When I stood against Jack Straw in 2005, I wanted to confront him with open debate about my eye witness to torture and extraordinary rendition, after he lied to parliament continually and repeatedly about it. I was however, despite being a candidate, not allowed to participate in any of the candidate’s debates, including that broadcast by BBC Radio 4, and the debate hosted by the joint churches in Blackburn cathedral.
I went to see the Dean of the Cathedral about my exclusion. He said something quite extraordinary – “Look, Craig, you are leaving after the election. We have to live in this town.” He was scared of retribution. That sounds wildly improbable, but it was supported by much other experience. I agreed to short term lets of two shops for my campaign headquarters (there is no shortage of shops to let in Blackburn). Both cancelled when they discovered I wished to campaign against Jack Straw – one specifically told me that they would like to help, but feared trouble from the council. When I eventually succeeded, the landlords made the point that they lived and had their businesses outside Blackburn and this was their only asset there, so they couldn’t come to much harm.
Under electoral law a candidate is entitled to the use of schools and community centres free of charge for electoral meetings, but despite dozens of efforts I was never once allowed this. It is a serious and specific electoral offence for a candidate to provide free food and drink at public meetings – “treating” – but the Straw campaign did this on a very large scale, and both the police and returning officer took no action when I complained with sworn affidavits of evidence from eye-witnesses. Postal ballot fraud was extraordinarily blatant, with the same authorities determinedly looking the other way. I could not even get them to look at why thirteen postal ballots were cast from one single unoccupied flat.
The point of which is – I know how Cyril Smith did it. It was a different category of crime he was committing, but I have seen how in these Lancashire towns like Blackburn and Rochdale the authorities collude together so comfortably to cover up the crimes of the local big man, be it Cyril Smith or Jack Straw. It may seem quite incredible that everybody knew in Rochdale and nothing was done, but having tried to challenge Straw in Blackburn, I know precisely how it worked. The entire political culture of industrial Lancashire is deeply rotten, and ought to be a source of deep shame.
Cyril Smith was merely a symptom, not the cause.