Labour’s Frank Dobson steps down as MP after 35 years.
Interviewed by David Lennon.
Genial, warm, engaging; a wit and raconteur whose blunt, eloquent and passionate advocacy, especially on housing and the NHS, has served the voters of Camden for 35 years.
Frank Dobson became Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras in 1979 and finally retired from parliament in May. And boy, are we going to miss the man who has been described as ‘of portly frame, jovial expression and a bright white beard’.
“I really enjoyed being an MP, and I’ve got a real sense of pride that people elected me at eight elections in succession; but to pun on the name of your publication, I recognised that at 75 I was going Over The Hill.”
Frank Dobson is clearly a people person. From the moment you meet him, you feel comfortable in his company. “I believe in people, and that they are intrinsically good. I enjoyed representing people and being able to say certain things.”
When I ask him to speak about his achievements, he uses his masterful vocal skills and modestly deflects the question: “I never dislocated my shoulder patting myself on the back,” he says and then laughs with delight at his own wit.
Frank grew up in Yorkshire, in the usually Conservative constituency of Selby, though “I was actually born in the village of Dunnington,” he says. He was “always Labour” and “always interested in politics”.
He moved to London to go to the London School of Economics, but avoided student politics, saying “I had better things to do – like theatre and opera and girls.”
After a stint as leader of Camden Council during the 1970s, Frank was elected to parliament in 1979. His conviviality, linked to a naturally pugnacious style of politics, earned him rapid promotion to the Labour front bench, where he served in several important posts from 1982. When Labour won power in 1997, Frank Dobson was appointed as Health Secretary.
He says he was drawn to the Health brief partly because “it’s home territory for Labour”, and also because a number of hospitals, including UCH and Great Ormond Street and many medical research institutes, are located in his constituency.
“I have an obsession about the NHS. People like the idea that it looks after everybody. It doesn’t just bind the nation’s wounds, it binds the nation together.
“I foolishly resigned as Health Secretary in 1999 to run as Labour candidate for mayor of London, which in retrospect was about as stupid as they come.
“Blair had promised me I’d be brought back in, and he didn’t keep his promise. But I’ve never been one to go moaning on about the past, it’s a waste of bloody time.”
One reason he agreed to run for mayor was because he believes strongly that “we should make sure that everybody has a decent home they can afford. That was my obsession, and remains my obsession.”
He also lists housing as one of the failures of the past decades. “We thought we were doing well until 10-15 years ago. Now the situation is insane. A newly appointed surgeon at UCH or Great Ormond St should live near the hospital, but even earning £80,000 they cannot afford to buy if that is their only source of income.
“My high point in Parliament was when Nelson Mandela came to address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall in 1996. I’d been a member of the anti-apartheid movement since 1959. All those years of boycotting oranges and getting wet through on marches… We’d dreamed of success, but we never really believed it would happen.
“The Anti-Apartheid Movement wasn’t the politics of triangulation or of think tanks or compromise or consensus. It wasn’t the politics of big business or press barons. It was gut politics – the politics of right and wrong.”
And the future? “The constituency now has one of the biggest concentrations of biomedical research in the world, possibly the biggest once the Crick Institute opens. I’ve been a governor of the Royal Vets College for some time and am also involved with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I’m hoping to continue to be involved with that, because I think that biomedical research is going to be a large chunk of our future.”
Unfortunately he has not been able to think about life after parliament because four months ago his wife Janet was diagnosed with cancer, lymphoma. Caring for her “takes up a lot of my time and all of my attention. I do the cooking now, I’m cooking dinner this evening.” “What are you making?” asks the waitress in his local Italian café when she overhears this. “It’s gammon steak tonight.”
In mid-September Frank rings to say “Great news, Janet’s latest scan showed the all clear on the cancer.” Great news indeed.
As the interview ends, I cannot resist thinking that his six grandchildren are really fortunate to have a figure who so resembles our ideal picture of Santa Claus.
Thank you, Frank, for all the gifts you have given us over the years.