John Walsh is a film maker, and a double BAFTA and double Grierson Trust nominee.
Let me take you back to a more hopeful time. The Conservative Party was polling double figures against a fatally wounded Labour Government led by Gordon Brown – and in slow motion melt down. The two party leaders were jostling for supremacy in their planned head to head TV debates, and the door was swung open for a fresh-faced likeable fellow called Nick Clegg (the Nigel Farage of his day) to join the chat: what’s the harm it was only a bit of TV after all?
This, of course, was the lead up to the 2010 election. A lifelong Labour supporter myself, I found myself switching sides for the new friendly face of David Cameron’s Conservatives. I took it further than most when I applied to the Conservative parliamentary candidates list, was selected, interviewed – and chosen as the PPC for Middlesbrough all in the space of about six weeks.
Unlike most candidates, I came from a non-political background, having worked my whole life as a film-maker examining tough social issues. My eventual campaign was the subject of my feature film documentary, ToryBoy The Movie which hit the cinema in 2012 and, along the way, outed my opponent Sir Stuart Bell as “Britain’s Lasiest MP”.
Through a variety of misdemeanours from not holding surgeries for 15 years, through living a great deal of the time in Paris all the way through to writing some pretty awful literary porn, Bell was the ideal villain for my piece. Even now, I am asked if I knew the lurid story of Bell and his 30 years of neglect of his North East seat. I can answer with all honestly and some political naivety: no, I didn’t. It was simply a lucky call for me and an equally unlucky call for Sir Stuart.
Bell was brought before Labour’s disciplinary machine after the allegations from my film came to a head when Neil Macfarlane, a local journalist, put my claims to the test and rang Bell over 100 times over a series of days – and not one call was answered. This caused a major front page splash for the Middlesbrough Gazette that suddenly went national. When Bell was hauled up in front of Rosie Winterton, Labour’s Chief Whip, to answer for his behaviour he was unrepentant and decided to carry on as normal, or perhaps regardless.
As we have seen in recent years with a series of scandals that have shocked the nation, many have not exactly been closely guarded secrets. I have been told off the record that Sir Stuart Bell and his dereliction of duty for 30 years was an ‘open secret’ within the Labour Party, yet no one felt it was their responsibility to intervene. We can’t of course blame politicians, as this is something that is endemic within society and across the professions. What is tragic in this story is that the good people of Middlesbrough will never have a form of redress for those workshy years.
What the film did uncover, besides the personal attacks that all politicians get embroiled in, was an entrenched tribal voting pattern particular in Labour heartlands, where a hard life under Labour is tolerated, or perhaps even revelled in – as was suggested to me by Bell’s opponents in the town. They say that misery loves company: well, Middlesbrough as a town was eating itself alive from that point of view. It was named “the worst place to live in the UK” and Bell stayed silent.
I did increase the usual Conservative vote from around 2,000 to nearly 6,300. But much of that lead was lost when there was a shock by-election in 2012. Stuart Bell was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on the 1st October 2012 – ironically, the date of the DVD release for Tory Boy: The Movie. Twelve days later he was dead. A by-election frenzy ensued, but I was unable to take part, since my own father was coming to the end of a four year battle with cancer which he lost later that month.
The issues highlighted in my film still remain, despite the incoming Labour candidate and old pal of Bell, Andy MacDonald retaining the seat. He was quick not to repeat Bell’s mistake of being unavailable to constituents, and widely publicised his availability for surgeries as a key part of his election campaign.
The bigger story by far was the line up positions after the totals were tallied. UKIP came sixth in 2010, but in 2012 they rocketed to the number two position. The political landscape does seem set for some monumental changes if the polls are to be believed. But then there was a time of course when Nick Clegg was the toast of the town, and the 2010 polls were showing him stealing a march on all his rivals. For a brief moment, it looked as if he had managed to capture the public mood in the same way that Obama did in 2008. But common sense prevailed and Liberals were returned with five fewer seats than when they had started. Since then, Clegg has become a political poison and the very embodiment of over-promise-under-deliver politics Nigel Farage take heed.
But what about poor old Middlesbrough after this fight? Bell may have squandered the impressive 30,000-plus majority he enjoyed during the 1980s, but many Labour voters in the town are waking up to the reality that although they might want to blame an 1980s Conservative Government for the industrial decline of the North East, it is an area largely dominated by Labour MPs.
The low pay, poor housing and Miliband mantra of a “cost of living crisis” actually worsened in Middlesbrough under the thirteen years of Labour rule. But how can the cycle of tribal voting be broken? My film revealed a town in which tribal politics and voting patterns had imprisoned its people. It’s a bit like following a failing football team and sticking with them through blind loyalty and nothing more. During one wet door step interaction of the hundreds if not thousands I had on the campaign trail, one disillusioned Labour voter told me that “Gary Glitter would win here if he wore a Labour rosette.”
I enjoyed my time as a candidate and, as 2015, looms screenings for Tory Boy: The Movie have increased – most recently a cinema full of enthusiastic political students and town folk at its Aberdeen premiere this February. I made a short follow up film for the DVD which gave others a chance to have their say: politicians, journalists, a political satirist and even Stuart Bell! You can see it here.
If you are one of the few who missed out on the kerfuffle in Middlesbrough, you can find out more at the film’s official website too.