The second entry from Craig Murray’s campaign diary is published in today’s Guardian.
The sun is shining in Blackburn and spirits are light. Well, mine are. I am sitting in my new campaign headquarters. My assistants are Peter Newton and Eddie Duxbury, two pensioners. Pete is cleaning the windows and Eddie is setting up the computers and telephones. I managed to rent a shop in a perfect town-centre position, just down from the railway centre.
Campaigning is going well. I am enjoying my encounters with the voters, who are given to speaking their minds. I have met with no hostility. I have been invited for cups of tea by total strangers. One thing that has surprised me when I have gone leafletting is that it is not unusual for people to leave their front doors ajar. On some streets, children run about and play football in the road as I did as a child. These are things London has lost.
As I walk around with my sack of leaflets, I appreciate that Blackburn is pretty hilly. There are a lot of low-density, prosperous-looking new housing estates. In one of them yesterday it took me nearly three hours to deliver 120 leaflets. But there are also many areas of terraced houses with front doors that open on to the pavement – a leafletter’s dream. On Balaklava and Inkerman streets, I did 120 leaflets in 20 minutes: battery voters.
To be fair, Jack Straw is an assiduous constituency MP. I had presumed that would mean he is a popular one, but apparently not. This is partly because of the war in Iraq. The idea that voters don’t care about foreign policy is simply wrong. But there is also a lot of ill-feeling towards the local Labour council. Blackburn has been Labour since 1945. The council is the largest employer in the constituency and has been the channel for huge volumes of urban regeneration funds, much of it from the EU. In short, the council is controlled by one party and controls much of the economy.
Pete and Eddie were office-holders of the Bank Top community association. They became concerned about what had happened to ?1m of urban-regeneration funds earmarked for their community. The council said the funds had been disbursed, but they could not see it on the ground. They started to write inquiring letters.
The council reacted swiftly. It accused them of mismanagement of the very small funds of the community association and removed them from their (unpaid) positions. They appealed to the local government ombudsman, who said the council had the power to act in this way. Perhaps it does; but it left two pensioners humiliated and stigmatised. And they still don’t know where the million quid went. It is a fact of life – a local council dominated long term by one party becomes arrogant and cliquish.
I now move on to ground where angels fear to tread. Blackburn is close to the BNP heartlands; the party polled significantly here in the European parliament elections, and the conditions seem to offer potential for the disease to spread. The Muslim population is very segregated; Blackburn has sharply defined Asian and white areas. White people of all ages and political persuasions, including lifelong socialists, complain to me that the massive influx of public money for urban regeneration has benefited almost exclusively the Asian areas. As far as I can judge, this is not a false perception. There may be good reasons for it – presumably the Asian parts of town scored highly on deprivation indices. But people believe it to be connected to the ability of Muslim community leaders to mobilise a massive Labour vote. The resulting perception of unfairness is a real problem, exacerbated by the fact that the Asian community is, on the whole, more upwardly mobile. The schools with largely Asian populations are doing better. Part of the solution must be that more public funds need to be found to equalise provision of community facilities. That will reinforce a dependency culture that already worries me.
Last Friday, I met Muslims outside a Blackburn mosque. Several recognised me and we had a lively conversation about the war and the impact on civil rights. One has a friend imprisoned under the Terrorism Act and wanted me to help. They were welcoming, gentle and curious. Yet the tabloid press could slap any one of them, with their long beards and white skull caps, on the front page with a caption about “Osama’s Lieutenant”. Muslims are being demonised by a media that is converting their very image into an object of hate. I worry deeply about where this country is heading.