Red rosette for the conviction candidate : New Labour versus Old Labour

This week the Independent puts Labour and its leader under the spotligh t. Martin Jacques introduces a four-part examination of the battle inside the p arty; and below, we print the first of three extracts from the new biography of Tony Blair by Joh n Rentoul

John Rentoul
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:13

THE remarkable story of how Tony Blair squeezed into Parliament in 1983 - not even at the last minute but during extra time - reveals his extraordinary determination. It also suggests that, though he presents himself as a conviction politician, he was not above arguing for politics he opposed - and that his political past may yet embarrass him.

Tony Blair's political ambition started early. Only two years after joining the Labour Party in 1975, according to Geoff Gallop, an Australian friend and Oxford contemporary, Blair was planning his parliamentary career.

His first experience of applying for a seat was hardly encouraging, however. He was one of 17 who applied in December 1980 to be the Labour candidate in Middlesbrough, near his childhood home of Durham. He got one nomination but failed to make the shortlist.

In the autumn of 1981 Blair was nominated but not shortlisted for another northern seat, Teesside Thornaby. Frank Griffiths, who won that contest, recalls Blair protesting his left-wing credentials, to no avail. Blair started to fear that he was not left-wing enough to be chosen as a parliamentary candidate.

However, in May 1982, his prospects took a better turn when he was unexpectedly selected to fight a hopeless by-election in Conservative Beaconsfield. Labour stood no chance and Blair lost his deposit. But virtually the entire shadow Cabinet visited the campaign, including Neil Kinnock, John Smith, and Michael Foot. All were impressed by Blair. Doug Vangen, the present chair of the Beaconsfield party, remembers him "like a breath of fresh air - outstanding".

Beaconsfield may have won Blair friends, but by then it seemed too late for him to fight the coming general election, almost all the seats had chosen candidates. He despaired of ever getting into Parliament.

The turning point did not come until the eleventh hour. In April 1983 the safe Labour seat of Sedgefield in county Durham, created by recent changes to constituency boundaries, crept into view as a possible home, when all the existing MPs with a possibleclaim opted for neighbouring seats.

Yet even in Sedgefield it looked as though the local Labour Party had been stitched up. The hard-left MP, Les Huckfield, had left his Midlands seat of Nuneaton seat when boundary changes turned it into a Conservative constituency. Huckfield planned to take over Sedgefield. More Bennite than Benn, he had once successfully proposed on Labour's National Executive that car imports be banned.

All the same, Sedgefield was Blair's only hope when, on 9 May, Margaret Thatcher called the general election. As the selection process in Sedgefield had still not begun, Blair decided to travel north. His wife Cherie Booth, a leading barrister, recalls: "He went up north one day, and he never came back."

Blair's prospects looked fairly dismal. Ten days before the selection conference, he had not been nominated by a party branch or trade union. Several other candidates had already been nominated and were organising support. It is a measure of Blair's determination that he was prepared even to try for the seat.

Blair first visited Joe Mills, the regional baron of the Transport and General Workers Union.The left-wing national leadership of the TGWU backed Huckfield, but Mills opposed him passionately, and was impressed by Blair's unfashionable support for "one member one vote" for Labour Party leadership elections. But he could do very little to support him; Blair would have to do that himself.

Blair got a list of branch secretaries from the party agent and, staying with friends in Durham, made the telephone call that would change his life. He spoke to John Burton, the secretary of the Trimdon branch, one of the few that had not nominated a candidate, and asked to meet him. Burton said he should come to his house that night, because five branch members were having an informal meeting.

At 9 o'clock on 11 May, Blair arrved at 9 Front Street South, Trimdon. The most important item of business for that night's meeting turned out to be a football match on the television, the European Cup Winners Cup final between Aberdeen and Real Madrid.

One of the five, Paul Trippett, says: "Blair sat and watched the match, took part in the conversation guys have when the match is on, you know, `Good shot,' `Bad cross,' so he was one of the guys." The game, tied at 1-1, went into extra time, so Blair had to wait another half hour to talk politics. Aberdeen scored another goal to win. It was then that the five turned to Blair and asked why they should nominate him.

Blair did not bowl them over, but they liked him. Trippett, a joiner for Sedgefield District Council, and former member of the Militant tendency, recalls: "He gave us this spiel about standing in Beaconsfield and he had this letter off Michael Foot saying that people of Tony's calibre should be in the House. That letter swung a lot of us straight away; we had a great affection for Foot because he was a left-winger - we didn't know what Tony's views were at that time, but we thought he must have some radical views, or Foot wouldn't have written this letter."

It was John Burton who thought there was something special about their visitor. He said: "We've got to support him, you know, he's Cabinet material." They did so. With just nine days before the selection meeting, Blair moved into John Burton's house, another member lent his car, and Paul Trippett took him around to visit some of the delegates to the selection conference.

