Ashok Kumar was first and foremost a scientist and secondly a politician. In fact, with the arguable exception of Dr Ernest (Nick) Davies, the Manchester University physicist who represented Manchester Stretford between 1966 and 1970, I cannot think of any MP in my time (1962-2005) as qualified in science – or, indeed, since the distinguished fellow of the Royal Society, Professor A.V. Hill, who represented the University of Cambridge and won a Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1922, and quit the Commons in 1945.
A BSc in Chemical Engineering at the University of Aston, MSc in Process Control, PhD in fluid mechanics, research fellow at Imperial College London and research scientist at British Steel (1985-1997) – Kumar's qualification were indeed formidable. "Ashoka" was the name of the first unifying Emperor of India. It has come to mean unity and conciliation – and that neatly summed up Ashok Kumar's character.
He was born in Uttar Pradesh in India, his family moving to Derby with their three sons when he was in infancy. He attended the Rykneld School for Boys in Derby, to which he was forever grateful for a disciplined and academic education, and went on to the Derby District College of Science and Technology. He went through the university system with considerable distinction and ended up as a valued research scientist with British Steel.
A well-liked Middlesbrough councillor, he became a candidate at the by-election in 1991 after the unexpected death of the previous incumbent, Richard Holt. He was supported by two extremely powerful Labour politicians in the area, Joe Mills of the Transport and General Workers' Union and the all-powerful boss of the General and Municipal Workers Union in the North-east, Tom Burlison (later treasurer of the Labour Party).
The choice of a person of Indian extraction was controversial. I remember canvassing for him in Guisborough and having to face up to questions on the doorstep as to why Labour had chosen an Indian. His friend, Derek Foster, now Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland but at that time the Opposition chief whip, told me, "candidly, given racial prejudice in some quarters in the early stages of a knife-edge by-election, not only did Ashok overcome such feelings, but became hugely respected by constituents." Foster, a County Durham MP who knew Teesside well, said that Kumar played a leading part in the development of the North-east.
His by-election victory was over a very formidable and good conservative candidate, Michael Bates (now Lord Bates), who was to defeat him in 1992. Kumar had polled 22,442 votes to Bates's 20,467 with the Liberal polling 8,421. A few months later Bates won by 30,018 to Kumar's 28,454. It says a lot for Kumar that he declined to seek a more winnable constituency, and his determination was rewarded with a substantial margin of victory in 1997, when Labour swept to power.
Given his qualifications and his absolute loyalty to the Labour Party, it is a mystery to me as to why he was not made a junior minister. Perhaps Derek Foster, his former chief whip, put his finger on the answer by telling me, "He was not a parroter of soundbites. He was too much of an independent thinker, and above all would always put the views of his sensible constituents before those of ministers."
Kumar was an extremely thoughtful person. I was a weekly columnist on New Scientist, and almost every week in the Commons tearoom Kumar would sidle up and comment to me on what he had read. Sometimes it was approving, sometimes it was slightly critical, but it was always extremely politely and kindly expressed. For seven years he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Hilary Benn in the Department of International Development, and subsequently when Benn became Secretary of State for the Environment. Benn reflected to me, "Ashok was mild and unassuming, but by heavens he was ferocious in pursuing what he perceived to be the right course of action on significant matters. He was Labour through and through. I think that he took the steel plant closures on Teesside very personally. I will miss his friendship, and that completely distinctive laugh which transcended into a lovely chuckle."
From 1997 to 2001 Kumar was an extremely valuable member of the Science and Technology Select Committee and worked effectively on the Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Select Committee from 1991 to 2002, and on the Trade and Industry Select Committee from 2001 to 2003. His technical knowledge greatly added to the quality of their deliberations. His skill was recognised by his appointment by the Speaker as a member of the Chairmen's Panel in 2000.
However, to his credit he was no one-subject politician. I remember listening on 11 January 2000 to a moving passage on the Child Support Pensions and Social Security Bill. In his soft voice, Kumar said, "I will also deal with exotic cases. Some mothers have immense difficulty in getting any cash from dads whom they suspect deliberately work in a country with which we have no reciprocal agreements for social security deductions. Also, absent fathers are assigned the bill for the wrong set of children because they have been misplaced on an information technology filing system. One man was deemed to be the absent father of a child by a woman he had never heard of, from a part of the country he had never visited in his life. It turned out that he had been placed on that file because he had the same unusual forenames and surname given by the mother."
This encapsulates the kind of detailed yet significant situations, usually arising from his own constituents, which he brought to the attention of his parliamentary colleagues. It is not a platitude when I say that many of us really do believe that his premature death constitutes a loss to Parliament. Dr Brian Iddon, MP for Bolton and chairman of the All-Party Chemical Industries Group, recalled, "Ashok was an assiduous member and supporter of the scientific community through his work on the Scientific and Technical Select Committee before 2001, and latterly as an executive member of the All-Party Chemical Industries Group and the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. We shall miss him."
Ashok Kumar, chemical engineer, metallurgist and politician: born Uttar Pradesh, India 28 May 1956; educated at Rykneld School for Boys, Derby; Derby College of Art and Technology; University of Aston; MP for Langbaurgh 1991 (by-election) to 1992, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland since 1997; died Middlesbrough 15 March 2010.