted - she will miss the action, both in the constituency and in the House.