Lord Dormand of Easington -2003

On 18 December 2003 I have the sad duty to report on the death of one of my predecessors as Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Jack Dormand, MP for Easington from 1970 to 1987, has died, aged 84.

John Donkin Dormand was born in 1919 in the mining village of Haswell, near Easington. He was educated at Wellfield Grammar School, Bede College Durham University, Loughborough Teacher Training College, Harvard University, where he was a Fullbright Scholar and St Peter’s Hall, Oxford. He started teaching at 21, at the start of the war. By the age of 29 he was education adviser to Durham County Council and from 1963, District Education Officer in Easington.

His interest in politics started early. As a lad of 15 he was injured trying to get the autograph of Ramsay Macdonald, the local MP. At 18 he joined the Labour Party, and was subsequently a member of Haswell Parish Council and Easington Rural District Council. He was chosen to succeed Manny Shinwell (also a former Chair of the PLP) in 1969 ; Shinwell having of course, famously defeated Ramsay MacDonald for the seat, then Seaham, in 1935. In his election to Parliament, Jack defeated Michael – now Sir Michael – Spicer.

He was industrious, genial and highly competent and was soon serving in the Opposition Whip’s Office as Northern Whip. When Labour won narrowly in 1974, Jack became the Government Pairing Whip. For the next five years the future of the Labour Government was almost daily in his hands. There was a small and brief majority after the second election of 1974, but this soon ebbed away with by-election defeats. The job of the Pairing Whip was never more crucial, with the task of ensuring the maximum turnout for tight votes – and there was a never-ending sequence of those. He later recalled Harold Wilson coming in one night and saying he hoped he was writing it all down. His reply was “Harold, I’m so bloody knackered at the end of the day, I can’t”. Throughout these years, possibly as a form of therapy, he also was the most diligent Hon Secretary to the Northern Group of Labour MPs. Our Secretary was the Clerk to the Northern Group twenty five years plus ago, doing some of the donkey-work, and bears testimony to Jack’s utter thoroughness.

Now a grinding job like Pairing Whip, especially after the travails of the Callaghan Government, might well have soured a lesser person – or at any rate rendered him somewhat unpopular, so it is a great tribute to Jack’s personal qualities that he was so popular with colleagues that in 1981 he stood for Chairman of the PLP and resoundingly defeated Ian Mikardo, himself a former Chair of the PLP. Mikardo was entitled to contest a second ballot (the other candidates having been eliminated) but withdrew after the first round, in view of Jack’s almost outright, first-round victory. He served the PLP as Chair for six years until 1987 – and through one of the most difficult periods in our history – and in that capacity more than emulated Shinwell’s fractious earlier term Chair of the PLP. If ever there was a more selfless devotion to the cause, it is, as yet, unknown to Labour historians.

He was elevated to the Peerage in 1987 as Lord Dormand of Easington – the only Labour nominee in that list not to have served in the Cabinet. In the Lords he enjoyed the same degree of popularity with his colleagues as in the Commons and from 1994 until the General Election victory of 1997 was the Peers back-bench representative on the Parliamentary Committee. He was active throughout his political life on education issues – as Lords Education Ministers can all testify – and he was also Chair of the (almost) all-Party Republic Group and the Parliamentary Humanist Group – as a life-long anti-monarchist and atheist. As a young man he had been excellent at sports – having had trials to become a professional footballer with Manchester United and Charlton Athletic and for many years played rugby for Houghton le Spring – continuing playing until in his sixties. He kept fit by cycling to and from Parliament and by taking the stairs two-at-a-time up to the PLP Office in St Stephen’s Tower, instead of using the lift. During the 1970s he led the successful campaign to establish the Parliamentary gym.

He was a lovely man. A great colleague. Ha bonny lad, indeed.
And he will be very much missed.

Alan Howarth, PLP