On the boarded-up streets of Sir Stuart Bell's Middlesbrough constituency yesterday Donna Rutherford was in little doubt that the man charged with representing her and her community in Parliament was not one of them. "He has never walked these streets," said the 28-year-old bar worker, who believes – but can't be sure – she voted for him at the last election. "With a bald head and a suit he'd get beat up – he'd be battered," she added.
Locals living in the soon-to-be-demolished homes off Linthorpe Road say they put up with a daily tirade of abuse, begging, drinking and drugs. The area has among the lowest healthy life expectancy in Britain – just 55 years – appalling housing conditions and soaring unemployment. Yet few appear to know their MP or have even considered contacting him for help.
Getting in touch with Sir Stuart is the hot political talking point on Teesside. Yesterday the 73-year-old accused the local Evening Gazette of conducting a politically motivated campaign to unseat him after it reported the results of an investigation in which reporter Neil MacFarlane tried to speak to him on 100 occasions earlier this year. Despite phoning daily – 50 times to his constituency number and a similar amount at his Westminster office – he never managed to get through.
The MP, who has claimed £82,896 in staffing costs, however insisted that the report was "a total mystery" and was yesterday readily fielding calls from journalists.
Last night Labour sources said Ed Miliband was treating the allegations against Sir Stuart with the "uttermost seriousness". If they are proved, they added, the Labour whip could be withdrawn. Pressure could also be put on Sir Stuart's local party to deselect him.
The latest allegations come after it emerged Sir Stuart had not held a surgery in Middlesbrough for 14 years and does not have a publicly accessible office in the town.
Instead his local affairs are conducted from his home, an imposing, double-fronted property a mile and a half outside the town centre, by his wife, Lady Margaret, who earns £35,000 as his office manager.
The MP said he stopped holding open surgeries for "security reasons" after being threatened by a constituent in 1997 and has no intention of doing so again, believing the present system works "extremely well".
Speaking to The Independent yesterday Sir Stuart, a former barrister who holds the Legion d'honneur and has written a book of "erotic fiction", said he had "not a single recorded call" from the Evening Gazette. He said the problem dated to the last election when opposing Tory candidate John Walsh produced a video diary chronicling the campaign in which he made much of Sir Stuart's failure to hold public meetings.
"It is as if there is a new election going on, with the naïve view that they can unseat me and force a new election," said Sir Stuart, who added that he fully intended to serve out his full term.
Sir Stuart, a staunch supporter of former House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin and long-serving Second Church Estates Commissioner, said he had raised the issue of the newspaper's reporting with Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror, which owns the Evening Gazette, but had not received a "satisfactory response".
Peter Montellier, acting editor of the Evening Gazette, said the investigation was "most assuredly not politically motivated", but followed complaints from locals who had tried and failed to secure Sir Stuart's help.