Jim Dobbin: MP who held unfashionable views on abortion, divorce and gay rights but who was universally admired and respected

 

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The Independent Online

It is important that all views, however unfashionable they may have become, should be represented in the House of Commons. As a devout member of the Roman Catholic church, and from the depths of his own being, Jim Dobbin, who has died suddenly on a trip to Poland organised by the Council of Europe, felt passionately that abortion was wrong – and for 12 years he was chairman of the All-Party Pro-Life Group.

Though many of his Parliamentary colleagues took an entirely different view on issues such as abortion, divorce and gay rights, Dobbin was liked very much because he was gentle in his profound convictions, tolerant of views other than his own and in every respect a loyal and hard-working colleague. Tom Clarke, a minister in the Blair government, and a friend of Dobbin's, told me, "At a time when the perception of Westminster was not favourable, Jim shone like a beacon. He had a strong moral commitment and refused to compromise on his beliefs."

Dobbin spoke to the Commons only on subjects of which he had first-hand experience. He was the antithesis of the "universal expert". In my first conversations with him after he became an MP in 1997 I become aware of his mindset in requiring accuracy and fact – doubtless developed over the 28 years that he was an NHS microbiologist.

He was the son of William Dobbin, a Cowdenbeath miner who opposed the Communist hierarchy in control of the NUM in Scotland. Dobbin told me his father pleaded with him to on no account to make his life down the pit, with the risk of emphysema, pneumoconiosis and chronic bronchitis, and to escape the prevalent antagonisms of Communist versus Roman Catholic in the Fife coalfield. His mother, Catherine McCabe, was a millworker where many of the women suffered from silicosis. In childhood Dobbin decided that he would make his life in the NHS.

After National Service he went to Napier College, Edinburgh, gaining a BSc in bacteriology and virology, qualifying him to become a medical microbiologist. With his ever supportive wife Pat and their children he moved to work in Lancashire, and in 1983 he was persuaded – for his hospital responsibilities were very demanding – by Jack McCann, the Labour MP for Rochdale, to stand for Rochdale council. He served as Chairman of Housing, Leader of the Labour Group and Leader of the Council.

Mutual friends tell me that Dobbin did not have an inkling of the child abuse in Rochdale of which there have been recent revelations. What I do remember is that I told him I had been invited some years before to deliver a Sydney Silverman Memorial Lecture in the magnificent Victorian Rochdale Town Hall. I was amazed, I told him to go into the members' lounge and find five councillors as large as Cyril Smith. Dobbin replied, "I don't like having enemies, but I have as little to do with Cyril Smith as possible."

In 1992 he was expected to win the marginal seat of Bury South but lost narrowly. "I was squeezed out," he told me, "by Kinnock's triumphalism at the notorious Sheffield rally." Had Dobbin had five years in opposition he would, in my view, have been well-placed to become a junior minister in the DHSS. But by 1997, when he won Heywood and Middleton with a 29.6 per cent swing, he was 56 and deemed too old for office.

None the less Dobbin proved himself a thoroughly useful and instructive MP, serving on the All-Party Tranquiliser Addiction Group from 2008 and Transport Select Committee from 2010. When he visited me a month ago, I asked Gordon Prentice, who lost his seat at Pendle in 2010, about colleagues in the Commons he had known. He replied: "Jim Dobbin: fellow Scot; marvellous colleague in the Lancashire/Cheshire group; popular with his constituents; got things done."

In 1997 the referendum in Scotland paved the way for the Scottish parliament, and the following year Dobbin said he would like a quiet word with me and suggested we have dinner in the Members' dining room. Vividly I recall his opening remark: "Do Donald Dewar and my fellow Fifer Henry McLeish [the first and second Scottish First Ministers respectively], and the Party leadership in Scotland, know what they are doing?"

As a Scot in Lancashire he was anxious. "A Scottish parliament will make the position of MPs for Scottish constituencies second class and will be an embarrassment to Scots like me representing English constituencies." Understandably as a new MP and a loyalist he did not fancy taking up the issue. I am told that in recent weeks he was horrified by reports of the forthcoming 18 September vote on Scottish independence.

In 2010 he was chosen as a member of the Speakers Panel chairing Commons committees. When people criticise and pour scorn on Westminster they should remember decent and honest hard-working men like Jim Dobbin.

James Dobbin, bacteriologist, virologist and politician: born Cowdenbeath, Fife 26 May 1941; married 1964 Pat Russell (two daughters, two sons); microbiologist, NHS 1966–94; Member, Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council 1983–97 (Leader 1996–97); MP for Heywood and Middleton 1997-; died Slupsk, Poland 7 September 2014.

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