Frank Dobson obituary

Former Labour health secretary and candidate in the London mayoral election of 2000

The former health secretary Frank Dobson, who has died aged 79, devoted his lifetime in politics to giving practical effect to the socialist principles he had always held and from which he never deviated. He described himself as a member of the “sane left” within the Labour party and took immense pride in having secured extra funding for the National Health Service during his time in charge of an institution he regarded as truly emblematic of a caring society.

He was surprised and delighted when he was appointed to the post by Tony Blair in 1997 and, although in office for only two and a half years, was credited with achieving a new stability for the future of the NHS during that time. As well as persuading a reluctant chancellor, Gordon Brown, to provide desperately needed extra finance, Dobson oversaw one of the largest hospital building programmes in NHS history, abolished the internal market established under the previous Conservative government and introduced the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) in an attempt to replace the so-called postcode lottery for treatment. Simon Stevens, the current chief executive of the NHS, was a special adviser on policy issues to Dobson at the department.

As secretary of state, Dobson was instrumental, with Tessa Jowell, in the establishment of the Sure Start system to provide help to families with childcare, health and education in the early years, and he also contributed to the then new Labour government’s rapid rebuttal system to help ministers put across their political message in the media. He was never seen personally as an adherent to the New Labour cause and, thanks to his bearded bonhomie, “Dobbo” exuded instead something of the air of a genial Old Labour prophet.

Like many Labour politicians of his generation, he had the bad luck to be elected to the Commons in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher swept to power at what would be the beginning of an 18-year period of Conservative government.

Those years of opposition provided him with the opportunity to gain parliamentary experience, however, and he was consistently on the frontbench from 1981 until he stood down as health secretary in 1999 to stand unsuccessfully for election as the first London mayor the following year.

Despite the internal turmoil within the Labour party during the 1980s, Dobson was a popular MP, respected within all sections and was liked throughout the Commons. From 1987 he was repeatedly elected to the shadow cabinet in what was then an annual popularity contest. He was a generous, loyal, big-hearted comrade, a strong internationalist and a man who always had a laugh on his lips, a ready riposte in debate and a fund of funny – if sometimes filthy – jokes.

Born in Dunnington, a village that is part of the city of York, Frank was the son of James Dobson and his wife, Irene (nee Shortland). His father and his grandfather were both railwaymen and both died young – his grandfather was run over and killed on the railway and his father died of kidney failure when Frank was 16. After Dunnington primary school, Frank won a place at Archbishop Holgate grammar school and following his father’s death was able to continue at school thanks to a county council grant.

He went to the LSE and gained a BSc in economics: although he thereafter came to love the London he represented, first on Camden council and then in parliament, he never lost his sense of himself as a Yorkshireman. His parents were both Labour members and he joined the party in London as a student, aged 18. He worked in administration for the Central Electricity Generating Board when he left university (1962-70), for the Electricity Council (1970-75) and in the local Ombudsman’s office (1975-79).

One of his core concerns in politics was the provision of decent public housing, and it was this which drew him into public life. As a politically active young man he had joined a campaign to try to stop the sale of housing stock for office use in Holborn and consequently sought election to Camden council. For most of his married life he lived in a council flat opposite the British Museum in Bloomsbury.

He served on the council from 1971 to 1976, and was its leader for two years from 1973. When Lena Jeger stood down as Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras South, Dobson was an obvious and popular candidate to succeed her. The constituency became Holborn and St Pancras in 1983 and Dobson stood down in 2015. Keir Starmer was elected in his place.

In the Commons, Dobson was a spokesman first on education from 1981 and then on health from 1987. He was shadow leader of the Commons and campaigns co-ordinator from 1987 to 1989, and then spoke on energy, employment, transport, London and the environment until the 1997 election at last brought him into government office. His appointments were testimony to his capability and his acceptability to successive party leaders.

Dobson was fond of saying what a privileged and happy life he felt he had enjoyed, for which he was profoundly grateful. The end of his active political career on the frontbench came, somewhat unexpectedly, as a result of his candidacy as London mayor – for which he reluctantly gave up his departmental post.

He was the favoured Labour official candidate to try to prevent Ken Livingstone winning the contest, but a badly mismanaged campaign by party officials set him up instead for what proved an unhappy third place behind Livingstone and Steven Norris for the Conservatives. He spent his subsequent years on the backbenches, using his political authority for judicious criticism of Blair over the Iraq war, detention without charge for suspected terrorist offences, student top-up fees and foundation hospitals.

A private man in his domestic life, Dobson loved opera, particularly Mozart, and history. He married Janet Alker in 1967. They met at the LSE and she worked in social research as a fellow at University College London.

She survives him along with their three children, Sally, Tom and Joe.

• Frank Gordon Dobson, politician, born 15 March 1940; died 11 November 2019


Julia Langdon

The GuardianTramp

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