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21 May 2001

Ministers meet flesh and blood

Election 2001 - Mandelson is not Labour's only problem in the north-east. There's also apat

By Peter Dunn

New Labour, old blood stains. Alan Milburn’s campaign trail in Darlington, where the Secretary of State for Health’s majority is a comfortable 16,000, has got off to a gory start. Milburn’s local hospital, Darlington Memorial, has been dishing out “sterilised” surgical instruments with lumps of human flesh still attached from previous operations. The soiled instruments, sent out from Darlington’s sterilisation centre, were discovered in the operating theatre at Bishop Auckland General Hospital four times over four months. After the fourth messy parcel, Simon Stock, a consultant, had had enough and suspended operations at Bishop Auckland. A local GP, Alan Lewis, wrote a furious letter to the town’s Labour MP, Derek Foster (comfortable majority of 21,000). Foster sent a copy of the letter to Milburn.

Bishop Auckland used to sterilise its own instruments, but ceased to do so after its NHS trust merged with Darlington’s three years ago. The town’s new hospital, which cost £67m, does not include a sterilisation unit, although nobody – not even the trust’s chief executive, John Saxby – knows why.

“I haven’t got the faintest idea because I wasn’t here at the time,” he says. “When the story came out in the Northern Echo, Alan Milburn rang me and seemed satisfied after I’d explained we had a sterilisation success rate of 99.92 per cent – only 200 cases out of 2.5 million articles. When I read the Echo report, I found two grammatical and one typographical error on the front page. It’s when you put it into that context you recognise the overall quality of our sterilisation service.

“The surgeon concerned went through two years without any problems at all; then he gets four cases in four months, which caused him concern. We’ve since met with him, and he’s happy with our assurances and has resumed operating.”

Valerie Bryden, chief officer of the South Durham and Weardale community health council, has asked the trust to restore Bishop Auckland General’s sterilising department to cut out wasted theatre time and distress to patients, many of whom now face journeys of up to 30 miles from rural areas for treatment. Saxby says briskly that this cannot be done.

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Milburn was not returning calls (or mine, anyway) to his office in Darlington, which is hardly surprising given the size of the political hole that new Labour’s finest have dug for themselves in the north-east. There is little evidence here of Tony Blair’s claim that the government has spent four years building the foundations of paradise on earth. Or that ministers give a hoot. Fifteen months ago, Milburn was just one of five senior Cabinet members with seats in the region who ignored letters from Hartlepool’s enterprise agency begging them to recognise the huge inequalities of the north-south divide. The others were Blair (Sedgefield, majority: 25,000), Stephen Byers (North Tyneside: 26,600), Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool: 17,500) and Mo Mowlam (Redcar: 21,600, standing down).

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Now retribution looms. According to a poll published in the Northern Echo on 9 May, one-third of the region’s voters are not sure how they will vote on 7 June. Although the figures give Labour a 13 per cent lead in key seats, the huge political slack of “don’t cares” remains an indictment of the government’s failure to raise the hopes and aspirations of its own long-suffering people.

In Hartlepool, Mandelson himself has warned that he could be out unless the Labour vote gets its act together. Here, the poll gives the twice-disgraced minister 38 per cent, the Tories 25 per cent, the Liberal Democrats 4.5 per cent and the don’t knows 31.5 per cent. Labour’s hopes today rest not on its own record, but on the Tories’ disastrous campaign so far.

The Echo poll notes that a significant proportion of the don’t knows would “vote against Labour if there were an acceptable alternative”.

It certainly won’t help Labour’s cause that Blair’s wife, Cherie, caught out by the postponed election date, has been in court defending the bosses of ICI against the financial claims of 460 aggrieved ex-employees, for a reported fee of £300,000.

Privately, Labour strategists in the north-east admit they regard as vulnerable any of the party’s 1997 “landslide majorities” of around 10,000. Notable among these are Dari Taylor (11,500 in Stockton South) and Ashok Kumar, with 10,600 in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland – where the steel company Corus, contemptuously ignoring the government’s squeaks of protest, has just dumped 1,100 jobs.

But does anyone really care? Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader who is standing against Mandelson in Hartlepool, led a union march for jobs in Middlesbrough earlier this month. It was largely ignored by the region’s papers. Trade unionists are yesterday’s men in new Labour’s new nirvana. In his north-eastern vision, as Blair keeps telling anyone who will listen, non-union-ised call-centres are the people’s destiny.

And so, once more, to Hartlepool. Here, the only serious entertainment on offer is whether Mandelson will be dumped by his apathetic supporters and become the Michael Portillo of the 2001 election. National and international media, including two German TV crews (“He’s very big in Germany, apparently,” says one local reporter), are gathering to see how often the former minister can be provoked into losing his rag. Their task will certainly be lightened by the imminent arrival in town of Mandelson’s nemesis, the Genuine Labour candidate, John Booth, a 54-year-old former Labour Party press officer who was sacked by Labour’s chief spinner in 1986.

Two years ago, Booth successfully sued the Independent‘s political commen- tator Donald Macintyre for libel over his biography of the former minister. He is using the remainder of his £10,000 damages to finance his campaign, renting his headquarters, Honesty House, in an old carpet shop and launching a website, johnhartlepool.org.uk. Mandelson has dismissed Booth’s intervention as “sour grapes”, but the veteran journalist and Labour Party member has already proved more than a match for his old enemy’s talent for mischief-making. It was he who tipped me off about Mandelson’s encounter with a reporter on the Hartlepool Mail, Adrian Braddy.

Braddy’s first experience of the Mandelson style had been dramatic. He had fallen over a church wall in town, gashing his leg badly, after the enraged MP (newly resigned over the Hinduja affair) had collided with a TV cameraman. Today Braddy says: “He’d been in to see the editor, but in reality it was to have a go at me. I’d written a few paragraphs on each candidate and tried to be a bit more analytical, so I said Mandelson’s career had been dogged by allegations of sleaze. It was the word ‘sleaze’ that he didn’t like.

“He asked where I was, then came over to me in the newsroom, produced a cutting and started laying in to me. He said he’d hate to ruin my career but his lawyer had told him he’d got a case against me for saying this. Since then, his agent’s been on the phone to say he was only joking. He said Mandelson had a temper on a scale of one to ten, and what he’d said to me was only on a scale of two.

“It didn’t seem to me like he was joking.”