Frank Dobson’s death is a reminder of Labour’s decay

Published by The Times (14th November, 2019)

Frank Dobson was one of the first members of parliament I got to know. He was among the local MPs on my patch in north London in the days when a local paper reporter had time to develop contacts, so I would relish invitations to join him for a cup of tea or a pint in the Commons.

He looked like Father Christmas and was always jolly company: funny, a fabulous raconteur and full of fantastic gossip he happily shared with a nervous young journalist. When we met he had just been made shadow leader of the House after the 1987 election and he delighted in telling me of his pleasure in ensuring the newly elected Ken Livingstone would have the worst possible office.

He loathed the posturing hard left then taking over London’s Labour Party. A former council leader himself, he had no time for glib stunts such as promoting Sinn Fein and twinning the capital with its Nicaraguan counterpart in solidarity with the Sandinista; he wanted to focus on core concerns such as health and housing.

So I was sad to see news of his death — even if I later learnt that his tactic was to befriend young hacks on the basis some might rise to positions of influence. Perhaps it also marks the passing of an era for his party. Tony Blair dismissed him as unashamedly ‘Old Labour’. Yet after flirting with the hard left, even voting for Tony Benn as deputy leader, Dobson became disillusioned and switched to what he called ‘the sane left’.

He was really one of those savvy old-school operators, familiar from postwar Labour politics, yet retaining recognisable principles and affection for his fellow citizens. He was from a tough working-class background, the son and grandson of railwaymen who died young — this alone would mark him out in modern politics.

Dobson’s bluff style, not to mention his risqué humour, hid a sharp mind but might have caused problems in the social media age. ‘You won’t stop people shagging,’ he said when helping determine a response to the Aids crisis. Yet what pleasure to see a minister reply with short, straight answers in a Jeremy Paxman interrogation that flew around social media after his death was announced.

Dobson was treated badly by Blair after accepting a quixotic challenge against Livingstone for London mayor, then rightly opposing the Iraq war. Yet he respected a winner — and while friendly with his neighbouring MP Jeremy Corbyn, would have struggled with his hard-left acolytes, their intolerance and their self-serving gesture politics. His death underlines the tragedy of the Labour Party.

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