Greasy Pole: Let’s Be Frank About Dobson
If it was a victory it could only be called a Pyrrhic one, for whichever way anyone looked at it the selection of Frank Dobson as Labour’s candidate for mayor of London promises to be vastly damaging to the party. To begin with there are all those party members who voted for Livingstone. Will they willingly accept a defeat for their man based on gerrymandering so blatant that it almost takes the breath away? What will they do, then, after their experience of the party which they trusted to administer the emergence of a new, vibrant, caring Britain as really a cynical manipulator of power? Then there are the voters outside the party. What will they think of Labour promising in its 1997 manifesto to introduce an elected mayor for London but not then going on to say something like “and we promise to make sure, through some outrageous fiddling of the votes, that our candidate will be someone who will always give unquestioning obedience to our great leader Tony Blair”? Then there is poor old Frank Dobson himself, who did not want the job in the first place, who was eventually forced into publicly distancing himself from the slick operators of Millbank and who is likely to be a shamefaced bearer of Labour’s standard.
It was not so long ago that an important part of the drive to “modernise” the Labour Party was the introduction of the principle of One Member One Vote (OMOV). This was aimed at undermining the power wielded by the unions through their block vote at conferences and in the election of leaders. Labour had not always experienced such ambivalence about their relationship with the unions. During the Attlee government the unions could be relied on to support any government policy, no matter how damaging to their members. This meant that if any trade unionists wanted to offer any serious resistance to the depression of their living standards which the Labour government were demanding they had to do this as unofficial strikers, without the support of, or even at times in the face of opposition from, their union. There was no doubt then about the value which the Labour leadership placed on the block vote. This changed when the unions began to elect leaders like Frank Cousins, Hugh Scanlon and Mick McGahey, who were expected to give a higher priority to protecting their members’ interests than to mindlessly obeying the government.
And so it came to pass, that the policy of OMOV was considered to be essential if the Labour Party was ever to get back into power. Neil Kinnock thought so and so did John Smith. And among the most ardent supporters of the idea was a young, thrusting MP called Tony Blair.
But that was then and this is now and it quickly became clear, when it was time to select who would be the Labour candidate in the mayoral election in London, that if the OMOV principle was left to operate without interference there was a good chance that Labour’s candidate would not be from among the ranks of those who are dazzled by the charisma of Tony Blair—or who are so desperate for advancement that they would never dream of opposing the leadership line on any issue. So OMOV had to go, until it becomes convenient for the leadership to again represent it as essential to any political party with pretensions to being democratic. In its place the party erected a complex system of voting for an electoral college in which the votes of London MPs and MEPs and of unions which supported Blair’s favoured candidate carried a disproportionate weight. An article in the Observer on 20 February calculated the percentage value of each vote in the electoral college. The vote of a member of the union GMB, which largely supported Livingstone, was worth 0.000427 percent of the total. The vote of a member of the AEEU, which refused to ballot its members and supported Dobson, was worth 0.065 percent. The vote of an individual party member came to 0.001 percent while that of a London MP was worth about 0.45 percent.
It was an effective, if transparent, scam but it needed some fine tuning. Like allowing someone who is no longer an MEP and who does not live in London to vote. Like disallowing the votes of unions which supported Livingstone but were late with their affiliation fees. And from this discreditable fraud emerged Frank Dobson. Stout, bearded, genial Frank. Everyone’s favourite uncle. The man you can trust to run London as if it isn’t one of the great centres of world capitalism. A bit dishevelled after all that infighting and vote rigging but apparently as game as ever.
Until recently not a lot was known about Frank Dobson. He was becoming more and more famous as the Health Secretary who could not keep Labour’s election promise to reduce hospital waiting lists (one hospital chief executive may have been trying to cheer Frank up when he cut his waiting lists by the simple expedient of pretending that a lot of patients were no longer on it). By the time he had reached the exalted heights of Westminster Dobson may well have been hoping for an uninterrupted climb up the greasy pole, untroubled by an embarrassing past. During the Sixties and Seventies the Tory press had a lot of fun with the antics of the so-called loony left councils. With a little journalistic licence it was easy to characterise these councils as wildly unrealistic, pumping extravagant sums of money into all manner of exotically useless causes and organisations. The truth was rather less lurid but those councils were a serious embarrassment to the Labour Party. One of the most publicised and derided was Camden. Its leader was Frank Dobson, then beardless, dark-haired and less avuncular. His left-wing credentials were impressive enough for Ken Livingstone to award him some warmly fraternal mentions in his book If Voting Changed Anything, They’d Abolish It:
“At the same time as we were rebelling at the GLC, the Camden Council Labour Group, led by Frank Dobson . . . decided to convene a London-wide meeting to oppose the new housing expenditure controls which had been imposed on all councils by the Labour Government . . . Between 1971 and 1975 First Millie Miller and then Frank Dobson had provided strong leadership with a clear sense of direction.”
Of course Dobson is not the only left-winger to be brought to heel by the prospect of a powerful job in the romance of running capitalism’s chaos while telling the rest of us that they have the system under control. This government is thick with such people: Stephen Byers, Margaret Hodge, Paul Boateng, Blair himself. Their changes in attitude are bound to expose flaws in the theories and practice of their party, to show how futile it is. Capitalism can’t be run other than in the interest of its ruling class. The system’s politics, in other words, are a ruthless trickery and in the case of the London mayoral election the trickery has been transparently frenzied. Tony Blair runs this government, and shows his contempt for the working class who voted for his party, on the principle that lies, false promises and U-turns can be as blatant as necessary because the votes are influenced by other factors. Harold Wilson once said that in politics seven days is a long time. In Blair’s timing seven hours seems more than enough.
The whole sordid story has discredited Labour’s claim to be a democratic party, let alone one which will have a significantly positive effect on the lives of the working class. That is something for the voters in London to remember when they go to vote for the Mayor in the near future.