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Richard Adams © 2000

 

 
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In Nick Hornby's sport-as-life biography Fever Pitch, a tiny cameo is played by an Arsenal footballer Gus Caesar. With good luck and good timing, young Gus rose through the levels of professional football, and eventually got picked to played for Arsenal in a cup final. But when the spotlights were turned on him, Gus's luck ran out. He was exposed as a talentless player at the top level, and faded away. And that, in a nutshell, is Frank Dobson's story. A nice guy and lucky politician, who rose through the ranks without ever facing a serious challenge. And when he was given his biggest test -- when Tony Blair picked him to carry the New Labour mantle in the election for mayor of London -- he crumpled. He ran a campaign of such bounteous incompetence that in the space of six months he went from being the bookmaker's favourite to a humiliating third place and fourteen per cent of the total first preference votes.

The story of how Frank Dobson, a well-regarded Cabinet minister and a respected politician with twenty years service as a Member of Parliament, came briefly to bear the scorn of every Labour hack capable of telling a joke, is a complex one. It might be said that he was put in an impossible situation, that no official candidate could have beaten Ken Livingstone, the leader of the Greater London Council when it was abolished by Margaret Thatcher and a candidate strong enough to attract support from across the political spectrum. This may be part of the story, but it's not the whole truth. Dobson and his party did, after all, make choices about how to run their campaign, and it's hard to think of Livingstone as such a political Titan that good strategy and serious commitment might not have produced a different outcome. Yet I have never seen an election campaign run so hamfistedly by a modern professional political party, especially one run by the same people that just three years before had orchestrated one of the most efficient and ruthless political assaults in British parliamentary history. The measure of the Labour party's mismanagement can be read from the results of the Greater London Authority election results where, despite Labour's domination of the local council, parliamentary and European seats, Labour failed to secure a majority.

And for this Frank Dobson must take his share of the blame. Around the time of the Labour party conference in September last year, Dobson was telling journalists that he would never stand for mayor, indeed that "wild horses" wouldn't drag him into the mayoral race. But of course it didn't take wild horses, just the long face of Tony Blair telling him to stand or be sacked as a minister. So within the space of a few weeks, Dobbo (as he came to be nicknamed, by everyone including the prime minister's official spokesman Alastair Campbell) announced that it had been his life's ambition to be mayor of London. Politics makes cynics of us all, but even by those low standards it was an ugly volte-face. Dobbo's backflip was later to be outdone by his own deputy, Trevor Phillips. Phillips, a friend of Peter Mandelson's, was an opportunistic candidate who Blair may or may not have encouraged to stand with a chance of being the official candidate. Phillips was publicly approached by Livingstone to run as his deputy, but Phillips denounced the idea as "racist" that a white candidate should assume a black candidate would settle for being number two. Admirable stuff. Except that a few weeks later Phillips announced that he was going to join (the white) Frank Dobson's campaign as his number two. (When it later emerged that Phillips had only been a member of the party for a few years, and that his children not only went to the most exclusive private girls school in London but that he and his wife sat on the school's committee to raise funds to replace fees lost through Labour's abolition of the assisted places scheme, no one was very surprised.)

Within moments (it seemed) of Dobbo's candidacy in the Labour primaries being announced in October, party members throughout London began receiving mail-shots and cold calls from the Dobson for London campaign. The other candidates (Livingstone and Glenda Jackson) complained that Dobson's "official" campaign had been given free access to membership lists in a primary where the central party organisation was meant to be neutral. The Dobson campaign claimed that the lists had been provided by "friendly" London MPs, which turned into a festering row about whether local MPs could use membership lists in that manner.

The party eventually backed down and gave all the candidates access to the lists, but not before Dobson's campaign was reported to the Data Protection Registrar for its misuse of the lists. This produced one of the most farcical and damaging incidents to Dobson's campaign within the party. The BBC filmed a documentary on the Labour primary, and questioned Dobbo about the lists. No, said Dobbo on camera, we definitely got permission from the Data Protection Registry to use the lists. In fact, said the interviewer, I've asked them and they said you didn't. Cue sharp intake of breath from Dobbo. "You amaze me," he replied. Matthew Norman, who runs the Guardian newspaper's Diary, seized that moment and turned it into Dobbo's catchphrase: "Oooh, you amaze me!", in the manner of a music hall comedian's "Where's me washboard?"

