The idea of my standing against Jack Straw in Blackburn at the general election was born in conversation with Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan was making a documentary about torture and he and I were discussing Straw’s decision to approve the use by MI6 of information obtained under torture by the Uzbek security services. I was the British ambassador to Uzbekistan until October, when I was removed from my post after criticising this practice. How could one hold Straw accountable for his decision? Or, for that matter, for the WMD dossier (he is, after all, in charge of MI6), or for the illegal war on Iraq? I declared I would go ahead and challenge Straw in his own backyard.
Taking the train to Blackburn, I arrive at midnight. It is bitterly cold with sharp specks of snow in the air. I haven’t booked a hotel, figuring that Blackburn is the sort of place to have a big old Victorian station hotel. I have visions of a large bed, velvet curtains and piping-hot, cast-iron radiators. Instead, I am met at the station by several vans of very cold-looking policemen. I ask one where I might find a hotel.
“You’ll be lucky,” he replies.
After a frozen plod through the snow, I come to a mini-cab firm, and a very chirpy driver called Ajit. He explains that the Blackburn Rovers v Burnley FA Cup 5th round replay has just finished, the biggest event in Blackburn for a long time. The hotels will be full with supporters. He’s right; I end up sleeping in the Preston Novotel.
The next morning I take a taxi into town to find a vacant shop I can rent as my HQ. There are several suitable-looking sites available and they all seem to use the same agent. I telephone the company and explain what I want, and why. They reply that commercial property owners in Blackburn would not want to be associated with any campaign against Jack Straw. I ask them, all the same, to check the availability of two shops. Then I buy a local newspaper, where I read that a Blackburn Labour councillor has just been convicted of rigging postal ballots among the Muslim community, and told to expect a custodial sentence.
Blackburn’s Muslim community is primarily Gujarati, and has traditionally been a bulwark of Straw’s support. By chance, Straw went on an official visit to Gujarat only last month, where he made much of Home Office proposals to make it easier to get visas to visit relatives. 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 Straw’s name of any electioneering purpose.
There is much speculation that the war on terror will turn the Muslim vote against Straw, but the ennobled local leadership – he has made two patriarchs of his constituency’s Gujarati community members of the House of Lords – remains firmly behind him. There is a thought that disillusioned young Muslims might split from the leadership; this is where the postal ballot comes in.
The great disadvantage of a secret ballot is that, whatever social pressure you may have exerted, you have no idea what the individual does in the ballot box. With a postal ballot, community patriarchs can insist on inspecting the ballots before voting. 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 doing.
At lunchtime I am surprised by a phone call from a television crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. They are making a documentary about me, but I thought I had given them the slip. Evidently not; they are at Blackburn station. For the rest of the day, they follow me around.
The next morning brings good news. The two shops I specified are both available. They both belong to the local brewer, Thwaites. The one I choose has two pubs to its immediate right and one to its left. Only one of them is a going concern.
This 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. I wonder why there were so many and what factors caused this cull. Something else I have yet to learn.
I return to London to find messages waiting from Martin Bell and Brian Eno; both want to help my campaign. Then I receive news from the estate agent. Thwaites has decided it will not let me rent any of its property in Blackburn. Its directorsfeel it would not be in the company’s interests to allow its premises to be used to campaign against Jack Straw.
This column will appear in G2 every Thursday until the election.