Frank Dobson has become one of the Labour Party’s defining MPs. A constructive critic of the New Labour experiment, he is a former Secretary of State for Health as well as an LSE graduate. He says he studied Economics, “In theory anyway. I know enough Economics to know when someone else is talking bollocks and that’s about it really.”
“I think LSE has changed, I think more attention is now paid to undergraduates than used to be. Certainly at the time I was there, my impression was that there wasn’t a great deal of attention. In the past I’ve caused offence by saying that I don’t think I really got very much from the academic staff there. But I gained a lot from talking and listening to my fellow students, who were from all over the world. It was a remarkable change for me coming from an all-white grammar school in the north of England.“ Dobson says he enjoyed student life immensely. “If you don’t enjoy yourself for three years of pretending to be an academic, you’re never going to enjoy yourself are you?”
Perhaps surprisingly for a man who is now in his 28th year as an MP, he was not involved in SU politics. “I didn’t particularly like student politics, and I still don’t. I think it’s certainly a way of learning the ‘dark arts’ of politics, but generally speaking, it never appealed to me. I was involved in other political campaigning but that wasn’t done through the Students’ Union, which was fairly tedious and a lot of willy-waving, and whatever is the female equivalent of willy-waving.” I told him that it hasn’t changed much, and he leant back in his chair, laughing heartily.
After leaving LSE Dobson became a local councillor. “I was a member of the Labour party throughout that whole period. I lived in Passfield Hall and then in a flat in Bury Place, near the British Museum, and continued living there when I ceased to be a student. I got heavily involved in local campaigns, basically related to stopping the residential population being driven out, and houses and flats being turned into offices. That was how I got involved in campaigning and the local Labour party, and in many senses that was why I stood for the council in 64. I didn’t get on, but I then stood for the council again in 71, and was elected. That was very heavily to do with trying to make sure that there remained a normal, ordinary, resident population.”
Dobson has now been a member of the Labour party for almost half a century. I asked him how he has dealt with the changes that have occurred in that time. “It was frustrating – I spent eighteen years in opposition, of which I think sixteen were on the front bench. Also, playing a part in – being close to Neil Kinnock – saving the party from ruin, really. Gradually strengthening the party, and after 1992, when Neil decided to pack in, I was a strong supporter of John Smith. I was very saddened by his premature death. Then supporting Tony Blair.”
I asked him what he thinks of Martin Bell’s recent assessment that New Labour got a lot of things right but threw them away with an illegal war. “The bulk of our election manifesto in 1997 was an up-to-date Labour manifesto. Most of the things that were introduced then were a modern version of a fairly traditional Labour approach to things. Things like the national minimum wage, actually getting people back to work or tax credits to ensure people actually got a decent wage. The last time John Smith spoke at the TUC he asked me to help with the speech, and I think I contributed two phrases. One was ‘A Britain on work, not a Britain on benefits’, and we wanted to make sure that when “people worked for a living, they were paid a living wage”. The Labour government in the first few years delivered on that, and continues to deliver on it, which is a dramatic assertion of timeless Labour values. Quite a lot of the things that we did in health, and in education, were along the same lines, and most of the things that have worked fall into that category. The things that haven’t worked are the fancy Blairite ideas, this obsession with choice and diversity. A certain elitism, and a belief that the best way to improve local hospitals is to have one supremely wonderful and the others will aspire to be like it. Similarly with schools, which is clearly claptrap. If you want to improve the worst performing institutions, you attend to the worst performing institutions. It is an obsession with elitism and management-ism, if you see what I mean, because if you look at it from the point of view of the patient, or the pupils, then you should be addressing the needs of the people who are getting the worst deal. Not marginal improvements for the people who are getting the best deal.”
“As far as the war’s concerned, I don’t think the fact that it’s illegal is of much consequence one way or the other. Combinations of powerful nation states make up international law, and it may have been an illegal law or not. But it was stupid. That’s the main offence. We’re in a worse position now than if we’d not got involved in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The first duty of any government is to ensure the safety and security of the country and it’s citizens at home and abroad. No one could possibly argue that we’re safer either at home or abroad. We’re infinitely less so. I used to carry around the page out of Hansard which was my speech in the February debate about a month before we actually went to war. My only criticism of myself in there was that I think I give the Prime Minister too much…I don’t doubt his intentions at that time. Also, I understate the things that I predict will go wrong. They’ve been worse than predicted. That continued and continued, and it was what led in the end to him going as soon as he did. Because my impression is that the absolutely craven, stupid position we got into over the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon, when we were the only country in the world, apart from Israel and the US, who weren’t saying that they should withdraw. That was the pits. I think a lot of people who’d given him the benefit of the doubt up until that point decided that there really wasn’t any doubt any more. He was just getting it wrong, wrong and wrong again, because we were tied into the United States. I think Iraq has also restricted our capacity to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons if they want to. I don’t want Iran having nuclear weapons, and I can’t see any sensible person who does, but Iraq has made it more difficult to do anything about that. Also, I think action would have been taken to prevent what’s been happening in Darfur, apart from the embarrassment of you can’t have a go at another Muslim, another Arab government. It has been a total, unrelenting disaster.”
There have been successes of course, Dobson mentions the “phenomenal” investments in the NHS, Gordon Brown’s work on overseas aid and cites John Prescott as an unsung hero for his work on the Kyoto agreement. He even singles out Blair for “a huge amount of credit for the settlement in Northern Ireland.”
However, he retains his belief that Labour can do better. He points out that NHS improvements have been undermined by costs spent on consultants and lawyers, and the private sector currently receives 11% more per operation than the NHS.
As a former London Mayoral candidate, I asked Dobson for his thoughts on the position. “My view on the mayor’s position has always been that I think this total singling out of the mayor is not the best approach. I’ve always preferred what might be called the ‘Barcelona Model’ which was that each political group would have councillors elected and they would say which of theirs would be mayor if they won, but the mayor would not be so separate as is the case in the United States and now here, but would remain part of the ruling group.”
And as for Boris Johnson? “Were, by some freak of fate, he to become Mayor I don’t think he would succeed. But I doubt he will do very well. You never know because there is this sort of “oh, well he’s quite funny on TV” “He can’t be as stupid as he pretends to be”. I think in some aspects he is as stupid as he pretends to be. Well not quite as stupid, very few people could be as stupid as he pretends to be and still be able to ride a bike.”
“More bothersome is trying to combat the BNP. With our current electoral system there is a significant danger that the BNP will get some members of the Greater London Authority this coming year, which would be very harmful for lots and lots of people in London.”