"I'm a sentimental old sod," Frank Dobson warns me. It's two days since he told Holborn and St Pancras Labour Party activists that he is standing down at the next election after 35 years as their MP.
We meet by the gates of Coram's Fields in the heart of his London constituency. With his portly frame, jovial expression, and bright white beard (he won Beard of the Year in 2000), the Father Christmas comparison is obvious and often made. He's chatting casually to a park attendant before we walk to a nearby cafe in the glorious sunshine. "Try and walk with Frank – you've got to allow double the time to walk around because of the people wanting to speak to him," is the tip I'm given in advance by Sarah Hayward, Labour leader of Camden council – a position once held by Dobson himself.
Dobson is not just sentimental; he's a deeply emotional man. His eyes moisten when he discusses his brother Geoff, who died of liver cancer in 1997, on the eve of Labour sweeping to power after 18 years of Tory triumphalism; it was a bittersweet year. Geoff was a state school teacher who was "very severe, apparently", but when a former student stopped Dobson a few years ago to tell him he owed everything to his brother, it was more than he could bear. "I have to say, I burst into tears," he recalls. "In fact, I feel quite teary about it now."
Dobson was born in a small village outside York in 1940. There was a history of tragedy in the family. Dobson's grandfather was a railwayman who was run over and killed in 1910. When Dobson was 16 years old, his own father – who also worked on the railways – died of kidney failure. Though his parents were both Labour party members, it wasn't until Dobson enrolled at LSE to study economics in 1959 – no small achievement for someone of his background at the time – that he got involved himself. When he joined, Holborn and St Pancras Labour party had a decidedly leftwing reputation: a hotbed of Bevanism, it flew the red flag from the town hall, and was suspended by the national party.
"My obsession has always been housing," says Dobson, fiddling with his cappuccino. When the Tories seized control of Camden council in 1968, Dobson campaigned against their policy of allowing landlords to transform houses into offices. "Then people said, 'Why not stand at the next council elections to strengthen your hand on this matter?' And I did, and I was elected for this ward." When the council leader Millie Miller stood down to become a parliamentary candidate in 1973, he was elected leader virtually unopposed.
Yet the failure to build housing is one of Dobson's greatest disappointments about the New Labour era. "I never did understand why they didn't do it – it was as though council housing and housing associations had become an embarrassment," he says, looking downcast. "It's gone totally loony now. Here we are, just off Great Ormond Street, a word-class hospital and rightly so. If someone started as a children's heart surgeon – new, without any capital behind him or her – they get around £80,000 a year; they wouldn't be able to buy a small one-bedroom house in the area."
Dobson has been on the receiving end of attacks from rightwing tabloids for continuing to live in a council house despite his salary. "I first lived there when we were subtenants of a subtenant of a private landlord," he says with a slightly exasperated tone. "We were then sold to Camden council. What should I have done? Exercised the right to buy, which I voted against?"
When Dobson became an MP in 1979, Labour was racked by internal tumult. Although he voted for Tony Benn as deputy leader in 1981, he became increasingly disillusioned with the iconic left-winger, preferring to align with what he calls the "sane left". A strong supporter of Neil Kinnock, who he believes doesn't get the credit he deserves, he established a good rapport with John Smith when he became leader in 1992. In the leadership contest that followed Smith's death, Dobson voted for Blair. "Who else was there?" he asks, hardly a great compliment to either Blair or his challengers John Prescott and Margaret Beckett.
Dobson is clearly conflicted about Tony Blair. He is adamant that "we'd have won almost under any circumstances in 1997", regardless of who the leader was. Though he applauds him for his role in Northern Ireland, Dobson is unequivocal in voicing the opinion that Blair's reputation was trashed by Iraq. "Robin [Cook] told Tony Blair before he died: 'If you go ahead with this, it will ruin your reputation.'" When I mention Blair's recent multi-million-pound work for the dictatorship of Kazakhstan, Dobson winces, agreeing that it is damning: "Oh dear, oh dear. Kazakhstan is just in a different category from all the rest. There isn't any ambivalence about Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is a nasty, oppressive, practising dictatorship."
