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Last Updated: Friday, 13 July 2007, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
Jeers and smears in Blair's backyard
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News, Sedgefield by-election

No one flew into an uncontrollable rage and there were no Scientologists present, as far as I could tell.

Tony Blair and Phil Wilson
Tony Blair throws his weight behind the Labour candidate

But it was hard not to be reminded a little of a recent infamous Panorama investigation as Labour activists sought a showdown with their Liberal Democrat rivals in Newton Aycliffe town centre.

An apparently furious Labour supporter, Hopi Sen, marched up to the Lib Dem team as they toured market stalls demanding a public apology from candidate Greg Stone over an alleged racial slur at Mr Stone's campaign launch a few days earlier.

Labour activists had been waving placards and screaming "get back to Newcastle" at Mr Stone, as he attempted to address the media on the green outside Trimdon Labour Club.

Mr Sen, a former member of Newcastle city council himself, claims the Lib Dem candidate retaliated by telling him to "get back to your reservation".

Although of Anglo-Indian descent, Mr Sen is apparently named after an American Indian reservation in New Mexico.

Greg Stone
The Lib Dem launch was hijacked by Labour

He wanted a public apology, he raged at the Lib Dem press officer, his every move being recorded by a Labour party worker on a mobile phone.

The Lib Dems were also filming the action, obviously hoping to catch an outburst they could post on YouTube - as a follow-up to the "battle of Trimdon green," as they called the campaign launch melee, which was already doing good business on the video sharing site.

At one point the two camera operators even turned their lenses on each other as the stand-off continued.

But there was to be no YouTube gold this time, for either side.

Mr Stone, who had been trying his best to ignore Mr Sen, suddenly made a break for a nearby car park, pursued by his campaign team.

Apology call

As they regrouped, they told me they hotly disputed Mr Sen's recollection of events in Trimdon - but they did not want to dignify his claims with a response.

Hopi Sen
The row exploded a few days later in Newton Aycliffe

"Labour treat this area as their own personal fiefdom. They don't want anyone else campaigning here," said Mr Stone later, as he steadied his nerves over half a lager and a cheese roll.

Labour said they were still waiting for a denial or an apology from the 32-year-old Lib Dem candidate.

The day had begun in a more conventional way with a visit from the MP whose resignation triggered Thursday's by-election - Tony Blair.

This is very much Blair country - he was MP here for 24 years - and the constituency is one of the safest Labour seats in the UK.

'Famous five'

The former prime minister twinkled his way through a series of photo opportunities with pupils and staff at Greenfield School, in Newton Aycliffe, in the sort of heavily stage- managed event which is starting to feel like it belongs to an earlier era.

Labour have held this area for years and they have taken the voters for granted and done nothing at all
Raymond Gibson, ex-Labour voter

Mr Blair was clearly enjoying being back on the campaign trail.

He was here to support Labour's candidate Phil Wilson, one of the original "famous five" - the group of Labour activists who talented-spotted Mr Blair back in 1983.

Mr Wilson was full of praise for the former prime minister - but equally anxious to establish his own identity.

Labour has taken a few knocks recently in the area, losing key council seats to independent candidates, and Mr Wilson is playing up his local credentials for all they are worth.

His father was a miner, he explains, and his mother was one of the "Aycliffe angels," who worked in local munitions factories during the Second World War.

"Tony Blair was a great prime minister, a great leader of the Labour Party. He has got so much charisma.

"But I am very confident in myself as a local guy who is going to look after people in this area.

"The party wants, and Tony would agree with this, somebody who is going to focus on local issues."

'Disgraceful'

Mr Blair was invited in for a cup of tea by elderly Labour supporters Mike and Betty Carmedy, while the local TV crews and press photographers waited outside.

He put a Labour poster up in their window.

Graham Robb
Graham Robb: Relentlessly upbeat

Mr Carmedy, 82, said: "He's right to put up a poster but I am a bit concerned because a lady had her window put in at the last election for having a poster."

There appeared to be little affection for Labour in Newton Aycliffe town centre, which all parties agree is in dire need of a facelift.

"It's disgraceful, considering he was the prime minister," said Lisa Jones, 36, a former Labour voter. "He did absolutely nothing for our area. When you look at the state of us, compared to everyone else around us."

Raymond Gibson, 67, another former Labour voter, said: "Labour have held this area for years and they have taken the voters for granted and done nothing at all."

Upbeat

But it was a different story a few miles further north in Ferryhill, one of a clutch of former mining villages that form the bedrock of Labour's support in the area.

The thing about Blair is he is so cunning. You couldn't lay a finger on him. No one ever will
Toby Horton, UKIP candidate

"They haven't seen a Tory round here since the days of Anthony Eden," said the Conservative candidate Graham Robb.

Mr Robb bounded along the High Street shaking hands with as many voters as he could find - determined to prove that the old hostility to Tories in this Labour heartland was a thing of the past.

Most people said they were Labour voters and a couple recoiled on learning which party he belonged to - but Mr Robb, who is blogging the campaign on his MySpace page, seemed delighted with the friendly and polite response he received from the majority of residents.

The former local radio DJ is relentlessly upbeat and seems to relish the role of political underdog.

No one gives the Conservatives a chance in Sedgefield - but that, he argues, is what they said about the successful campaign he ran against a regional assembly for the North East.

He is focusing his message on affordable housing and small business, arguing Labour tends to see the area through "Tony-tinted glasses". He also has a plan for Newton Aycliffe town centre.

'Mysterious' Blair

In fact, the only man without a plan for Newton Aycliffe town centre is Mr Robb's former boss, Toby Horton, the UKIP candidate.

"I am sure the shopping centre in Newton Aycliffe is one of the great issues of our time but I somehow think terrorism, crime, Europe, the economy, Iraq are bigger issues," he says when we meet in a Sedgefield pub.

Mr Horton is William Hague's former constituency chairman and was the managing director of Radio Tees in the 1980s, when Mr Robb had a late-night talk show.

But he is probably best known as Tony Blair's Tory opponent in the 1983 election.

He had been expecting to take on Les Huckfield, a "red-hot, in your face, Liverpool leftie," he recalls of that campaign.

He was startled by the "mysterious" appearance of a young, grinning barrister called Tony Blair, who said debating the issues was "old politics" and insisted on introducing him to his mother-in-law, Coronation Street actress Pat Phoenix.

"I was looking forward to a bit of a rumble in the coalfields and what I got was all this glitz and showbiz.

"No one had seen anything like it. Particularly the Labour Party," recalls Mr Horton, who was coaxed out of political retirement by UKIP leader Nigel Farage, after joining the party last year.

"The thing about Blair is he is so cunning. You couldn't lay a finger on him. No one ever will."

Another former Blair adversary, local farmer Andrew Spence, one of the leaders of the 2000 fuel protests, is standing in Sedgefield for the BNP, claiming the country is at "civil war" following the recent terror alerts and pledging to tell the truth about immigration.

"I will not shut up," he tells activists at his campaign, which is available to view, inevitably, on YouTube.

  • There are 11 candidates contesting the Sedgefield by-election on Thursday, 19 July.




  • SEE ALSO
    In full: Sedgefield candidates
    10 Jul 07 |  UK Politics

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