OBITUARY: Dennis Hobden

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The Independent Online
"It used to be said that Sussex was the last county to which Christianity came; and that it would be the last county to which Socialism would come. Well, in 1964 the Kemptown Labour Party ensured that I became the first ever Labour MP in Sussex" - even though it was with a majority of only seven after seven nailbiting recounts.

In his traditional Mayor's opening speech to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton on 1 October 1979, Dennis Hobden was warmly applauded in that special way reserved for stalwarts who have fought and won against great odds.

Hobden had beaten David James, the Tory candidate, in the general election of 1964 by 22,308 votes to 22,301. That he held the seat in 1966 by a majority of 831 was a tribute to the man himself. It was also a tribute to Hobden that in 1970 he had a much better result than most Labour candidates across the south of England when he lost to Andrew Bowden 24,208 to 21,105, a majority of 3,103.

Hobden's 1964 victory entered political folklore. It is true that his opponent David James had been described by the late Col Martin Redmayne as the silliest Conservative MP that he knew. His reputation was that he was more concerned with diving in Loch Ness in search of the monster than with poverty behind lace curtains in genteel Brighton. It is equally true that no Labour candidate other than Hobden, with his reputation as a Brighton councillor, could have achieved a ghost of a chance of a Labour gain.

The supreme irony was that those formidable party disciplinarians Ray Gunter, chairman of the then dreaded Organisation Subcommittee of the National Executive, and Dame Sarah Barker, the National Agent, had throughout 1962 and 1963 insisted that on no account should Hobden - a man they supposed to be of extremist views - be added to the list of approved candidates. However, as Hobden put it himself, in his wry way: "By some remarkable alchemy when the Government's majority turned out to be five, reduced to three after Patrick Gordon Walker's debacle in the Leyton by- election, Ray and Sarah managed to become less fussy."

Dennis Hobden was the son of an engine-driver, who left school to join the Post Office in 1934 at the age of 14. "It was the war which politicised me," he said. He was appalled at the bombing of Vietnam because he recalled that as aircrew he himself from 1941 to 1945 wondered what was happening to "those poor bastards on the ground". His views were very near pacifism and on one occasion I recollect that he was goaded by a Tory MP who had never been in the Services or even done National Service. This MP was cuttingly rebuked by a future chairman of the 1922 Committee, Air Commodore Sir Arthur Vere Harvey, MP for Macclesfield: "You may say what you like about Hobden's views, and some of them are anathema to me, but I tell you that I know as an RAF officer that Hobden as brave aircrew won the Queen's commission and for that you should treat him with respect. So shut up."

Within weeks of arriving at the House of Commons, Hobden showed that he was an issue politician caring little about personal advancement or gaining the favour of the Labour hierarchy. Traditionally maiden speeches are non-controversial; not so Hobden's. On 13 November 1964, on the second reading of the Travel Concessions Pensions Bill, he addressed himself at once to the subject. He told Tom Fraser, the Transport Secretary, and Peggy Herbison, the Minister for Pensions, sitting on the front bench, that their proposal "would create more anomalies than it would cure". In Brighton and district, it would be politically absurd to do what the Labour government was advocating - they already had a co-ordinated transport system: limiting the benefits to publicly owned transport would enrage low-income travellers who were geared to privately owned transport.

I vividly recollect hearing Hobden begin one of his speeches to the Parliamentary Labour Party: "If I was not here there would not be a Labour government, so you had better listen carefully to what I say." It was said half-jokingly and wholly in earnest. Normally the PLP would greet such a mark with derision. But derision was not our response in 1965. Hobden's words were literally, at that moment, true. Yet he was listened to not only because of his spectacular and unanticipated Labour victory - it was also because he spoke for many Labour people in the south of England who were giving the Government the benefit of the doubt.

After a pessimistic contribution from Hobden to the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting, Dick Crossman, then Minister of Housing, asked Hobden to see him in his room for a talk. To Crossman's surprise, when he had complained to his powerful Permanent Secretary, Dame Evelyn Sharp, about Hobden's attack, Sharp responded that Hobden's Brighton was one of the most progressive and imaginative local authorities in Britain.

As Crossman's PPS I heard Hobden outline his record on transport and his ideas for housing the pensioners who were flooding into Brighton from other parts of Britain at prices which they could afford. When Hobden had gone out, Crossman turned to his private secretary and said, "Just like you, Evelyn, and Beatrice Webb." On that occasion Sharp was not at all offended. She seemed rather pleased to be lumped together with those eminent Edwardians and Hobden as passionate believers in the benefits of municipal socialism.

In later years, whenever the Labour Party conference went to Brighton, Hobden and his second wife, Sheila, who had been a very effective secretary of the borough party, were familiar figures. He was only the seventh Labour Mayor that Brighton had had.

When at the end of September we go to the Brighton Conference centre for the 1995 conference some of my contemporaries and I will think of Dennis Hobden with affection and respect in the knowledge that that centre was his brainchild. After the 1957 Brighton conference, held in the ice-rink, most of the delegates had got (literally) cold feet and had gone home with flu, or in some cases pneumonia, because the floorboards had been inadequate and improperly arranged. Hobden, a young local delegate, then became determined that, through resolutions at the Post Office Workers Union, and through the council, he would make sure that Brighton had a conference centre worthy of the town. This he was instrumental in achieving.

Dennis Harry Hobden, politician: born Brighton 21 January 1920; worked for Post Office 1934-82; member, Brighton Town Council 1956-91; MP (Labour) for Brighton Kemptown 1964-70; member, East Sussex County Council 1973- 85; Mayor of Brighton 1979-80; married 1950 Kathleen Holman (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1970), 1977 Sheila Tugwell; died Brighton 20 April 1995.