Craig Murray’s Campaign Diary (1)

The first entry from Craig Murray’s campaign diary is published in today’s Guardian. Here is the full unedited text:

Campaign Diary

Part I – No room at the Inn – or the Brewery

The idea of my standing against Jack Straw in Blackburn at the general election had been born in conversation with Andrew Gilligan, when he was interviewing me for the Channel 4 Documentary Torture – the Dirty Business shown last Tuesday.

I had been talking about Jack Straw’s role in approving the use by MI6 of information obtained under torture by the Uzbek security services. Gilligan’s film had shown that the same was happening in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, and that the CIA were kidnapping terrorist suspects around the globe and shipping them to places where they could be tortured.

I have the advantage of having seen some of the so-called intelligence this process produces, and know it to be nonsense aimed at exaggerating the role, strength and links of Al-Qaida and Bin Laden. Yet the government wishes to be able, on the meagre strength of such intelligence, to keep people detained or under house arrest indefinitely, without access to fair trial.

Both Clark and Blair smugly cite “intelligence” as though it were some infallible source of information to which only the trustworthy few – ie them – have access.

In fact this intelligence is dead dodgy, about as reliable as a racing tip from a bent jockey. If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider the dossier of lies on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Anyway, Gilligan and I were discussing how to hold Straw accountable for his decision on torture material, for the WMD dossier (he is, after all, in charge of MI6, a fact Hutton almost failed to notice), and for the illegal war on Iraq. This is meant to be a democracy, I mused. Why not challenge him at the polls, in his own backyard?

I boldly declared I would go ahead and challenge Straw. News of it spread, and I found I had somehow passed a point of no return. It had to be done.

I hope to give Straw a run for his money in Blackburn. But still more, I hope that I will be able to keep the media focus on the torture, human rights and illegal war. This is of course precisely what Blair doesn’t want. “Let’s move on from that” is his mantra.

Am I the only one to find this insulting? I think I’ll rob a bank to fund my election campaign. When the police come to arrest me, I shall say: “Hey, let’s move on from that. OK I robbed a bank, but that was last week. You should see my great plans for the future. I realise that robbing the bank may have raised some trust issues, but I think if you will really listen to me we can establish a dialogue and overcome those.”

Anyway it was now time to translate my resolve into action on the ground. After a day of London media interviews, at seven o clock in the evening I set out from Shepherd’s Bush in a freezing, driving rain for a preparatory visit to my prospective constituents.

The first part of the trip was in a Virgin Pendalino train. I can’t say I noticed it tilting, but it got me to Manchester fast, comfortably and efficiently. Two more changes of train saw me arriving in Blackburn just on midnight on a local service. It was a bitterly cold night with sharp specks of snow. The local train had no heating system and reminded me of a Polish tram of the communist era.

I had not booked a hotel, figuring that Blackburn was the sort of place that would be bound to have a big old Victorian station hotel. I had visions of a large bed, velvet curtains and piping hot cast iron radiators. Well it did, but it shut. There were several vans of very cold looking policemen at the railway station, for no apparent reason. I asked one where I might find a hotel, and he replied, cryptically: “You’ll be lucky.”

After a frozen plod through the snow, I came to a mini-cab firm, and a very chirpy driver called Ajit bundled me into his people carrier. He explained that the Blackburn Rovers vs Burnley FA Cup 5th Round replay had just finished. The two being neighbours and bitter rivals, the game was the biggest event in Blackburn for a long time. The hotels would be full with supporters, he opined.

I had known the game was on, but told Ajit that Burnley being just down the road, I had not expected the hotels would be affected. He said that the hotels were full not of Burnley but of Blackburn supporters; they came from all over for matches. I presume this is a Blackburn diaspora; in England it is only at Old Trafford that the majority of so-called fans have no connection to the local population.

