Election '97: Labour makes way for Bell to fight Hamilton

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The Independent Online
Labour Party members in the Cheshire constituency of Tatton last night decided overwhelmingly to withdraw their candidate in order to make way for Martin Bell, the former BBC correspondent.

A meeting in Knutsford added the caveat that Labour would only support Mr Bell if the Liberal Democrats also backed him.

The meeting, held in a High School voted in a secret ballot by 114 votes to 11 to withdraw Jon Kelly from the contest.

After the meeting, which was addressed by John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader and Tom Sawyer, the party's general secretary, Mr Kelly said: "Martin Bell is a courageous man who has made a very brave decision. I am delighted that members have shown overwhelming support in a brave venture to get rid of Neil Hamilton."

Mr Bell yesterday resigned from the BBC after 35 years, to devote himself to his new political career.

Speaking at a press conference in a small theatre in Knutsford, also in Cheshire, hours before the Labour candidate he is replacing was due to formally stand down, Mr Bell said that he had made his decision "with a bit of a sad heart".

"But," he added, "it became clear, especially now I'm in for the long haul, that I could not remain even theoretically or technically a BBC reporter.

"I'm not going back. I expect to be the next MP for this constituency so I have necessarily burnt my bridges behind me."

Tony Hall, the chief executive of BBC News who had previously refused the reporter's resignation in November, had taken it well, Mr Bell said, and "with a certain degree of relief".

The veteran reporter had requested that his "BBC swan song", a documentary on the United Nations, and a series of radio pieces entitled The Truth is our Currency, be broadcast as planned.

But Mr Bell revealed that he had, that morning, made a formal complaint to his former employer about the coverage of his campaign.

While he had been canvassing in Wilmslow, the BBC had chosen to broadcast footage of one person of the three who had opposed him, instead of the 25 who had offered their support.

"I never thought I'd been in this situation," he joked. "I left the Beeb and already standards declined so fast?"

Mr Bell also revealed that he had found a new political ally in the form of John Stalker, the former Manchester police chief, famous for his anti-corruption stance. Mr Stalker had approached him yesterday to offer his support.

"He came in off the street this morning," Mr Bell said. "Mr Stalker was out for a walk on the heath and he called us.

"I'm very, very pleased as he's Mr Integrity and his endorsement carries some weight."