‘Gift’ Alastair Campbell snap that led to Labour’s downfall

Thursday, 18th March 2010

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Published: 18 March 2010
by RICHARD OSLEY

A NEW book set to be released on Monday claims the Labour Party contributed to its own devastating downfall in Camden by allowing former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his spin chief Alastair Campbell to be part of their campaign.

The New Journal has learned that Piers Wauchope, the former leader of the Conservative Party in Camden, will publish a biting assessment of Labour’s historic defeat in the borough-wide council elections of 2006 as part of his book, Camden: A Political History.

The scathing account is in a chapter titled “Raj Chada – the bitter end”, which repeatedly mentions Labour’s then leader.

Yesterday (Wednesday), Labour members were sniffing at the idea that Mr Wauchope could write a balanced assessment of their loss – the first time the party had surrendered control of the Town Hall in more than three decades – but the author said many of his sources came from within the Labour party.

The fervour surrounding its publication among Camden’s politicos has been likened to the release of Andrew Rawnsley’s End Of The Party, which chronicled Labour’s problems nationally.

As in Rawnsley’s case, Mr Wauchope, a barrister, insists his sources were well placed to provide him with an accurate account of Labour’s final days in power.

The New Journal has established that Mr Wauchope’s book contains:

• Scathing comments on the appearance of Blair and Campbell in the local campaign

• A withering assessment that Labour had replaced working-class councillors with middle class

• Claims that Labour had mistakenly assumed a large Somali population would vote for them.

• New de­tails about splits in the Conservative ranks over candidate sel­ection which seriously weakened their election campaign.

• The revelation that Conservative central office ordered shadow cabinet members not to bother going to Camden. 

• An admission that there was hardly any difference between the Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestoes in Camden.

• A mischievous claim that the New Journal backed Mr Chada’s re-election in Gospel Oak.

On the latter point, Mr Wauchope writes: “For years the paper had been hostile and had been giving support to the Lib Dems as a means of punishing New Labour for not being old Labour. 

“Now, when it seemed Labour really was in danger, as if spurred into action by a bad conscience for its years of goading Dame Jane [Roberts, former Labour leader], the New Journal leapt to its party’s defence.”

Mr Wauchope argues in the book that the Lib Dems became the largest party in Camden in 2006 amid Conservative dis­array over candidate selection and risky strategies, and public anger over Labour because of national issues like the Iraq War and the refusal to pay for council house repairs.

With relish, Mr Wauchope says Mr Chada – the leader of the party for just six months in the run-up to the May elections – lost major ground when two figures associated with the intervention in Iraq came to Camden.

He writes: “Three weeks before the poll, Tony Blair visited the recently renovated Cromer Street Estate. 

“A delighted Chada seized the opportunity and posed for photographs alongside the Prime Minister. 

“This followed on from the Labour election launch where Chada had allowed himself to be photographed with communications strategist Alastair Campbell for the New Journal. The photographs were a gift to the opposition.”

Referring to an apparent loss of support among council tenants that had served them well at previous elections, Mr Wauchope said the make-up of the party had undergone a critical shift.

“New Labour had become increasingly middle class, there were no manual workers on the Labour benches,” he writes. “The last three Labour leaders were a banker, a child psychiatrist and a solicitor… on the estates Labour faced candidates such as Lulu Mitchell [Con] and Jill Fraser [Lib Dem], both of whom a decade or two ago, would have been seen as natural Labour voters.”

Later in the book, Mr Wauchope is understood to write about Mr Chada taking the chance to “slip sulkily” out of the election count in Somers Town when he realised he had been beaten, described in the book as “an undignified end to the 35 years of Labour Party rule in Camden.”

But as well as detailing Labour’s downfall in 2006, Mr Wauchope has to deal with his own. He lost his Belsize seat after leaving the ward to concentrate on campaigning in Gospel Oak, where Mr Chada was about to lose his. Mr Wauchope refers to himself in the book as the “leader of the opposition” rather than in name. 

He said he had a “stark choice” and wrongly gambled on Belsize being able to “look after itself”. He lost his seat to the Lib Dems, withdrew from Camden politics and moved to Tunbridge Wells. 

He admits to rifts within his party and how he fell out with one senior figure about candidate selection so badly that he no longer talks to him. Keen activists were “alienated” over squabbles over the selection process, Mr Wauchope suggests.

Meanwhile, the book will say: “Camden’s activists and candidates were bombarded with emails from central office telling them to campaign elsewhere… Conservative central office had decided early on not to assist Camden at all.”

Despite his often critical assessments of Labour’s fortunes – the book goes back 40 years and includes tales of Frank Dobson, Ken Livingstone and Tessa Jowell’s past lives at the Town Hall – he is still liked by many local Labour politicians who are expected to shake hands and share a glass of wine with him at Monday’s launch.

Mr Chada said last night he was not interviewed for the book or approached for comment. 

He added: “It’s true that in the 2006 elections we wanted to talk about local issues where we had a good record in Camden but it was hard to get away from the national debate.”

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