Lord Dormand of Easington

Unflappable chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party
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The Independent Online

John Donkin Dormand, educationist and politician: born Haswell, Co Durham 27 August 1919; Director of Education, Easington District Council 1963-70; MP (Labour) for Easington 1970-87; Chairman, Parliamentary Labour Party 1981-87; created 1987 Baron Dormand of Easington; married 1963 Doris Robinson (née Pearson; one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Peterborough, Cambridgeshire 18 December 2003.

Those who first arrive at the House of Commons when they are over 50 seldom play a central role in political affairs. A most notable exception to this generalisation was Jack Dormand, pairing whip at the time of the ever more slender majorities of the Wilson / Callaghan administration, 1974-79, which dwindled from five to three to minus one, and then chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, 1981-87, during the most difficult years of Labour's recent history.

It is no exaggeration to say that Dormand's unflappability and Durham directness was a factor in rescuing Labour from meltdown. In the words of Neil Kinnock, Labour leader for most of that period:

Jack was decency personified. In everything he did he was utterly reliable and trustworthy and he used those qualities in the service of his community and of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

The chief whip at the time was his friend and fellow Durham MP, Derek Foster, who says,

Jack gave solid support to the whip's office on the condition, with which I strongly agreed, that the Parliamentary Labour Party should be properly consulted on every matter by the leadership. He was tough and absolutely fair and was fearless in championing the legitimate rights of backbench members of the party.

From my own personal experience I know that when a Member of Parliament got into difficulties there was no better friend than Jack Dormand, provided one told him the full truth and nothing but the truth. It was impossible to bowl him a fast one and go unpunished. We knew that if we did so, we would get some cricketing metaphor thrown back at us - and Dormand actually was a keen and good club cricketer. He also had the toughness that is associated with a rugby player, on one occasion turning out for the parliamentary rugby team at the age of 67. A familiar figure on his bicycle in London betwixt the House of Commons and his apartment on the other side of Millbank, he advocated to all and sundry the virtues of physical fitness.

John Donkin Dormand was Durham through and through. Educated at Wellfield Grammar School and Bede College, Durham University, he became a teacher, a reserved occupation during the Second World War. He improved his qualifications after the war, in 1947 taking a physical training degree at Loughborough College and attending Harvard University in 1954. All my Durham parliamentary colleagues are united in telling me that Dormand was an outstanding educational administrator, and between 1963 and 1970 he served as Director of Education for Easington District.

During this period he was also secretary of the Easington Labour Party and for a decade successor-in-waiting to the octogenarian Emmanuel Shinwell. The historical Labour seat of Easington had been held successively by Sidney Webb, Ramsay MacDonald and Shinwell. Dormand succeeded Shinwell in 1970, and I sat immediately in front of him when, from the back row of the opposition benches, on 8 July, he gave a very powerful, well-informed maiden speech.

Easington is the only rural district in the country which has excepted district status. I think we rather crept in by the back door. I believe that the exercise of delegated educational function which excepted districts enjoy is a most valuable part of educational administration and they should be retained in any review of local government.

The Conservative Party has said on many occasions - I was glad the Right Honourable Lady [Margaret Thatcher as Education Secretary] said it today - that in areas where comprehensive education was decided upon, the schools should be purpose-built; they should be right for the job.

I noted in my diary that Margaret Thatcher was paying alert attention to Dormand's speech and taking as many notes from it as from that of her talented colleague Timothy Raison, also making a maiden speech.

Dormand championed in his speech, as he was to do for the next third of a century, the needs of the slow learners and those not at school, but deemed to be educationally subnormal. He always highlighted the dedicated work of peripatetic remedial teachers. He took practical steps through his contacts with the National Union of Teachers to encourage the training of such teachers who ought, in his opinion, to have financial incentives.

Winding up, the Parliamentary Secretary Bill Van Straubenzee commented:

The Honourable Member for Easington had a fascinating revelation to make

about, if I may so put it, how he fiddled the books as an education officer, entirely in the interests of those pupils whom he was administering. He will be glad to know that I have taken careful and professional note of what he had to say.

Dormand's main interest at that time was his work on the select committee on nationalised industries chaired by Ian Mikardo, who spoke of Dormand as a right-winger, but a really able right-winger, who was a superbly effective and polite inquisitor in his committee. For the left-wing Mikardo to give such a generous verdict on an MP from the other wing of the party was quite something. But of course Dormand knew a great deal about the coal industry.

Years later, in 1984 he was to be deeply troubled by the problems thrown up by the miners' strike and spent many, many hours with the Durham miners and their families during their time of need. He thought and told them that they were being misled by Arthur Scargill; they in turn recognised that he was a real and honest friend of those working in pits such as Easington Colliery, Dawdon Colliery and Murton Colliery in his constituency.

When Labour returned to power in 1974, Dormand was immediately appointed to the whip's office under Robert Mellish. When Mellish resigned on James Callaghan's replacement of Harold Wilson as prime minister, Dormand was made the pairing whip. Jack Cunningham, at that time Jim Callaghan's confidante, says that both he and Merlyn Rees, newly appointed Home Secretary, had urged the prime minister to appoint Dormand and not Michael Cocks as chief whip. However, that was not to be. Cunningham says: "Jack had a diamond-like integrity. He was an outstanding administrator and he would have been a quite superb chief whip."

However, when in 1979 Labour went into opposition, Dormand's skills were employed to the full after he was elected in 1981 to be chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Regardless of where an MP was in the party spectrum, Dormand was absolutely fair.

One of the changes which he introduced was that instead of party meetings leaking in dribs and drabs, he would insist at the end of each meeting on asking the lobby to come to committee room 14, where they would be told by him who had said what. I never heard a complaint from any of my colleagues that their words or actions had been twisted by Dormand in his relations with the press.

Furthermore, Dormand was never interested in personal publicity for himself, a rare quality among politicians at the centre of events. He was a unifier and nowhere more effectively than in the many years during which he was secretary of the Northern Group of Labour MPs, making them, as Derek Foster says, "able to punch far above their weight".

Dormand thought it right at the age of 67 to retire from a seat where he would most certainly have been re-elected with a thumping majority. He was one of the MPs who more than justified their appointment to the House of Lords by the work that they did.

He was a prominent member of the select committee on committee structure of the House of Lords and its chairman at the end of 1991. He contributed considerably to the House of Lords' liaison committee, their procedure committee, their committees on education, trade and industry where his passion for regional development added a core of first-hand knowledge. Few parliamentarians knew as much about the politics of tourism and the film industry as Dormand.

He was the catalyst of the All Party Humanist Group, but never was offensive to those who entertained religious beliefs, which he respected. An absolutely convinced republican, he was never anything but courteous to the noble peers who took a different view, and among whom he was extremely popular.

Dormand was delighted last month to be awarded an honorary degree at Sunderland University, on the day of the Queen's Speech.

Tam Dalyell