Goldsmith's party 'too old and too few to fight'

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The Independent Online
Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party is in crisis because its supporters are too old and are too thin on the ground for it to mount an effective challenge to the main parties at the general election.

Days after the party trumpeted its first, 46-strong list of candidates, documents leaked to The Independent show it is far from being ready.

Marc Gordon, the party's "field organiser", last month wrote to senior staff, setting out his concerns. In a memorandum marked "Strictly Private & Confidential", he complains: "Our supporters tend to be overly old (and very old in many cases)."

In a phrase that will be music to the ears of the Conservatives, Mr Gordon concludes: "The truth is we do not currently have the organisational capacity to cope with the task in hand and the limited time given."

Visits to sample constituencies, Mr Gordon writes, disclosed that the party is "comparatively weak in key battlegrounds such as the East and West Midlands, Scotland and Wales". He adds: "For example in Margaret Beckett's seat of Derby South we have three supporters or helpers; seven only in Edwina Currie's (Derbyshire South) and six in Clare Short's (Birmingham Ladywood)."

Support for the party, which holds its first conference in Brighton on 19 October, is patchy. "Both helpers and supporters tend to be in market towns, villages, Tory suburbs or rural areas," Mr Gordon says. "We are weaker in traditional Labour and non-London urban areas."

Other problems he identifies are slowness in selecting candidates and in preparing campaign material. All candidates have to be passed by Sir James. At 2 September, Mr Gordon writes, 85 had been "recommended" but only 74 had met with his approval. The party is also struggling to create a proper structure. "Some RCMs [Regional Campaign Managers] remain bogged down in interviewing and will find it impossible to quickly transfer their efforts to building constituency organisations, something which should be their priority," he writes. However, he says: "The level of commitment of supporters and helpers is very high." One difficulty has been worries about infiltration. An investigation agency is checking on all potential candidates and last week the party's West Midlands campaign manager, Andy Carmichael, was dismissed after it was found that he had recently been a National Front parliamentary by-election candidate.

The National Democratic Party - the successor to the National Front - sees Sir James's party as a threat to its far-right constituency. It claimed yesterday to have three activists on the Referendum Party short-list.

Sir James has devised an "archery board" formula for the targeting of seats. The centre, or "gold", seat are constituencies where the incumbent MP is a leading figure. They include John Major's seat, Huntingdon, and Michael Heseltine's, Henley. Next are the "red" seats, Tory-held with majorities of between 5,000 and 10,000 and where the MP is pro-European. Most effort will be made in them. After red come the "white" seats, with Tory majorities of up to 20,000. The candidates there will not be as high quality. Then comes "blue" - generally, huge Tory majorities with low-profile sitting MPs - and finally "black", with solid Labour majorities.

There was only one seat, the party source said, which officials acknowledged they had a chance of winning and that was Putney, where Sir James is challenging David Mellor.