Phil Riley is election agent to Jack Straw
So, the Victorian concept of treating has raised its head in the current General Election campaign in Blackburn. For those of you of a historical disposition, the law around treating (or the process of buying votes through the provision of food or drink) was developed as a response to the Blackburn millowners’ reaction to the 1867 Reform Act which broadly gave the vote to the male industrial working class. In a subsequent General Election, some workers at Brookhouse Mills on the side of the River Blakewater in Blackburn showed independence of thought by voting Liberal in contradiction to the advice of their employers. It wasn’t a secret ballot in those days and they were sacked, but a group of them marched to Preston to petition W.E Gladstone, the Prime Minister of the day, and a process was started which ended up with both a secret ballot and a law against treating.
Fast forward to Blackburn of today and allegations of treating are being made against the Labour Party in that food was provided at a political meeting held last Sunday and attended by Asian voters. It was, but importantly, the meeting was a private meeting and was advertised as an election rally and tickets were given to supporters. The purpose of the event was not to convince the waverer; it was to rally the troops. There were a number of speakers and. not surprisingly for an election rally, there was widespread support for Jack Straw and the speakers encouraged the attendees to work for victory on 6 May. At the end of the meeting, a brief meal of curry, rotis and sweet rice was served in the ground floor of the Centre where the meeting was held. As Jack Straw’s agent, I had taken legal advice about the appropriateness of providing food and, from two sources, was told that, provided the food was not banquet style and provided the meeting was a private meeting for supporters and food was not advertised on the tickets, the provision of a simple meal would be considered a reflection of the local Gujerati culture and would not be considered treating. So, it went ahead but, clearly, the informal arrangements that only supporters would attend the rally failed and three attendees have signed sworn affidavits leading to accusations of treating. These have been dismissed not only be the Blackburn Deputy Returning Officer but also by Lancashire Constabulary.
Yesterday, Blackburn Labour Party’s enemy since 2005, the failed ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, blogged about these accusations. Murray, not surprisingly given his history of loathing for Blackburn MP and former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has accepted the allegations and given them wide and hysterical publicity. Odd then that he should be silent about the behaviour of Bushra Irfan, the candidate that Murray is supporting in this election. She has held a number of events in a local Asian restaurant and these have been widely advertised in the local press with the strapline – ‘Free dinner – must be registered voter in Blackburn’. This falls well within the definition of treating but Craig Murray,with his acute long range observation of all things Blackburn has not been moved to comment.
Double standards, maybe? Or is Murray so consumed with hatred for Straw that he can’t see the wood for the trees?