Dobson stood as the Labour leadership's preferred choice for London Mayor in 2000, but was left humiliated after Ken Livingstone successfully stood as an independent candidate. While I'm told by one of his associates that "he's incredibly bitter about Blair", Dobson refutes the idea that he was coerced into standing. "I'd have loved to have been mayor of London." He had another motivation, too: to escape both Blair and Brown. And what about Livingstone? "Well, he has some resemblances to Tony Blair, really – both of them think they're more important than the Labour party."
As Blair's first health secretary, Dobson is proud of the "massive improvements in healthcare and survival rates". But didn't NHS privatisation start under New Labour? "Oh certainly, yes! And that's the embarrassment in the chamber: because they shout back 'You started it.'" Dobson recalls returning from meetings with Blair and being sent a memorandum by civil servants claiming that the prime minister raised the further involvement of the private sector – "and it just wasn't true". But Dobson's big battle was for money for the cash-starved NHS as Labour stuck to Tory spending plans for its first two years in office. He wrote a memorandum to Blair saying: "If you want a first-class service, you have to pay a first-class fare – and we're not doing it." When money was finally ploughed into the NHS, Blair told him that Dobson's memorandum had kickstarted the whole process.
He believes Alan Milburn – his successor at the Department for Health – was "carried away with the idea that the private sector could make a big contribution".
New Labour's record on health still agitates him: "Some of the contracts were a disgrace. They guaranteed these private hospitals a flow of patients, which they never did to a NHS hospital." He says £260m was wasted on operations that were never carried out because the "bloody private hospitals" were paid regardless.
Dobson knew both David and Ed Miliband when they delivered leaflets for him as teenagers. He is clear about the reasons for his vote for Ed: "I thought David had become too much ... just Blairite." Though some assail the Labour leader for indecision, Dobson sees a virtue. "His greatest quality is he has a bloody good think before he does things." Why won't the public embrace him? "Well, it's partly his appearance, about which he can do nothing." He scoffs at the idea his brother would have done better. "No, no, I think we'd have flown apart. Well, not flown apart – but we'd have gone a bit 1979, 1980, 1981-ish, I think."
Though "very confident" Labour will win, Dobson has harsh words for Ed Miliband's inner circle. Are they useless, I ask him? "Yeah!" he says instantly, roaring with laughter. He composes himself, and searches for more diplomatic language. "Useless isn't the right word. They're ... not of sufficient quality and clarity." He is not impressed with much of the shadow cabinet, either. Calling for a clearer message, he says: "It would be considerably assisted if all the rest of the shadow ministers were knocking lumps off opposite numbers. You need to boil things down to a few simple, short, sharp concepts and say them time and time and time again. It's no good thinking you can convince the public with a lecture that you might deliver to some postgraduate thing at All Souls."
Tessa Jowell first met Frank Dobson as a fellow Camden councillor in 1971, and ended up as a junior minister under him when he was appointed as Secretary of State for Health in 1997. "The team was me, Alan Milburn, Margaret Jay, [Paul] Boateng, and we were all New Lab," she recalls. "Frank was never comfortably New Labour, but we all absolutely adored him." She remembers him wandering around the office with his shoes off, his big toe often poking through a hole in a sock. "I love him – he's a person of incredible generosity and loyalty."
Everyone I ask tells me about Dobson's sense of humour. I remind him that he once remarked: "The good thing about global warming is that Hazel Blears will be the first to go when the water rises." He says it's an effective political weapon. "If you can crack a good joke at their expense, people remember it." After the privatisation of Rover in 1988, Dobson reduced the Commons to laughter when he quipped: "The price charged for Rover was so low that there is some suspicion that Lord Young thought it was a dog."
"The greatest compliment Dennis Skinner ever paid me is: 'Anybody can make them laugh – Frank's one of the few that can me them cry,'" he says. "That's because I'm sentimental, you see. Most people aren't."
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