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12 February 2001

A clown fights an organ-grinder

Peter Dunn finds a rich diversity of performers ready to challenge Mandelson for the hearts of disgr

By Peter Dunn

Hartlepool, as any music-hall comedian will tell you, is famous for hanging a monkey as a Napoleonic spy. Come the general election, the lynch parties will be looking for the organ-grinder, Peter Mandelson, exotic cranker-in-chief of new Labour’s hurdy-gurdy. Will the former Northern Ireland minister and might-have-been foreign secretary swing? Possibly, just possibly.

Late last month, Graham Robb, a PR man in Darlington and William Hague’s press officer in the north, had lunch with the Tory leader and suggested a political blitz on Mandelson’s seat – shadow cabinet guest visits, the lot – when Tony Blair goes to the country and puts his friend’s 17,000 majority on trial. Hague seemed keen, tantalised by the thought that Mandelson, wobbling between jubilation and petulance and threatening to write a book after his resignation over the Hinduja affair, could be relaunched as a metaphor for new Labour’s widely perceived failings: courtesans of the rich and despisers of the poor.

The threat of turning the downtrodden, disheartened little coastal town of Hartlepool into a full-blown media circus is causing dismay among other new Labour MPs in the north-east. Many acknowledge privately that a government with six Cabinet members in the region could have done better for its heartland supporters than a string of call-centres.

Political neglect is evident on even the most pitiful level of every-day life. Only a week ago, European plans to ship surplus fruit and vegetables from the south to feed undernourished children on Teesside were scrapped because of “transport difficulties”. This news coincided with an official report that the north-east is bottom of the nation’s heap for life expectancy, poverty, employment, economic output and poor housing. In Hartlepool itself, a small government-sponsored group called Action Team for Jobs (which will be axed in October if it fails to meet “targets”) is visiting primary schools to teach children, many of them from second- or third-generation unemployed families, how to apply for jobs as milk monitors or playground supervisors.

Hartlepool’s circus, when it finally hits town, will offer apathetic voters a rich diversity of performers: Arthur Scargill, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers and leader of the Socialist Labour Party, who wants to nationalise what remains of British manufacturing industry before Blair gives it away to the Dutch; and Scargill’s old friend Mike “The Mouth” Elliott (Icon Party), a former miners’ strike activist who is now a stand-up comic and pugnacious DJ with Century FM radio in Gateshead. Elliott’s candidacy has been enthusiastically supported by the Newcastle Journal, which ran an editorial welcoming the “Mike and Mandy Show”, starring the comedian and, mysteriously, the “disgraced Foreign Secretary Peter Mandelson”.

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Mandelson himself has welcomed Scargill as “the man who single-handedly destroyed the British coal industry” – which may not be the political perception of many long-redundant miner-voters in his constituency.

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Elliott thinks that, with Mandelson in his present mood, Scargill ought to step aside and leave the rough stuff to a professional clown. “Arthur rang me up and asked if I was serious,” he says. “I suggested that he pull out, not because I think he wouldn’t make a very good MP, but the bottom line is I think I’m a better candidate.

“It’s not me that wants to give Peter Mandelson a bloody nose. It’s the people with the vote that want to do it, because they’re ashamed about what Mandelson and new Labour have done to this town. As for the Tories, they couldn’t care less about the people of Hartlepool. Let them come in with their screaming media circus. I’m just the clown but I’ll have their bollocks in spades.”

The Tories’ PR man, Robb, describes their man in Hartlepool as having “very strong indications that life is going his way”. Gus Robinson, 51, a prosperous local builder and boxing promoter who knows Frank Warren well, agrees. Robinson typifies the kind of self-made, small-town, north-country entrepreneur who doesn’t need to become an MP to run the place. Yet he is full of small surprises, talking about his 20 years as a visitor at Durham Prison, quoting from Corinthians and telling me his economic philosophy came from the slogan on a Lyons Golden Syrup tin: “Out of the strong came forth sweetness”. “I honestly believe this government is lightweight, morally bankrupt, corrupt and deceitful,” he says. “There’s 11 ministers out of 36 Labour MPs in the north-east and they’ve all treated the region disgracefully. Not one of their seats is safe and I honestly think I don’t need any help from outside to fight the seat of Hartlepool. Last time I asked the Minister for Health [Alan Milburn] a question, he went pale and left the room.”

His first meeting with Mandelson ended edgily. “He turned up in Hartlepool and I took him for a meal at my restaurant, Il Ponte,” Robinson explains. “It used to be called the Bridge Hotel, a place of ill-repute which I repositioned in the market. I gave him a picture of the monkey hanging. Mr Mandelson suggested that I scratch his back and he’d look after me. I didn’t take that to be a corrupt statement in any way, and I still don’t, but I did say to Peter: ‘Mr Mandelson, I can’t do that, though there’s no reason why we can’t be friends.'”

Mandelson’s agent, Steve Wallace, defended the MP’s record in Hartlepool. He told me that Mandelson’s many local achievements included saving the town’s rugby club from bankruptcy – but he seemed at a loss to identify specific jobs steered into the stricken community over the past three years.

The short answer to this is few, if any. Early last year, Mandelson ignored a letter from his local Enterprise Agency begging him to recognise that the north-south divide was killing the town. He also ignored a registered letter I sent to him a few weeks ago, inviting him to support a scheme to set up a new university-backed Ministry of Information Technology in the region (see NS, 25 December). The Enterprise Agency will soon cease to be a problem. If funds aren’t forthcoming, it will go down in May and its chief executive, the retired banker John Megson, will be out of a job. Megson’s only consolation is that the organ-grinder may also be out on his ear. “He’s done nothing for Hartlepool,” he told me this week. “The radio this morning reported a poll of 1,000 Hartlepool residents, and a majority of them said he should go. I’d subscribe to that. I think the people of Hartlepool have finally realised the damage this guy is doing to their town.”

Would it not be a supreme irony, two centuries after stringing up the monkey, if the bitter, dispossessed voters of Hartlepool rescued Blair by hanging his beloved organ-grinder out to dry?