By the start of the year not only was Dobbo's catchphrase on video for cable television , but together with a comrade from the Guardian Diary, I also printed T-shirts with a particularly gormless photo of Dobbo printed underneath his catchphrase. At this point the transformation was complete -- the T-shirts sold out (with most of the orders coming from outside London, which showed that Schadenfreude in New Labour's bumbling performance wasn't confined to the capital) and by the end of the campaign Dobbo said he was sick of hearing about it. The dear old boy even paid the Diary the ultimate compliment by ringing up the editor of the Guardian to complain both about the t-shirts and about the Diary's campaign to cheer up Dobbo -- rumours went around that he was getting depressed -- by sending jugglers and acrobats to perform in front of Dobbo's headquarters. And he moaned to friends about "those cunts on the Diary who are trying to ruin me". No, Frank, you did it all by yourself.

The final blow was the result of the Labour primary, when Dobbo managed by a very slender majority to beat Ken Livingstone in a ballot so shamelessly rigged that it was almost impossible for anyone other than the party's anointed candidate to win. I won't go into the details, but despite large majorities among the individual members Livingstone's vote was outweighed by the "payroll" vote of MPs, using an electoral college system that would have embarrassed some of the world's less well-established democracies.

So Dobbo got to be the Labour candidate, despite around two-thirds of the party members not wanting him. In fact, it was another bit of luck in a career studded with opportunity. If, as Woody Allen said, eighty per cent of success in life is showing up, then Dobbo was good at showing up. He showed up in 1979 for the nomination for the central London seat that got him into parliament in the first place, when the overwhelmingly favoured candidate was the victim of a scurrilous rumour about his union membership (ah, those were the days!) and barred from standing. Dobbo got the safe seat, and sat in opposition with the rest of his party for the next 18 years. There's a revealing insight to Dobbo's time as an opposition MP in John O'Farrell's book Things Can Only Get Better. When O'Farrell is working for Battersea MP Alf Dubs, Dubs shared an office with Dobbo, and mentions that he spent previous day at a constituency barbeque. Dobbo grimaces and says he avoids constituency events whereever possible. Dobbo also pops up in Alan Clark's diaries, but only as a teller of obscene jokes that Clark says would "embarrass a rugger club dinner". (Sample joke: Who said, "what the fuck was that?" Answer: the Mayor of Hiroshima.)

Then, in 1997, Dobbo was at best on the fringes of getting into the cabinet when Blair decided to make the then shadow health minister Chris Smith minister for heritage and culture (the conspiracy theory being that Smith was still in the closet at that point, and Blair feared a gay health minister would be unacceptable to the centre-right constituency he was aiming to cultivate). So Dobbo got a big job -- and being Labour health minister between 1997 and 1999 was never going to be the most taxing post in the history of Westminster.

This meant that while Dobbo had an impressive enough record on paper, he had never been in a fight as tough as this before. And neither, for that matter, had the rest of his campaign team. Even those (and there weren't many) who took part in the 1987 general election campaign only knew what it was like being the underdog. And since 1987, Labour's election record has been one of general success and overall improvement, with even the gut-wrenching loss in 1992 marking a stage in Labour's comeback from the depths of 1983. The party machine at Millbank was only used to climbing up, not sliding down the other side. They were used to working on campaigns where volunteers showed up, where a good chunk of public support was on their side. As a result, it never anticipated the hostile reaction from party members and the public that it provoked by attempting to shut Livingstone out.

A long debate had gone on within the Millbank operation and 10 Downing Street about how to deal with Livingstone, with some arguing (including Mandelson) that he should simply not be allowed to stand in the primary in the first place. The party leadership toyed with this, and tested how far it could go by holding an inquisition where Livingstone was bound to support the party's line. The "Keep Livingstone Out" faction almost succeeded, but from the reaction of members it became obvious that the London party would tear itself apart if Livingstone was locked out. So he was allowed to run, in the assumption that the smack of firm party leadership from Blair and other heavyweights would bring the members to their senses. If not, the doomed electoral college strategy would tilt the balance against Livingstone in any case. The key assumption was that Livingstone wouldn't run as an independent, and that if he did the party would turn against him as a traitor. Except that by placing Livingstone in a position where he could hardly do otherwise, the party machine actually made him more popular. And the decision to delay the primary vote for as long as possible (to give Dobbo a chance to catch up) meant there was little time to let the hostile reaction cool before the actual mayoral election itself. As a result, Livingstone was able to coast from the result of the primary to the day of the ballot on a tide of goodwill, and in spite of a strongly hostile media ranged against him.

