When a BT customer services manager arranged the phone lines at my headquarters in Hartlepool, where I am standing as the Genuine Labour candidate, she asked: “Who are you fighting?” I explained that it was Peter Mandelson. Was it a sense of humour, or a sixth sense as to how the campaign would proceed, that persuaded her to give me a number ending in the figures 666?
I would not wish to suggest that my opponent is responsible, but certainly some strange things have happened. Mandelson’s initial reaction was that I was bound to pull out. “Elections are very expensive, you know,” he said. But he had forgotten the modest sum I was awarded in libel damages a couple of years back. A sympathetic biography of Mandelson had repeated the lies he told when he dismissed me as his deputy in the Labour Party press office in 1986. The resulting award funded my campaign launch, and my website has since pulled in lots of donations.
Finance, as it turned out, was the least of my troubles. I knew from the start that I couldn’t actually put Genuine Labour on the ballot paper. This is because legislation passed in the last parliament prevents anyone except the Labour Party from using the title “Labour”; in effect, the name is patented. As such, my plan was to drop the “Labour” when nominations approached and just call myself Genuine. (For obvious reasons, I had rejected the idea of being Straight Labour.)
I checked this with Tony Brown, Hartlepool Borough Council’s senior solicitor and acting returning officer. The day before nominations closed, he raised no objection. I ordered my literature and obtained my ten nominating signatures on that basis. Seven hours and five minutes before the deadline, he rang me on my mobile to say that his advice had been mistaken. He had looked up the rules again and found that, unless I could use the title of a registered political party, I would have to call myself “Independent”. (I am told that there is a man standing against Michael Portillo in Kensington and Chelsea for “Jam Wrestling”, but perhaps that has been registered.) Because there is already one independent standing in the election, I opted to stand simply as John Booth, with no label at all. I pointed out that I would have to reorder my literature. No need to worry, said Brown, it was his mistake and the Hartlepool council taxpayers would therefore pick up the bill.
Then there were the smears. Somebody reminded the diary writer of the Times Educational Supplement of how, as a National Union of Teachers press officer in the early 1980s, I was supposed to have protested against a DJ who had played “Land of Hope and Glory” at an NUT conference disco. This story was pure invention by a Daily Mail correspondent who was not even present. (I may not be the most patriotic candidate in this election, but at least I would know enough to avoid the error of my Tory opponent, whose literature shows his smiling face against the background of an inverted Union Jack – a distress signal not lost on Hartlepool’s many mariners.) The Observer diary had an even more entertaining titbit. An “anonymous caller” had revealed that I was “an aficionado of nudity”, that I had once visited a nudist camp in France, and that “he likes to show off his very firm bottom, you know”. All complete nonsense.
Even more bizarre was the conduct of the BBC. Newsnight invited me to appear in an item about the Hartlepool campaign. I said I could not be there because I would be teaching in London that day, but I offered to go to Millbank. No, the producers said, they would only do interviews on site. Yet when I saw the item, there was Arthur Scargill – standing in Hartlepool for his Socialist Labour Party – being interviewed from his base in Sheffield. Next, the Today programme asked me for a pre-recorded interview. I waited in my office for an hour, on the assurance that it would definitely be used. The next day, the programme featured every Hartlepool candidate except me.
I complained to the BBC director general, Greg Dyke. The final page of my letter was apparently stolen (unnecessarily, as I was releasing it to the press) and then turned up in Mandelson’s headquarters. I called in the police. A detective came to take my statement. Shortly before he left, an old friend called from St Albans to say her phone had rung an hour earlier and she had been able to listen to a clear conversation between me and the investigating officer. As I write this, I am waiting for the Hartlepool police to arrive and sweep my headquarters of bugs. I do not know whether they will be able to do anything about my mobile phone, which has been declared unobtainable to callers so often that even Inspector Bob Bussey of the Hartlepool police couldn’t pierce the barrier.
And my opponent, the twice- disgraced friend of the Prime Minister? He is keeping his distance. I have offered him the chance to defend his beloved euro in public, but he’s not up for it. I have suggested a debate on private morality in public life. Silence was again the stern reply from Mandelson HQ.
My slogan is: “The town deserves better”. We’ll see whether the electors of Hartlepool agree on 7 June.