The senior counting officer’s pencil flicked over his pad: 1,154 was next to the BNP candidate’s name. Next it was me. I saw a nine, then another figure and then a blur. It wasn’t enough. I’d lost.
My partner grabbed my hand. Let’s get out of here, we both decided. A photographer’s camera flashed. Then to the car park outside Burnley Football Club where the count for the Lancashire County Council elections had taken place.
The familiar drive home, mobile phone calls. “He’s lost – to the BNP. I can’t believe it either. How the hell do you think he feels? Terrible, he’s terrible. We’re both terrible. Jesus. Watch that car will you. No, we’re fine. Well, not fine. In fact, shit – completely shit.”
Next throwing things into overnight bags and heading for the M6 for the short trip to Keswick and the escape we planned if the worst came to the worst. It was the worst, but at least we managed to laugh eventually. I’d forgotten to bring any jeans with me.
“If you think I’m spending a weekend with a man wearing suit trousers and a T-shirt, think again.” Surprisingly, the jeans I bought are quite nice – which is probably a tribute to the Keswick shop assistant who came to my rescue.
It was the end of a long career in local politics, which dated back all the way to 1986 when, fresh-faced and very much on the left, I first became a councillor.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, having been a full-time member of Lancashire County Council’s cabinet for the past eight years, I sat in a pleasant Lake District hotel bar midway through my third pint of lager and contemplating unemployment.
I’ve mellowed over the years: the left-wing rhetoric long replaced by the realisation that politics is the art of the possible. But politics locally hasn’t mellowed and a party regarded with revulsion across the political spectrum had just unceremoniously dumped me on the dole queue.
So what went wrong? In fact, the British National Party vote did not go up in Padiham, the small town just outside Burnley which I used to represent. The BNP has been getting around 30 per cent of the vote locally for the past five years and already has district councillors in the area.
What happened was very simple: the Labour vote collapsed. My personal vote wasn’t enough, the hard work I’d put in wasn’t enough and nor was the enthusiasm of my little team. We were fighting forces far outside our control.
I had managed to ride the expenses scandal. “We’re a bit short of moats round our way”, I’d tell doubting Labour voters who might even raise something close to a chuckle when I professed complete innocence of duck islands.
It all went wrong in the last few days when self-indulgent Blairite ministers started resigning. With the Government in meltdown and age-old Brownite-Blairite battles being fought in the Westminster village, those of us abandoned on the doorsteps of Labour’s heartlands didn’t stand a chance. In Lancashire, a Labour group of 44 was crushed to a tiny rump of just 15 in what had been a model local authority.
History teaches us that the British people will not vote for disunited parties. Labour, split from top to bottom under Michael Foot, was mauled in 1983.
The Tories, riven by splits over everything from sleaze to Europe, crashed to their biggest defeat in a century under John Major in 1997.
For many of us who pound the streets for the Labour Party, there is the very deepest sense of betrayal. This is not just because I lost my job, but more as a result of a feeling that senior ministers were so busy playing their Cabinet parlour games that they forgot there’s a real world out there.
In my area, the Liberal Democrats came from nowhere and happily hoovered up the Labour votes which had suddenly become available. That let in the BNP and sadly added to the notoriety which this part of east Lancashire has had to contend with since the 2001 riots.
So why do 30 per cent of the people in a town such as Padiham which, while not without its problems, is hardly a deprived area, vote for the direct political descendants of Adolf Hitler?
First, it’s because it’s an all-white area. Go to other parts of Lancashire and West Yorkshire and you’ll get the same feeling. Most people have probably never met an Asian person and that’s the way they want it to stay.
Then there’s a feeling that Labour has left them behind. “It’s not the same party any more”, they mutter as you move them out of the Labour column and add them to the list of “Don’t knows” .
Bizarre as it might sound, some people who vote BNP see a party of neo-fascist thugs as somehow reminiscent of the old Labour Party they once supported. And make no mistake about it, the BNP are thugs. I’ve had obscene text messages, I’ve been surrounded by men chanting “Sieg Heil” and I’ve had a slow-moving car next to me with the passenger calling me “Communist filth”.
By clinching its seat on Lancashire County Council, the BNP won a lot of publicity. However, its overall position has remained the same at around the 30 per cent mark.
Whether Labour can recover from the drubbing we received last month is anyone’s guess. Memories of the fiasco in the run-up to polling day may start to fade, while the expenses scandal must eventually blow over.
But will the bad taste it has left in everyone’s mouth ever go away? Labour supporters are hardly surprised that Tories claim for moats, duck islands and servants’ quarters. They expect better from Labour MPs. Sadly, they didn’t get better from far too many of them.
As for me, naturally I got back from the Lake District vowing to give up politics forever. It was a bit like the episode of Absolutely Fabulous when Patsy gave up drinking. “Darling, it was the worst 15 minutes of my life.”
Fast forward a week and News at Ten leads on the resignation of Kitty Ussher, the Treasury minister discovered avoiding capital gains tax. Amid protestations that no rules were broken, she announces she will not seek re-election. “Parliament just doesn’t work with kids”, she tells Gordon Brown.
And the constituency? Burnley, of course.
Darling, it really was the worst 15 minutes of my life.
Marcus Johnstone in Tribune