Obituary: Frank Doran, Labour MP with a leading role in health and safety and minimum wage legislation

Frank Doran MP. Born: 13 April, 1949 in Edinburgh. Died: 31 October, 2017, in London, aged 68

Former Aberdeen Labour MP Frank Doran. Picture: John Stilwell/PA Wire
Former Aberdeen Labour MP Frank Doran. Picture: John Stilwell/PA Wire

For all that he was an accidental MP, Frank Doran emerged as one of the most committed, conscientious and influential elected members of his generation.

Rooted in a working-class, trade union background, he had already metamorphosed from teenage Hydro Board worker to mature student and successful lawyer before he took his seat. As a result he truly understood the needs of the working people and put their interests at the heart of his political values, never more so than in the wake of the world’s worst offshore disaster – Piper Alpha – a tragedy that profoundly affected him and was the catalyst for his quest to keep health and safety at the top of the energy industry agenda.

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During a political career of two halves – he won his first seat by surprise, then had an equally unexpected a five-year hiatus before returning to the House – he was in the unique position of representing three separate seats in Aberdeen, in both government and opposition, and played a key role in crafting the minimum wage legislation, something of which he was most proud.

Born in Edinburgh, to Francis and Betty Doran, he was educated at Ainslie Park Secondary School and Leith Academy, leaving at 16 to work for the Scottish Hydro Board. After a manager took an interest in him he was encouraged to go to university and studied law at Dundee, by which time he was already a married father of two boys.

Admitted as a solicitor in 1977, he then built up a successful legal practice before running for a seat in the European Parliament in 1984. He stood in the Conservative stronghold of the North East Scotland constituency, with no real expectation of winning and, though unsuccessful, made a substantial dent in the Tory majority, acquiring a higher profile in the process.

When asked to stand for the UK parliament in one of the Granite City seats, Aberdeen South, he agreed but again did not rate his chances. It too had been a Conservative seat for decades and was being defended by Gerry Malone.

“I have to say it was an accident, because I did not expect to win,” Doran explained during a valedictory debate when he stepped down in 2015.

The Labour hopeful had just lodged his nomination papers for the contest in 1987 when he emerged to see Malone cruising along the city’s main thoroughfare in a vintage Rolls Royce, waving rather grandly to the populace en route. Aghast at the flamboyancy, Doran immediately deemed the behaviour “not very Aberdonian”, turned to his agent and said: “I can win this.”

Later during the campaign, Malone’s wife went into labour and Doran cheekily sent a congratulatory bunch of Labour red roses to the parents in hospital – a gesture that put him on the front page of the local papers.

On election night there were barely 1,200 votes between them and Doran triumphed. “It was very difficult in some respects,” he explained later. “I had a family, I think I had assured my wife that there was no chance I was going to be elected. That created a problem.”

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Soon his legal expertise was being sought whenever a Scottish lawyer was required. He spent his first two years on bill committees and began working alongside a rising young star, Tony Blair. Those early days also saw him heavily involved in supporting and fighting for the families of the Piper Alpha victims. The disaster, in July 1988, claimed 167 lives and the subsequent Cullen Inquiry resulted in a huge raft of safety recommendations.

“The impact and the aftermath have been a huge part not just of my political life, but my life generally,” he later admitted. “It is not something one shakes off easily.”

When Blair became shadow energy secretary, Doran worked alongside him, cementing a focus on energy industry safety that continued throughout his career. He lost his seat in the 1992 election when the Conservatives wrested back power but set up a small consultancy serving local authorities and the oil industry.

By this time his marriage had failed and he was in a relationship with fellow Labour MP Joan Ruddock, now Dame Joan, who would become his second wife. She recalled coming across him for the first time, not long after they both entered Parliament in 1987, describing “a rather crumpled looking man”, softly-spoken, with a pleasant, open face.

She understood the pressures of life as an MP, a role he reprised “as a retread”, as he described himself, in 1997.

This time, as a result of boundary changes, he represented the new Aberdeen Central constituency and became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the employment minister Ian McCartney. Together they spent two years working on the minimum wage, which he described as “one of the genuine highlights of my life”. He continued to champion workers’, particularly those of the offshore workforce, leading calls for a public inquiry into helicopter safety, after numerous fatalities in various helicopter disasters.

A principled man, he wrestled with his conscience in 2003 over the Labour government’s decision to go to war in Iraq and rebelled. A couple of years later he faced another dilemma when a boundary change saw his seat disappear and he was forced to go head-to-head with a colleague for the new seat, Aberdeen North. He won again and became the first chairman of the Administration Committee when it was formed in 2005 and in 2010 chaired the Speakers Advisory Committee on Art.

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By 2013 both he and his wife had decided to step down in 2015 and, far from retiring, he planned to spend more time on his interest in the arts, as well as health and safety.

Paying tribute, MSP Lewis Macdonald, his friend and colleague for more than three decades, said: “Many constituents across Aberdeen have had the benefit of Frank’s support in the last 30 years, and many good causes in the city have enjoyed his backing too. He helped many to realise the great potential the city has in its cultural life, and was always ready with good advice and excellent networks of contacts for those trying to realise that potential.

“His family, friends and colleagues across Scotland and the Labour movement have all been enriched by his positive and generous attitude to life, and many of us have learned from him a great deal. The saddest thing in Frank’s life is that it has ended so soon after his well-earned retirement.”

He is survived by his wife Joan, two sons, four grandchildren and his sister Karen, a Labour councillor in Edinburgh.