The New Statesman Interview - Frank Dobson

Not depressed, but angry: that Millbank messed things up "from start to finish". Frank Dobson interv

In a small basement room in central London, the Frank Dobson campaign team is preparing for one more heave. Six supporters answer phones, assemble press cuttings (most of which make desperately gloomy reading for them) and arrange a final round of public meetings with cabinet heavyweights. The computers on the desks splutter erratically into life. Overseeing one broken terminal, the engineer suggests it might be fixed in time for the next contest in four years' time. "You are joking?" says an anxious Dobson aide. At this moment, the man himself walks in. "How are we all?" Dobson asks as he takes a cup of tea in a plastic cup. He has just returned from addressing some trade unionists in Camden Town. "How did it go?" asks a campaigner. "Well, at least there weren't as many Trots there this time," Dobson responds.

The former health secretary is little more than a mile away from the mighty department in Whitehall over which he ruled for more than two years. Politically, he is in another land. He has denied reports that he is depressed, but it would test the resilience of anyone to move from cabinet stardom to a pilloried, under-resourced mayoral candidate.

Dobson reveals, as we move to a smaller room, that such a brutal and swift change of status was almost avoided. Certainly Tony Blair had other ideas. "When I told his nibs that I was going to stand for the nomination as London mayor, our understanding was that I would continue as health secretary until the end of the selection process." When did he tell Blair? "I told him the Sunday after the party conference last October and, as I say, that was our understanding at the time."

Imagine if the "understanding" had remained in place. It would have severely limited Blair's options in his cabinet reshuffle that followed shortly after Dobson's departure. More importantly, Dobson would have been health secretary during the midwinter crisis in the hospitals. His current problems are a piece of cake in comparison to what they might have been. Instead, Dobson recalls: "After the first week when I was a potential candidate and health secretary, I decided that the two jobs were irreconcilable and I told his nibs I would leave the cabinet."

Contrary to reports, Blair put no direct pressure on Dobson. Indeed the Blairites were ready to endorse the London minister, Nick Raynsford, when Dobson told Blair of his decision. Was "his nibs" thrilled to hear this? "I don't know about thrilled. If you say someone is thrilled, it implies talk of an exciting project. I'm wary of such talk. I've seldom got excited, even with my clothes off." Dobson's one-liners are famous currency at Westminster. So are his longer jokes, usually well-told and unrepeatable. But, like William Hague's jokes, they could become a liability. "Frank tells a good joke . . . " has become a way for opponents patronisingly to dismiss the candidate with more administrative experience than any of them. That is what happens when a campaign goes wrong. Potential assets become part of the problem.

Certainly Dobson has the air of a candidate carrying out a post-mortem in the middle of a campaign. Inquests normally take place the day after an election result. Now, as the ballot papers go out to Labour Party members, Dobson targets Millbank and political journalists.

"There is quite a variety of people at the top of the Labour Party. But there are people there whose connections with the party are pretty threadbare and there's been a lot of stupidity. Some people are voting for Ken because they are upset at the unfairness of the process in this contest. All I can say is that, if anyone feels upset, they should try me. I feel like Lee Marvin in the film, Cat Ballou." Marvin plays a clapped-out drunk whose eyes are suffering from blood-shotness. Jane Fonda says to him: "Look at your eyes." To which Lee Marvin replies: "You should see them from my side." Dobson is furious that the electoral college was set up in a misguided attempt to help him. "I remain convinced, and will remain convinced until the day I die, that I would have won in a ballot on the basis of one member, one vote."

Then there was the row over the list of party members. Dobson had a list, the other candidates did not. "The first time I heard the word 'list' mentioned, I got on to Millbank and told them all the candidates must have access to the list. The party wouldn't do it. That's been the most damaging of the lot." Why has the formidable party machine, which won a landslide election in 1997, let him down? "I don't know what's gone wrong there. It's not even the product of common sense. From my point of view, it was damaging, and it damaged the party as a whole. When you can put something right, you should put it right, but it just dragged on and on. So I thought , sod it, I will get the list supplied. What I find embarrassing, and deeply angering, is the whole process - which has been messed up from start to finish."

He reflects on the grim irony that while he is raging at Millbank, much of the media is portraying him as the party's malleable Blairite candidate. "The self-same political correspondents who are now portraying me as a Blair clone and stooge are the ones who, from the minute Blair was elected, were saying that I was the bearded old cuckoo in the new Labour nest." Instead, he claims to have been an assertive, independent-minded cabinet minister. "I must say, if there were video coverage of everything that was said at the cabinet, I would be happy for everyone who has got a vote in this election to see it. When the discussions were taking place over Fairness at Work, for example, and we were deciding what the limits should be, I was on the side of broadening and deepening the rights of people and trade unions at work. The TUC would confirm this."

In Dobson's view, journalists are partly to blame for the widespread impression that, before Christmas, he was depressed by the campaign. His other target is Ken Livingstone. "I have always got on reasonably well with Ken, but I remain angry that he was going around in all seriousness saying that I was clinically depressed and then denying he had said it in public." I suggest to Dobson that journalists would not have printed such stories if Livingstone had been the only source; it was front-page news because the stories had come from Dobson's allies. "You are remarkably idealistic about political journalists. Political correspondents go on and on about spin-doctors, and then someone whispers a story in their ear and they print it. Journalists get the spin-doctors they deserve."

I press him on why he gets so worked up by journalists, particularly political interviewers. There are many cabinet ministers and senior politicians, such as Neil Kinnock, who speak of Dobson's warmth and integrity. Yet when he gets into a studio, he often comes across as bad-tempered and intolerant. "What annoys me with the BBC is when people say the day before that they are going to ask you about certain subjects, and then I go on and the questions are about something completely different."

When trying to answer questions about his policies for London, Dobson has come across more difficulties. Because of the constraints of the mayoral brief, he can make few realistic promises. In the Commons at the end of last year, he spoke of radical improvements to London's transport and housing. But he admitted his visions were a "wish list", rather than a set of practical proposals. "We should not pretend the mayor is able to do more than is the case. The post is a strategic one, in a way the GLC was not. Probably, over time, the mayor will accrue more powers and his, or her, influence, will grow in other areas. But we've got to stop making wild promises which cannot be met. It is more important for Labour to raise the reputation of politics than for the Tories, who are only in politics for the money."

In what way are the Tories only in politics for the money? "That is my view. If you take their privatisation programme, public assets were sold off to start with and Tory institutions, or institutions staffed by Tories, made huge fortunes out of the risk-free process of the sale. A lot of privatisations gave huge sums of money to those carrying out risk-free transactions."

Such accusations make Dobson sound almost like Ken Livingstone, an expert in crafting a headline-grabbing soundbite. But Livingstone is also an expert in making politics sound exciting, even if some of the excitement is at odds with the realities of power. Dobson admits that does not get excited with his clothes off. He is even more pragmatic with his clothes on and has failed to rouse passions in this campaign. His jokes used to be about other people in preposterous situations. Now some of his jokes are about himself.

"A very distinguished member of the nursing profession asked me recently whether I was depressed. I told her that I was perfectly all right except that I was suffering from a bad back. She asked me how I had managed to get a bad back. I told her it was from carrying a rucksack of Prozac around with me all the time."

Dobson still believes he can win, although he will feel uncomfortable about becoming the party's candidate if he loses heavily in the ballot of members. He is a decent politician who has been the party's main victim as it tries to learn the lessons of devolution. "I want to be the first elected mayor of London. It would be a wonderful job. If not, I will be the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, which is also a wonderful job. Most people interested in politics would love to be an MP. I have been a very fortunate person."

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