Let me entertain you with an alcohol-caused, name-dropping anecdote. A few months ago, at the Labour Regional Conference in Leeds, at an hour well past Anne Widdecombe’s bedtime, I was at the bar next to Paul Routledge.
‘Mr Routledge,’ I said, ‘You should write an article about my CLP.’
‘Where’s that then?’ he said, curmudgeonly.
‘Harrogate and Knaresborough,’ I said, much too happily.
Mr Routledge sank his pint, wiped his mouth and said: ‘That shouldn’t take too long.’
Very funny. Not true, though. Let me return to this.
The other day, like every other Labour Party member, I received an email from a Lord: I hope that this never happens again. The Lord was, of course, Mandelson. That same day, I found that most of the billboards in my town of Harrogate had been bought by the Tories. To compound my misery, over the last few weeks, my wife and I have received innumerable Tory leaflets, all printed in Peterborough. My poor wife has even received direct mailings from the Queen’s relative, Cameron, and, what made her really cringe, was a letter from Mandelson’s holiday chum, Osbourne.
What is now clear is that, with the Tories chucking so much money at the election in my town, it’s highly likely that another Lord – Ashcroft – is bankrolling it. And if conclusive evidence was needed, last week, Ashcroft’s sponsor, 14-pint Hague, was up here, too. We’re becoming like a 19th Century rotten borough.
For those unfamiliar with my town, Harrogate is the home of the other BNP MEP and former leader of the National Front, Andrew Brons. Ours is a prosperous North Yorkshire spa town – with a spring so good that Marx came here in 1873 to ‘take the waters’; had he decided to make Harrogate home, Das Kapital would never have been written, but his kids wouldn’t have died so young.
Since 1997, our MP has been the begrudgingly popular Lib Dem, Phil Willis, who is standing down this time bequeathing a 7,000 majority to his aide. But why is Ashcroft targeting what looks like a safe Lib Dem seat? Because Harrogate is a bellwether: when we go blue – because we never go red – the country goes blue. Norman ‘high-unemployment-is-a-price-worth-paying’ Lamont, now-Lord, tried standing here. Lord Lamont lost in 1997, never to be seen again. This time’s Tory challenger is, like Cameron, a marketing executive, and leader of the mean Tory-run council.
But how can Ashcroft buy an election? Because Labour has its sponsors, too. Ever since Ecklestone’s cheque wasn’t cashed, New Labour has been obsessed with the super-rich. And with New Labour’s deliberate destruction of our base, we’ve had no choice but to hire ourselves out, with another Lord – Levy – charged with raising the dosh.
In the same way that, after 18 Tory years, the country reflected their malicious design, so, too, today, to a lesser degree, does this country reflect the New Labour project. After thirteen years of parliamentary carte blanche, we could have sorted out party funding to make sure that rich men can never buy an election for the Tories again; and it’s for this reason that my wrath is not directed at Ashcroft, but at New Labour. We could have stopped Ashcroft buying my town’s seat.
Somehow, those in the higher echelons of our party must have swallowed the Lib Dem’s manifesto lie that the trade union funding of Labour is comparable with that of Ashcroft. It isn’t. We should be proud that so many trade unionists choose to support Labour. The unions are our foundations; we become unstuck when we forget the origins of our movement.
Come on, we should have had a Labour Government bent on democratic reform. Let’s face it, Labour’s main expenses culprits and those recently ensnared by Channel 4 – Hewitt, Hoon and Byers – are all Blairites. And, lately, with safe seats up for grabs, the democratic mechanisms in our party have been trampled on by the top to ensure a shoe-in for a minister’s buddy – like Mandelson’s mate in Stoke. My party card states that we are ‘a democratic socialist party’. Not anymore.
What’s more, Labour’s high priest – Maddelson – an undeniably intelligent strategist, who once understood the media, hasn’t grasped that elections are popularity contests, and he isn’t popular in our party, let alone with the electorate. For political anoraks of the left, our bedroom walls should be plastered with posters of our political heroes of the day: they are not.
So, Mr Routledge, what is worth knowing about my CLP, is that our members have good politics, good judgement and we are resisting Lords, whatever their political affiliations.
I close with this, the Burmese people, who I am particularly fond of, have an apt expression for a time like this: Only your real friends tell you when your face is a dirty. Britain isn’t broken, but the Labour Party certainly is.
Andrew Gray is the Chair of Harrogate and Knaresborough CLP, and the views expressed here are his own.