Straight talking: What Frank Dobson’s successor can learn from Frank Dobson

FRANK Dobson stood down on Tuesday night telling us that above all he’d tried to be straight with people.

He has, and it’s a strangely rare quality.

For one of the rustic qualities about the man, a coarse, compassionate talisman for the local Labour Party, is that he will retire without ever sounding like a spinning press statement robot.

Sure, he has recycled speeches and anecdotes over the years, never remembering to whom he has told what, so you could collect the same sketch several times in a year.

But those repeated words were not designed to shield his true views on any contentious issues. Instead, he just told us what he thought.

It sounds such a simple thing, and yet it’s become ridiculously rare in a game where politicians step so carefully for fear of falling, that they’d rather say not much at all. 

Similarly, you didn’t see Frank trying to manufacture different versions of himself.

He didn’t tweet an accomplishment two seconds after achieving it. It’s funny how a politician’s work can seem more interesting without a constant online update from every community centre or school they’ve visited.

Never once on a public engagement did I see him whip out a mobile phone to check an email or what people were tweeting.

He left jobs with people feeling like he had given them his full attention. In return, he was treated like a celebrity in some quarters of his constituency.

There is an unusual level of fandom in Holborn and St Pancras for him. His face seems to stare out of every curry house in Drummond Street.

He has, you see, a certain knack, which I’m not sure was learned at some stage or just came naturally – I’d guess the latter –  to make you feel like he is bestowing some great secret on you as he re-tells colourful stories from the political past.

Later, you’d find this nugget had been shared many times before, but it wasn’t a con trick: he just has a compendium of tales which hopefully he will raid for a memoir.

On a practical level, however, this meant that on every issue that came up in Holborn and St Pancras, he could outflank his opponents with history and context, having been zipped in to everything that has gone before.

Occasionally, you’ll hear him throw in a shock ‘fuck’ out of nowhere, laced in his Yorkshire tones so that something might be all the fault of a fookin’ ratbag private marketeer or greedy fookin’ landlord.

But if you find that unrefined, at least see the value in his frankness.

The only question that he has really silked away from awkwardly during the times I’ve interviewed him is the personal one from this last year, as he started to give cryptic answers to whether he would stand again.

That’s understandable, he had earned the right to choose his moment.

The fact remains that it doesn’t matter which party you support, we need to know where politicians stand on every issue that interests us, rather than hearing pre-agreed lines or fudged, fearful silences.

Then, we work out from what they say whether we want them to represent us. It’s not hard.

Frank’s simple bullishness must have helped him as health secretary to push through the creation of NICE and NHS Direct. Less referenced this past week has been his move to cancel tobacco advertising from sports teams, like Formula One racers, which was admirable. Someone up there now should have the same thought about the way gambling firms garishly brand our football matches.

So, as he gave his retirement speech to local members this week, an occasion at which he seemed almost bashful in the face of an hour of effusive, and only occasionally greasy, praise, it didn’t break neutrality to think that as reporters in Camden we were lucky to have had an MP like Frank Dobson to write about.

It hasn’t been dull, far from it, and he’s combined local and national interest with an honesty that we must wish from from his successor, and those that seek to represent us elsewhere.

His retirement has been well earned.



%d bloggers like this: