Martin Bell to be Lib Dem candidate in North Shropshire? Don’t hold your breath

The Sunday Times (£) reports today that veteran journalist and anti-sleaze campaigner Martin Bell has been approached by the Lib Dems to be our candidate in the North Shropshire by-election.

The article by Caroline Wheeler and Gabriel Pogrund says:

One thing that may fill older MPs with dread is the symbolic spectre of Martin Bell, who ran against Neil Hamilton on an anti-sleaze ticket in 1997. On Friday, the 83-year-old was called by the Liberal Democrats, who offered him the chance to be their candidate.

This report prompted me to look out my copy of Purple Homicide, the account of his first foray into politics, in Tatton, in 1997, written by then Observer political correspondent John Sweeney. Disgraced Conservative MP Neil Hamilton was allowed to continue as the Conservative candidate after being implicated in the cash for questions affair. The title comes from his description of trousers worn by Neil Hamilton’s wife Christine to an encounter on Knutsford Heath as “a homicidal purple.” The Lib Dems and Labour stood aside to give him a better chance of unseating Hamilton.  The book is well worth reading if you can get hold of a copy.

Martin Bell’s victory over Neil Hamilton was one of many bright spots in the 1997 election. Often dressed in a white suit, he used his time in Parliament to argue for higher standards in public life. Bell stood against Eric Pickles in 2001 over concern about the influence of a local pentecostal church on the Brentwood and Ongar Conservative party but lost heavily. He had promised the voters of Tatton that he would serve for one term only and honoured that promise despite calls for him to stay. His departure paved the way for the election of George Osborne.

I don’t know if the Sunday Times report that we have approached Bell to be our candidate is true. But let’s look at what might happen if it was. I certainly wouldn’t mind him representing us, but I would not hold my breath. I like Martin Bell. His distinctive voice is one of the first I can remember as he reported on the Watergate scandal in the early 70s when I was a small child. I can’t see him entering a contest when Labour are not standing down. I also can’t see him agreeing to enter a contest that could end in him taking a party whip. I suspect he is probably unwhippable, even though our views are probably in alignment on many issues. That, by the way, is not in my view a flaw on his part.

Even if he were up for it, I’m not sure I can see him filling in the candidate approval form, going through the assessment day and the additional tests for by-election candidates. If he were successful, and I have no reason to doubt that he pass this process with some ease, his candidacy would then be put to a vote of local members.

Sometimes newspapers report things as though they are in the gift of party HQ or the leadership to hand out, without taking into account the processes involved to get to that point.

It also doesn’t take into account that there will no doubt be others who might want to seek this position.

This is most likely the Sunday Times having a bit of fun, but this forthcoming by-election will certainly highlight the utter mess that the Tories have got themselves in to and the many serious issues of integrity surrounding the party from who pays for the PM’s holidays and flat redecoration to public money being handed out to people close to ministers. The fact that Bell is being mentioned at all just brings back all those memories of 90s Tory sleaze. It seems that there is a pattern of behaviour when this lot get in to power.

In 2019, the Lib Dem candidate’s vote went up by more than anybody else’s, Labour’s vote dropped like a stone, and we got 4 times the vote of the Greens. As Lisa Smart said  on this site last night,

This constituency is fertile territory for the Lib Dems. Labour may have finished second by default in 2019, but things have changed since then.

Most importantly, we have an enthusiastic and energetic local team who have picked up the baton to take the fight to the Tories. They’re the opposition on Shropshire Council and they deserve our support.

In May we finished second across North Shropshire – winning twice as many votes as Labour or the Greens. We came within a whisker of electing five councillors, with Labour nowhere. A casual glance at the seat’s profile makes clear Labour could never win here.

Above all, it’s worth remembering that the only way to dent the Tories in North Shropshire is to take votes directly from them, as they got over half the vote last time.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • John Marriott 7th Nov '21 - 8:57am

    He’s 83 for goodness sake! Find a moderate middle aged guy or gal, preferably someone who knows the area, has had a life outside politics, has a bit of personality and is not afraid to deviate from the party line on occasions. There ought to be a few such people around.

  • Neil James Sandison 7th Nov '21 - 11:58am

    Agree with John Marriott Martin Bell had his time in the 90s . his 83 now and would be more at home in the Lords . A Shropshire Lass might be more in keeping with the times.

  • Serious politicians ought to be able to see through loose talk from journalists in search of a headline. An anti-sleaze candidate with others stepping down is not going to happen and it shouldn’t. The best result for North Shropshire and the country is going to come from the Lib Dems. A win would be seismic. Even halving the Tory majority in that seat would impact on the loyalty of Tory MPs – but let’s hope for more.

  • @John – Knowing Martin’s family he will most probably decline the offer, however, he probably would lend his support to an independent anti-corruption candidate.

    Given the way the Conservatives have been talking about Kathryn Stone, I suggest a female candidate would be appropriate, to signal the LibDems aren’t part of the old boy network and change is coming like-it-or-not.

  • William Wallace 7th Nov '21 - 4:18pm

    Just for the record, Martin Bell sold me my first University Liberal Club card in the autumn of 1959; he was our college rep.. But if anyone asked me to stand for election now for any position, I would reply that I’ve done that several times a long time ago, and now it’s someone younger’s turn.

  • Robert Hale 8th Nov '21 - 8:33am

    Martin Bell? Nice chap but nevertheless a daft idea which won’t have done our credibility much good. With ‘moneybags’ Richard Tice standing for Reform UK there is a real chance of a four way split in North Shropshire. I have made the point in another post that back in 1992 Russell Johnston held on to his parliamentary seat with 26% of the vote in a four way split. We have a real chance here so where do I send my cheque towards the campaign fund?

  • Neil James Sandison:
    “A Shropshire Lass”……hmmmm.
    Surely there is LDV bard out there who can echo the famous, similarly titled, poem reflecting the circumstances of the by-election?

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