Yet Blair was still very much on his own, as Trippett explained: "I stayed in the car; I just pointed out where they lived and Tony went in. I wasn't going to spoon feed him. And what he was actually doing was very clever. He was going to see them and not saying, `Vote for me', but `I would like to be on the shortlist first. If I get on the shortlist and you've already decided to support somebody, and then your person goes out, would you then transfer your vote to me?'

"That was his line because by that time a lot of people had made their minds up. I think people took notice of that. Here was a sensible, quiet young man who wanted a chance. That was part of his appeal then, and it's part of his appeal now." Meanwhile, Burton, as Secretary, got the Trimdon Village branch to nominate Blair.

Four days later the constituency Executive Committee drew up its shortlist of six, for approval the next day by the larger General Committee. The Executive Committee was small, left-wing dominated, and anxious to secure Les Huckfield's election. The committee did not put Blair's name on the list.

Blair's only hope was for John Burton to persuade the General Committee to add Blair's name to the list, despite the executive's decision to exclude him. Michael Foot's letter once again came to Blair's aid.

According to Burton: "They went through the whole list, everybody who had a nomination, to see if they should be added to the shortlist. When they came to Blair I said, `I've got this letter from Michael Foot saying he wants him in the House as soon as possible.' Nobody understood that it's a fairly standard letter, so it went down well."

Blair's name was added to the list by one vote; he was in with a chance. The next night, 119 delegates attended the selection conference at Spennymoor Town Hall. All seven of the expanded shortlist spoke for 10 minutes and took five minutes of questions.

Les Huckfield might have realised things were going horribly wrong when he found himself pushed on the defensive by questions from the floor. Blair and Burton may have been inexperienced, but they were not innocent.

Burton has kept the scribbled note of the questions that he planted among friendly delegates. One says: "Don't you think, Mr Huckfield, it counts strongly against you that you deserted Nuneaton when it became a marginal seat, allowing the opposition parties to say Labour couldn't win because the sitting MP had defected?"

A question headed "Joe Mills" exposed Huckfield's defence of Militant, which damaged him in Sedgefield, where a local anti-Marxist tradition survived. Even left-wing delegates had no time for Militant if Michael Foot was against them.

Blair went last. "He was brilliant, excellent - energetic and alive with ideas," says Burton. When it came to the voting, Blair won fewer than a third of the votes on the first round. But he was in the lead. He continued to lead in each round of voting. It took him five rounds finally to overcome Huckfield, but at the end Blair had won a parliamentary seat for life.

Yet the selection process throws up some interesting questions about Blair's politics. The curriculum vitae Blair used was a badly-typed, highly selective account of his career to date. It omits any reference to his education at public school. And you would not get the impression, from the description of his work as a barrister, that he ever did any corporate litigation, or represented employers. He mainly talks about work for trade unions, councils and the Labour Party.

It suggested Cherie's work could "transfer to the North", a move that was never put into effect. Nor was Blair above trumpeting his wife's family showbusiness connections. "Cherie's father is the actor Anthony Booth, of Till Death Do Us Part fame. Anthony and Pat Phoenix, from Coronation Street, both came and canvassed for me when I previously stood for Parliament and would be happy to do so again."

But the most political significant aspect of the CV is what it says about Blair's involvement with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Unilateral nuclear disarmament was never prominent in his recorded views, although he had been explicit about his support of the policy during the Beaconsfield by-election. As an MP he was claimed as a member of Labour CND in May 1986.

Yet last September when Michael Heseltine, on Radio 4's Today programme, denounced Blair's "CND past", the leader's office denied he had ever been a member. This was amended a few days later, when he admitted membership of the "parliamentary branch" of Labour CND.

The CV clearly said Blair was a CND member. As the Conservatives have noticed, it is not clear whether Blair was a unilateralist but has since changed his views or whether he was wearing his membership of CND as a badge of convenience during the mid 1980s.

The Sedgefield contest also exposed Blair's position on Europe to the charge of hypocrisy. His private views have been consistent: he voted to stay in the 1975 referendum, and privately opposed Labour policy in the early 1980s when it shifted to withdrawal. At the selection conference when he won the nomination, Blair declared himself to be pro-European. John Burton recalls being teased by another delegate who predicted that Blair's talk of playing a role in Europe had lost him the nomination.

Yet in his election address Blair said: "We'll negotiate withdrawal from the EEC, which has drained our natural resources and destroyed jobs."

It is slightly curious that Blair was so scrupulous about making his support for the European Community known to the selection conference, but then so enthusiastic in his denunciation in his election address. It is possible Blair felt that - having made his point inside the party - he should maintain party unity in public. Yet his condemnation of the Community he believed in does not sit easily with his later incarnation as a "conviction politician".

So Tony Blair entered Parliament that summer of 1983 on a ticket of loyalty to a party that he has been trying to change ever since.

The author's biography of Tony Blair will be published by Little Brown in September.

Tomorrow: Blair and Brown, friends and rivals

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