St Helens-which side are you on?
The millionaire or the miner's son?
KEVIN OVENDEN reports from St Helens
DO YOU want a millionaire ex-Tory, or a firefighter, miner's son and trade unionist as your MP? That is the question raging in the workplaces and council estates of St Helens. This solidly working class town on Merseyside is seething. There is shock and anger that New Labour has imposed millionaire ex-Tory Shaun Woodward as its candidate.
But there is growing enthusiasm that Woodward will be challenged by Neil Thompson-a local firefighter, parish councillor and official in the Fire Brigades Union. Neil was democratically selected last week to stand for the Socialist Alliance in St Helens South. The local and national media have cottoned on, and are presenting the contest as a fight between Neil the socialist and Woodward the millionaire carpetbagger.
That was the feeling in St Helens town centre on Saturday, too. People gathered round Socialist Alliance supporters who had got the campaign up and running within a few days. "I can't believe they've selected a Tory millionaire." "They must think we are stupid." "It's an insult." These were just some of the comments people made, pointing to the nearby New Labour stall. New Labour canvassers got the same flack from passers-by as well.
Many people were clear that the election in St Helens South is about more than Woodward. It is a chance to rally for socialist policies. The imposition of Woodward has brought disillusion with New Labour to a head in St Helens, across the north west of England and elsewhere.
Activists in Preston say Labour Party members are boycotting their party's election campaign, and that some want to travel to St Helens to support the Socialist Alliance challenge there. Six current members of the Labour Party in St Helens, including two ex-councillors, told Socialist Worker that they would be leafleting their streets for Neil Thompson.
Others such as Bob Conroy, aged 81, who has voted Labour since 1945, face expulsion for criticising Woodward. And some, such as Helen Shaw, have left the Labour Party to back the Socialist Alliance. Helen sent a stinging letter to New Labour's HQ in Millbank, London, last week, explaining why she could not stomach backing the millionaire candidate.
"There are many other people in St Helens who feel the same way," says Neil. "We have got a major challenge to build the kind of campaign that can connect with them and involve people over the next two weeks. But just look at the response today. It's fantastic. We have commitment from people and we have principles.Now we have to pull out all the stops and deliver the kind of result that will shake Blair here and across Britain."
Vote for hope
IAN ARTHUR is an ex-miner.
"Neil Thompson has principles-socialist principles. That man New Labour has put in and the party he represents have none. I won't be voting for New Labour. And if Neil Thompson wasn't standing I'm not sure I'd be voting for anyone. That's why I'm so pleased to see people out here today campaigning for a socialist vote. We've been ground down here. The pits shut. Life is hard. We need some hope."
'The whole town is angry'
LES TEELING is a former Labour councillor in St Helens. He is now backing Neil Thompson and the Socialist Alliance.
"I AM appalled that the Labour Party could select a Tory millionaire as its candidate anywhere. That it is happening in St Helens makes you absolutely sick. This is a poor town. People are suffering. What would a man with a butler know about that? It tells you everything you need to know about where New Labour is and where it's going to. Any commitment to socialist policies has gone out the window. That's why I will be working flat out over the next couple of weeks to get a big vote for Neil. It's about putting socialism and working class policies on the map as well as giving New Labour a shock. I used to work for British Aluminium. It was not badly paid. I was on 23,000 a year. Then the factory shut and I was made redundant in January this year. The decision was taken in the US. We got no support from New Labour at all. They just threw up their hands and said there was nothing they can do to stop us being the victims of globalisation. The government is talking about new jobs replacing the thousands that are going in manufacturing. I'll tell you what those new jobs look like. I went to the job centre and nearly everything on offer was right down at 4 an hour-the minimum wage level. What's the bloody point of having a minimum wage if it is set so low that you can't live on it and it pulls wages in areas like this down, not up? I eventually got a job as a security guard. It pays 4.96 an hour. I work 12-hour shifts-nights and days. I hardly see my family. I can't think of one area where this government has got it right. We want redistribution. We want the money from council house sales under the Tories put into public housing. We don't want more sell-offs and privatisation. I'm angry. This whole town is angry. I'm also enthusiastic about backing Neil. We marched for jobs in 1994 under the Tories. The question I'd like to ask the New Labour candidate is, "Where the hell were you?" We've got a tradition here. And we're not going to let it die when we need it more than ever."
'They think we're more stupid than donkeys'
MARGARET LEE is unemployed and has lived in St Helens all her life.
"This is one of those places where they say you can put a donkey up with a Labour rosette and it'll get elected. Well, they must think we are more stupid than donkeys if they expect us to take to that millionaire. I've always voted Labour. I've not been a member of the party, but I've always been socialist minded. I am so disgusted by this government you would not believe it. Council house sell-offs under Labour! Pensioners and children in poverty! And then there's the race card. The Tories are obviously racist. But when Labour attacks them it is only trying to cover up its own racism over asylum seekers. I face loads of problems. But I'm damn well not going to take it out on a black person or an asylum seeker. And I know loads of people who think the same way. We need a socialist movement in this country. We've never really had a proper one-even before New Labour."
'Don't take us for granted'
JOAN GOODWIN is a pensioner.
"I've always voted Labour. My friends and family have always voted Labour. But not this time. My husband, Dennis, just couldn't believe it when he heard they had selected Woodward. Woodward's got a butler. A butler! People like us are more likely to be the servants than to have one. I worked in Beechams for 20 years and then they shut it. Go anywhere round this town and you'll meet people with a similar story. I'm socialist and don't go with this New Labour and Tony Blair. It is so good that there is a socialist standing in the election. It's an alternative. That's what we need at the moment. We've been taken for granted for too long. And I hope that on 7 June they'll be looking at St Helens and everyone will realise they can't take working class people for granted any more. "