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Martin Bell

4 May 10 words: James Walker, Al Needham
When it comes to voting it's ‘the quality of the candidate rather than the colour of the party label’ that matters
"This is what soldiers have to do when they're kidnapped, right?" - Martin Bell, April 2010

As a BBC reporter, Martin Bell OBE covered foreign assignments in over 80 countries, including eleven wars - one of which nearly took his life.

He famously became known as the ‘man in white’ when he became the first Independent MP to be elected to Parliament since 1950 when he stood against Neil (and to a large extent, Christine) Hamilton.

With the General Election imminent, Martin Bell has been touring the country encouraging people to vote according to ‘the quality of the candidate than the colour of the party label’. He has been promoting Independent candidates in the hope of creating a more transparent and democratic political system, one which will hopefully see the end of Home Secretary’s claiming for bath plugs and ‘flipping’ between homes in order to squeeze extra money out of the public purse.

We wanted to speak to Martin about the elections because we believe he is one of the good guys and hope, perhaps, that he may inspire you to vote on Thursday. 

We couldn’t help but notice before this interview that a bloke came up to you and asked if you were ‘that man off the telly’. How do you feel about that after all the other things you’ve done?

Well, I haven’t actually been a television journalist since 1997, but since I’ve got into politics I’ve probably been on the telly more than in my last year working for the BBC. I don’t mind being recognised for that at all – people have been quite benign about it. They never say; “Oh, you’re that bastard.” I think it’s helped that I’ve never been affiliated to a political party, so I’ve never had that antagonism that other politicians get.

How did it feel to be a TV journalist and then on the other side of the fence?

My colleagues went for me but I wasn’t really surprised. They felt I’d crossed some line I shouldn’t have crossed. There have only been a few journalists on the seats of the House of Commons. It was useful to have been a journalist because you knew who the dangerous ones were, who had a political agenda, and you knew how to do sound-bites. But in my four years I think I put out one press release, about a Penny Farthing Race on Knutsford Common.    

John Stevens is one of the Independent candidates endorsed by Martin Bell

People are even more disillusioned with party politics than they were in ’97. Is this the year that Independent candidates make a big impression on an election?

I do, yes. I was elected on the issues of public trust and public life. It’s even worse now. If you look back to ’97, you were talking about – at most - two dozen or so obscure backbench MPs, who were all from one political party. Nowadays, it seems to be endemic in the political system. A series of former cabinet ministers are involved in horrendous scandals.

So yes, it’s a time for independent and independent-minded candidates. There’s a chap called John Stevens in Buckinghamshire who is challenging John Bercow – the Speaker of the House. Labour and the Lib Dems are not running, because the main parties never run against the Speaker, so there’s a whole pool of voters to be fished. I was persuaded by the former editor of Tribune to endorse this guy. So there’s some exciting races out there.

When you contested the Tatton seat in ’97, Labour and the Lib Dems stepped back, which gave you a lot of leeway. So how hard is it to fight all three main parties?

It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible. Party allegiances are far looser than they were. But you have to have certain conditions in place; you need to be well-known – not necessarily nationally, but definitely locally and you need a vulnerable incumbent. And there’s plenty of those about.

Christine Hamilton. When her husband's not telling porkies, she's eating them

How do you feel about the Hamiltons nowadays?

Well, they’ve made a kind of a living – well, she has anyway. I had no ill feelings towards them, although I must confess I felt ambushed at the time. I’ve never spoken ill of them in the way they’ve spoken ill of me. There’s no point.

What you have to understand is that what happened in ’97 wasn’t done by me; it was done by the people of Tatton, many of them long-time Conservative voters. I met a guy about six months ago to seek absolution, because at the time he couldn’t quite bring himself to vote for me instead of Neil and subsequently realised he’d made a mistake. I had a brilliant four years as their MP.

One of your rivals in Tatton was Lord Biro, who’s quite well known round here and features heavily in the John Sweeney excellent book Purple Homicide

That’s right. Actually, John Sweeney was his counting agent, which was how he got in at the final count. It’s a very funny book...

Does voting for a ‘single issue’ candidate mean you’ll end up with a single issue MP?
  
  
No. There’s no such animal as a single issue MP. Take me. I was elected on an issue of public trust and public life. Obviously I addressed that in interventions in the house but because I’d been a soldier I also knew a lot about defence. I was the only MP with any recent knowledge of modern warfare. So to answer your question, nobody can be a single issue MP because you’re obliged to vote on everything that comes before you.

Financially, it’s harder to raise the money to run a campaign as an Independent...

Well, it’s still only £500, and most Independent candidates will only get a few hundred votes, and lose their deposit. But there’s never been as many Independents in a general election before, and some of them are going to win. I predict as many as six independent MPs by May 7th.

Are you going to run anywhere?

No. I’m 71, which is too old. I’m in need of my afternoon nap these days – even though I could easily do that in the Houses of Parliament…

What do you think about the Robin Hood Tax that’s meant to be a non-political initiative to instigate change?

Well I guess this applies to Nottingham especially. There’s something to be said for it. We’re living beyond our means anyway. I expect my services to be cut and my taxes to be raised. I don’t mind being disappointed by the incoming government, but I don’t want to be betrayed. I’ve felt betrayed by New Labour over and over again on matters of public trust.

Any regrets on leaving politics?

My only regret in leaving the House of Commons in 2001 is I wasn’t there to vote against the war. I know so many Tories who voted for the war and subsequently regretted it but daren’t say so publicly or they’ll be admitting an error of judgement. The only one I think who did was Boris Johnson. Typically!

Who do you think is going to win the General Election?

I think the Conservatives will win, but there’s also the possibility of a hung parliament. That doesn’t bother me. If no individual party comes up with a mandate then the two parties have got to work together and that’s democratic. But until we sort out the voting system, we’re going to have the possibility of a very undemocratic result in Britain. 

What advice would you give our readers voting for the first time?
Pay more attention to the quality of the candidate than the colour of the party label. There are a lot of people out there who would make excellent MPs who are not of the political class. I think the results are going to be very uneven across the country but those MPs who’ve abused the expenses system deserve to be voted out by the people and there are hundreds of them! To me that’s more important than the economy.

Jacqui Smith is one of the many, many politicians whose greed has repulsed the public. That's why you need to vote...

Do you think they should go to prison?

Those who have broken the law are entitled to no special right to protection because of who they are, although their lawyers are going to invoke the 1689 Bill of Rights. People have been complaining to me up and down the country that there’s one law for MPs and another for everybody else. I think someone will end up behind bars and I shall shed no tears for them. 

Martin Bell was in Nottingham as part of Central Library's excellent 'off the page' series. His fifth book 'A Very British Revolution' details the expenses scandal and his blueprint to save our democracy. 

Martin Bell's website.
James Walker's website

 

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