Anyway, Ajit was sure that the Travel Inn would have rooms. It didn’t, but then he was sure that the Travel Lodge would have rooms. After that we tried the Fernhurst, the Bear, the Woodlands, the Hilltop and a couple of others. Not the Chimneys though – Ajit warned me they were rum folk at the Chimneys.

Ajit remained continually cheerful and optimistic, and I am quite sure he didn’t deliberately keep ferrying across town in a series of five mile swings, but soon it was 1.30am there was ?40 on the clock and still nowhere to sleep. Ajit had suggested trying outside Blackburn, but I was loathe to go scuttling ignominiously away at the start of my first visit. Finally, however, I had to admit defeat and we took a brief trip down the motorway to the Preston Novotel. It was an inauspicious start to my Balckburn campaign; there was no room at the inn.

The next morning I took a taxi into town and stood outside Blackburn Cathedral clutching my bag, my hands turning blue with cold. I headed into the visitor centre to get a coffee, and bumped into a documentary crew making a film about MPAC, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. They had filmed me last week meeting MPAC to discuss the Blackburn campaign, so we greeted each other. I sat down to drink my coffee, and they filmed me doing it.

Revived, I went out to scout around for a vacant shop I could rent as an HQ for three months. There were several suitable looking empty shops available. I also called on letting agents to find somewhere to live for three months, but they all said the minimum let was six months.

All the shops to let seemed to use the same agent, Trevor Dawson. I telephoned this company and explained what I wanted and why. They replied rather cryptically that commercial property owners in Blackburn would not want to be associated with any campaign against Jack Straw. Nonetheless I asked them to check the availability of two shops which particularly interested me.

I bought a local newspaper; I saw a Blackburn labour councillor had just been convicted of vote rigging, and been told by the judge to expect a custodial sentence. The rigging had been using postal ballots among the Muslim community.

Blackburn’s Muslim community is primarily Gujerati, and has traditionally been a bulwark of Straw’s support. By chance, Jack Straw went on an official visit to Gujerat only last week, where he made much of Home Office proposals to make it easier to get visas to visit relatives (I’ll believe that when I see it). The Mail on Sunday was distasteful enough to suggest that this pre-election visit was electioneering at public expense.

The host authorities have said that the initiative to visit Gujerat specifically came from the Biritish side. I have put in a request to the FCO under the Freedom of Information Act for papers relating to the genesis of this visit; doubtless these will clear Jack’s name of any electioneering purpose.

Straw is a master of Labour machine politics and of the use of patronage; he has made two patriarchs of his constituency Gujerati community members of the House of Lords. One of Lord Patel’s daughters has a well paid job on the board of the local NHS Trust; the rumour in the pubs of Blackburn is that she has only turned up twice.

There is much speculation that the War on Terror will turn the Muslim vote against Straw, but the ennobled leadership remains firmly behind him. There is a thought that disillusioned young Muslims might split from the leadership, but this is where the postal ballot comes in.

The great disadvantage of the secret ballot is that, whatever social pressure you may have exerted, you have no idea what the individual does in the ballot box. This is where Labour’s innovation of widespread postal voting is so helpful to them. Community patriarchs can insist on inspecting the ballots before voting, something they couldn’t do in the polling station. Or they can even collect up all the postal ballots and fill them in themselves, which is precisely what the Blackburn Labour councillor was convicted of.

It is going to be very interesting to watch what happens with postal ballots in this election in Blackburn certainly, but elsewhere as well. I for one am deeply suspicious of Blair’s enthusiasm for them.

At lunchtime I am surprised by a phone call from a television crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. They are at Blackburn station. They are making a documentary about me, but I thought I had given them the slip. Evidently not, and for the rest of the day the citizens of Blackburn are mildly surprised by the sight of me wandering round in the snow being filmed by a bunch of Australians, who seem particularly keen on repeated shots of me walking purposefully and

gazing nobly into the distance.

