Tributes were paid to the Labour MP Ashok Kumar today after he was found dead at his constituency home. Anxious staff raised the alarm after being unable to contact Dr Kumar, 53, who was only the fifth Asian to be elected to Parliament since the Second World War.
He was discovered sitting in his chair in Marton, Middlesbrough, by officers who were called to the redbrick semi-detached house at lunchtime. He was not known to have been unwell. A post-mortem examination was due to take place tonight and police said they were investigating it as a “sudden accidental death”. Sources indicated that it was not thought to be suspicious at this stage.
Dr Kumar was a parliamentary aide to the Environment Secretary Hilary Benn and had represented Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland since 1997, winning with a majority of 8,000 at the most recent general election in 2005. His death is unlikely to lead to a by-election because of the forthcoming general election which is expected to be held in May.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was “greatly saddened” by the news. “He was a tenacious campaigner for his constituents and a warm and incredibly generous man,” he said.
Mr Benn praised his aide as “a pioneer, a doughty fighter for his constituents and a Labour man through and through who cared deeply for others.” Commons Speaker John Bercow announced news of his death to MPs.
Before becoming an MP, Dr Kumar was a research fellow at Imperial College, London and a research scientist for British Steel. He was regarded as one of the few politicians in Westminster with an expert science background.
Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said he would be missed. “Ashok would have played an important part in raising the profile of science in the next Parliament, especially as so many science-related MPs are leaving the House of Commons at the coming election,” he said.
In recent months he had lobbied hard on behalf of the steel industry on Teesside as plants were mothballed or faced closure. He had also battled to safeguard the future of shipbuilding and was a proponent of nuclear power.
Dr Kumar had also been a strong supporter of the controversial police officer Det Supt Ray Mallon, known as Robocop, who pioneered a popular zero tolerance crime policy before becoming the subject of a £5m corruption investigation into Cleveland Police. Mr Mallon was cleared of any wrongdoing and went on to become the first directly-elected Mayor of Middlesbrough.
In 2006 the MP broke ranks by calling for the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to make way for Gordon Brown. In an article in the Northern Echo he demonstrated Mr Blair’s waning authority, saying: “If Mr Blair is concerned with securing a lasting and memorable legacy for Britain, then I can think of no better way than to allow a smooth and rapid succession for Mr Brown.” Today however Mr Blair also paid tribute: "As a neighbouring MP I saw first hand his commitment to the north-east where the support he received grew year after year. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this time."
Dr Kumar was born in Uttar Pradesh in India but moved to the North East where he served as local councillor in Middlesbrough for 10 years. He was first elected to the Commons in a 1991 by-election but lost the seat at the general election the following year.
Fellow Labour MP Keith Vaz MP, chair of the Ethnic Minority Taskforce, said he was a natural fighter and community leader. "Ashok was a fine politician who served his constituency and his constituents with diligence and unswerving commitment," his office said.