But it was Dobbo's poor showing that made the difference between even a respectable second, and eventual third place behind the Tories and not far above the Liberal Democrats (who could have had a much better showing if they had run a stronger candidate, or at least one that had some name recognition outside her immediate family). Dobbo showed he lacked any idea of campaigning, by a series of ill-judged remarks (most memorably a snide comment that "my old Mum told me never to trust red heads" when flame-haired entertainer Chris Evans made a large donation to Livingstone's campaign) and meaningless policy launches. The single biggest issue in the campaign was always going to be public transport, but Dobbo faithfully stuck to a policy that allowed Livingstone and everyone else to paint him as being in favour of privatising the underground. Dobbo and his campaign never tackled that issue, and could never get across any sense that he had any ideas about transport other than those imported en bloc from the Labour party at Westminster.

Instead, Dobbo fronted up with a series of vacuous campaign pledges, including one setting targets for internet access by 2005, and another for holding a London Lottery to fund local hospitals. In contrast Livingstone only really had one policy - but it was a big one: funding the tube. Livingstone's other, implied, policy was that he wouldn't be a tool of Tony Blair's party. And Dobbo, from the moment he took Blair's shilling, could never claim that, although he tried, in between moments when he was claiming that the mayor of London should be able to work closely with central government. And he presided over a campaign team that lacked any sense of wit (believe me). It just couldn't deal with being the bad guys for a change, instead of its usual role as the battling opposition. No one showed up. No one posted emails to Dobbo's nice shiny web site, leaving its "Ask Frank a question" section with the same three planted questions throughout the campaign. There was no groundswell of support, or members ringing up or making donations. Local parties couldn't get members out on door-steps, and were reduced to printing posters saying "Vote Labour" rather than "Vote Dobson", because no-one wanted Dobson posters. It was, according to someone paid to work at Dobbo's HQ, "one long bummer".

So could anyone else have done any better? Well, it's hard to see how another candidate could have done worse. Part of the problem was that the party hierarchy spent too long settling on a candidate, and if one had been chosen early on, perhaps a year before the election, then that might have helped. One favoured candidate was Mo Mowlam, but she kept turning it down until too late, and it's hard to be sure she would have done much better, despite her high personal standing in the party (and let's not forget Frank's wasn't too bad before the mayoral mists descended). National figure though she may be, she had almost no meaningful London connection, and that's more important in a contest where she would be up against someone like Livingstone who personifies London for the taxi-driver vote.

But there was one perfect candidate who could have beaten Livingstone in both primary and poll, and that was Tony Banks. It's one of the unexplained mysteries of the mayoral election why Tony wasn't given a shot at it - he was certainly approached by No 10, but the received wisdom is that he placed so many conditions on his candidature that he was deemed to be too much of a risk. If that's true then it suggests he would have avoided Dobbo's problem of being seen as Blair's poodle. (The other theory that did the rounds is that Banks would only run if No. 10 made him the official candidate right from the start of the primary, but No 10 wanted to see him commit himself to the campaign before giving him the nod. The result was a Catch-22 whereby Banks would only stand if No. 10 backed him, and No. 10 would only back him if he stood.) A Londoner with a very high and popular profile within the city, he could have been able to out-cheeky chappie Livingstone himself. As a former GLC councillor and colleague of Livingstone he had the perfect credentials, so long as he was smart enough to avoid the pitfalls into which Dobbo so obligingly fell.

The official line is that Tony was working as special co-ordinator for England's bid to hold the 2006 football World Cup, a job easier to jettison than being health minister as Dobbo did. Dobbo's unlikely to see the inside of the cabinet again, unless it's in some second-rung make-weight position like leader of the House or after he's punted upstairs by Blair to the House of Lords. So what will poor old Dobbo do next? Well, he deserves something nice. It's a shame that Hong Kong's been given back to China, since he would have been an lovely choice as governor. And it's also where Gus Caesar ended up playing football after he couldn't make it in London.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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