Before going on to an interview with Radio Lancashire, I do one with the Australian correspondent, Evan Williams. We take off our coats and are seated on a bench outside the cathedral; small spears of ice are sweeping horizontally into my face. I struggle against the cold and wind to explain why I’m standing in Blackburn. Goodness knows what Australian audiences will think of this: “Here’s some pommie nutter sitting in a churchyard in a blizzard. Must be a reality TV endurance show.”

The Australians follow me in to Radio Lancashire, filming away. I am interviewed by Chris Ryder, who is relentlessly hostile. He starts off by saying “Are you standing against Jack Straw just because he sacked you”. Questions include “You do realise that Jack Straw’s an extremely popular constituency MP?”

I immediately concede I have no local background, and as yet very little knowledge of Blackburn, but he still ploughs through a dozen questions aimed at hammering this home. I make my points about torture, intelligence, house arrest, and illegal war. . He doesn’t respond to anything I say. He is reading from a list of questions and doesn’t deviate from them, whatever I am saying. I wonder where they were prepared. The interview is pre-recorded, although I had requested live. I wonder how many of my more telling points will actually get broadcast.

As we leave I give the Australians – who are still filming – a wry grin. “Jeez, what a wanker” says Evan. I hope they leave that bit in. Come to think of it, I hope the Guardian leave it in too.

In the evening I do a tour of the pubs. Blackburn is blessed with excellent beer from the big Thwaites brewery, still family owned. Thwaites cask beer is a real classic. Blackburn also has a micro brewery, 3Bs. This produces some really good beers, including a mild, Stoker’s Slake, full of burnt and caramelly flavours and a potent reminder of how much we are losing as this style of beer becomes increasingly rare.

I have managed to get a room at the Fernhurst Hotel – also owned by Thwaites – and finally get to sleep in my chosen constituency.

The next morning brings good news. The two shops I specified are both available. They both belong to Thwaites. I choose the one on Lower Church Street, behind the vast modern shopping centre. It has two pubs to its immediate right and one to its left. Only one of these three – the Sun – is working.

That is one of Blackburn’s most striking features. It has an astonishing number of ex-pubs. Some have been converted to other uses, but many more are derelict. Blackburn has closed more pubs than other cities had in the first place. I wonder why there were so many and what factors caused this cull. Something else I have yet to learn.

I meet an old acquaintance from University, Stuart, who is a former Blackburn Tory councillor and also a printer. We go to his offices in India Mill, a great cathedral to manufacturing vacated by Coates Viyella when the British textile industry collapsed in the eighties. It has a great chimney styled as a Venetian campanile – I remember watching Fred Dibnah climb it on TV. From Stuart’s windows you can look out on the great Crown wallpaper factory, closed three years ago. We design posters and leaflets.

I feel the campaign is really getting underway. I go to the local newspaper offices and give an interview to a thoughtful young reporter named Caroline. She looks to have forty years less experience of journalism than Chris Ryder; forty years less narrowing of the mind. Then it’s parading up and down outside the cathedral again, while the local paper take photographs.

I put in a classified ad for a house to rent. Then I go off to meet some Asian community leaders, who seem pretty enthused before boarding a train to Chesterfield. There I am a guest speaker at the Green Party conference. I am on good emotional form and get a very enthusiastic standing ovation when I finish. I feel things are going well.

Back in London I have messages waiting for me to call Martin Bell and Brian Eno. I do so, and both want to help my campaign. The warm glow of this is quickly dissipated by news from the Estate Agent. Thwaites Brewery have decided they will not let me rent any of their property in Blackburn. Their estates manager had been overruled by directors who felt it would not be in the company’s interests to allow their premises to be used to campaign against Jack Straw.

This causes me to re-assess soberly what I had achieved on my first showing in Blackburn. Not much. And while my emails are full of offers from talented people to write copy, handle media and design the website, I still have nothing solid in place locally.

Next week I will be conducting the Blackburn campaign from the Austrian Institute of International Affairs, who have asked me to lecture in Vienna. As the phoney general election breaks into real hostilities, this campaign diary will become increasingly frequent.