After he drove into Blackburn on the Barbara Castle dual carriageway, all heads turned towards Jack Straw when he entered the King George’s Hall. Somewhat still in campaigning mode, he immediately got down to the business of shaking hands with supporters, but all the time heading in the direction of the local Labour treasurer, who held in his hands a scrap of paper. On it was the first indication of the count.
Whisked off into a stairwell, the thickly bespectacled man with a talent for counting crosses through the blur of whirring ballot papers gave Straw the good news. He would win. The question remained, however, as it had done throughout the whole campaign: “By how much?” With Muslims making up 25 per cent of the electorate in Blackburn, it would be a huge blow if Straw were to lose a large proportion of this vote. (“Sir, are you confident?” piped up one hack as Straw left the stairwell. “I’m always confident,” he replied.)
Cruising the hall, I asked a Pakistani supporter of the independent candidate, Craig Murray – the one-time British ambassador to Uzbekistan – how the Muslim vote was holding up. “I would even vote for the British National Party to get rid of Straw,” he said. He explained how the Labour government was a bunch of “fascists” and intent on killing Muslims around the world. “Look, to them, you and I will always be Pakis.”
In the end, the ballot papers piled into each candidate’s pigeonhole at the front of the hall told a complex story. The Liberal Democrat vote more than doubled; the Conservative vote fell by a third, despite the party fielding an Asian candidate; and the BNP and Craig Murray came away with a little over 2,000 votes each. Straw was returned with 4,250 votes fewer than in 2001, but still holding a sizeable majority of 8,000 plus.
The pundits – at least in this small corner of Lancashire – had got it wrong. Clearly the (Muslim vote) wasn’t a homogeneous bloc, there to be won over on the single issue of a war in a foreign land. Thursday proved that the constituency was more complex than that. Though no one will ever know for sure what finally swung it for the Labour candidate, loyalty to Straw, Blackburn’s MP since 1979, was certainly a factor.
So when Straw made his victory speech, it was the Asian members of his election team who chanted (“Jack, Jack, Jack”) the loudest. And when he came down from the podium he lifted supporters from the ground in giant bear hugs.
You could see that a weight had been lifted. Here was victory by vindication.