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IN DEPTH: Frank Dobson brings experience to race

PUBLISHED: 12:45 15 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:55 07 September 2010

IT IS hard to find someone who doesn't have time for Frank Dobson. The man affectionately known as Dobbo, who has carved out a career in Camden s politics for some 40 years (first on the council, then as MP elected in 1979), is someone most people meet wi

IT IS hard to find someone who doesn't have time for Frank Dobson.

The man affectionately known as Dobbo, who has carved out a career in Camden's politics for some 40 years (first on the council, then as MP elected in 1979), is someone most people meet with a smile of recognition.

Perhaps it's his inviting Yorkshire lilt, his big guttural laugh or his love of dirty jokes (more cheeky than out and out filthy in my experience - but perhaps that is because he is also a bit of a gent). He is no two dimensional politico or personality for that matter.

He can laugh at others in his party. When I ask him about internal opponents to Gordon Brown, he tells me with a smile: "One reason for supporting climate change would be that the rising sea levels would get Hazel [Blears] first."

And he can laugh at himself in equal measure. He dresses up as Father Christmas for local schoolchildren every year - aware that his authentic white fluffy beard, portly middle and ruddy cheeks mean he is a prime Santa candidate.

He describes his millennium self, when he made the ill-fated decision to run for London mayor and ended up in third, as "daft as a brush" before guffawing loudly.

In fact there are few things in which Frank Dobson cannot find fun.

But when it comes to the election Mr Dobson is being forced to get a bit more serious.

His majority has been steadily in decline since 1997 from 65 per cent to 2005's 43 per cent. A year later he saw the Labour council that launched his career crash and burn, handing the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives a chance to form a coalition.

And with a zealous campaign afoot among his competitors, this could be the hardest fight yet for the incumbent, made even tougher by the fact he has given 2010's vote an added privilege.

At 70, Camden's leading man has decided this election will be his last and will decide ultimately how his political journey ends.

"If it goes a full term I am sure it will be my last," he says.

Many people were expecting Mr Dobson to say farewell to politics before this year's fight.

Last year he was out of action for some time having had a major op which replaced his aortic valve and required a heart bypass. Such incidents are usually enough to warrant retirement, but not so for Mr Dobson who says the operation has conversely given him a new lease on life.

"I feel 10 years younger," he says, relishing the words and clearly his new health: "I feel rather rejuvenated."

And that energy will be needed in heavy supply. Holborn and St Pancras is a constituency which requires a lot of legwork.

Its areas of relative deprivation, combined with its geographical position making it a toe-hold for ambitious developers or large public works, mean controversy is often on the agenda.

Indeed as we speak the incumbent is fighting off his government's plans for High Speed Two. Mr Dobson says it will be "devastating" for Camden, chipping off dozens of social housing units and disturbing dozens more constituents with building and tunnelling work.

At the same time he is attacking the Crown Estate for plans to sell off its social housing in Regent's Park - calling adjournment debates, leading marches and hosting meetings. And he is contending with a newly drawn constituency.

His seat acquires Gospel Oak and Highgate wards in the boundary change - areas that haven't shown themselves to be Labour heartlands in recent years.

What he has acquired is an even greater interest in the Whittington Hospital and North Central London NHS's proposals which could see the closure of its A&E department.

On the campaign trail, having a former health secretary who can claim UCLH as one of his department's successes on board has been welcomed by protesters organising the lobby.

This is not least because Mr Dobson refuses to do things by halves and even publicly branded those behind the scheme as "dickheads".

"I used to go to demos about saving the Whittington when we were in opposition and when I was health minister I was determined to do the things I had spoken up for," he said. "The Whittington has been transformed. It is not a dump any more and that includes spending a lot of money on the A&E unit."

In this constituency all the politicians will hope to make hay with the A&E closure but it is difficult for them to equate Mr Dobson too squarely with the Government and plans for public sector cuts which will no doubt cause similar calamity whoever gets in.

A sometime Labour rebel, he has voted against the party on several key areas from the war in Iraq to top up fees. He feels his majority dipped in 2005 because "11,000 students in his constituency" weren't aware of his unruly behaviour, particularly on the fees issue.

But still it is a bit of an odd thing to think of Mr Dobson as a rebel, given the front line role he was handed in Tony Blair's new era of kitchen cabinet in 1997.

This followed on from stints as shadow environment, transport, and minister for London under the leader's watch.

His fall from favour is often blamed solely on the 2000 mayoral debacle where, as Blair's fait accompli, he fell flat on his face. But he says he knew exile was on the cards even before then.

"I wasn't exactly flavour of the month with the Blairs," he grins.

It was no surprise then when he firmly pinned his hopes on the Brownites, inheriting his love of the party from his Yorkshire railway-working father.

His loyalty has been shown in a voting record which has seen him rebel in only four per cent of votes since 2005. It has been a noticeable four per cent - against replacing Trident, a third runway at Heathrow and foundation hospitals as well as Iraq and student fees - but still leaves him with some uncomfortable bedfellows such as his support for ID cards.

Still he is hopeful his record makes a more compelling case than those of his rivals.

Lib Dem Jo Shaw he dismisses as "politics of the mobile. Offer folks one end of the street one thing, and the folks at the other end of the street the other".

Conservative George Lee is described as "amiable enough" but they had a massive disagreement over the case of Kentish Town resident Akmal Shaikh - executed by China for drugs charges he always denied.

Mr Dobson lobbied Gordon Brown directly on the issue while Mr Lee defended China - claiming criticisms were too judgemental. A "very peculiar position" Mr Dobson says.

Looking back down memory lane he hopes that housing is the area where he has made the most impact and he will work to improve it further if re-elected.

He first got involved in politics over the Tories' plans to sell off council housing in Camden. Now it is happening again under a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition and Mr Dobson is just as vexed.

"My principle domestic obsession is providing decent housing at rents and prices people can afford," he said. "People talk about buying and the first step on the housing ladder. The first step on the housing ladder is having somewhere decent to live.


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