One of the most dramatic moments of the recent British general election occurred in the early hours of May 6th, when Reg Keys, a retired paramedic, stood at a podium in front of an ashen-faced Tony Blair and read out the names of six British soldiers killed in Iraq. Among the names was that of Tom Keys, a 21-year old military policeman, and Reg’s son.
It was Tom’s death in a police station in Majar Al-Kabir in 2003 that had driven Keys to run against the Prime Minister in Blair’s constituency of Sedgefield and it was to Tom that he now dedicated his campaign. The campaign had failed in its attempt to unseat Blair but had nevertheless succeeded in bringing Key’s story to the attention of the world and helped to ensure that the issue of the war in Iraq was firmly in the minds of voters on election day. It also provided interesting and salutary perspectives on what an Independent candidate can achieve within the British electoral system.
The idea of finding a credible independent candidate to stand against Blair in Sedgefield had been fermenting for some time. Although Sedgefield, a rural constituency in County Durham, is traditionally staunchly Labour, the fact that Blair’s majority had fallen from over 25,000 in 1997 to 17,731 in 2001 suggested that his popularity was on the wane. With many traditional Labour voters angry and disillusioned with Blair over his decision to invade Iraq, the 22 per cent swing that would be needed to defeat him seemed unlikely but not impossible. What would be needed would be a candidate with sufficient clout to topple Blair; someone akin to Martin Bell, the former BBC reporter who, as an independent candidate, ousted the disgraced Conservative MP for Tatton, Neil Hamilton, in 1997. Although very supportive, Bell was quick to rule himself out of the running and a number of other possible figures were approached. These included Greg Dyke, the former Director General of the BBC forced out of his job over the Andrew Gillian affair, and Terry Jones, the ex-Monty Python and outspoken critic of the war, whose potential campaign slogan, ‘He’s not a good Prime Minister, he’s a very naughty boy”, was ready made. Unfortunately all those approached, declined. Just as it seemed a candidate would not be found, Keys got in touch.
Although a political novice, Keys was not new to campaigning for government accountability for the war in Iraq and in particular for the death of British service personnel there. He was a founder member of Military Families Against the War and had staged a dramatic and well-publicised protest outside the Labour Party Conference in 2004. Keys had originally intended to stand against the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, but was persuaded to, in his words, “take on the organ-grinder rather than the monkey”.
Key’s campaign was launched two days after the election date was announced and the following four weeks were a testament to what a small number of people can achieve in a short amount of time. Three offices were established, a website set-up, leaflets and posters printed. Donations flooded in and over a hundred volunteers came forward to help. The campaign had strong celebrity support with Martin Bell and Brian Eno, the music producer, devoting much of their time as well as appearances from author Frederick Forsyth, actor David Soul, and former head of the UN Oil for Food programme, Hans von Sponek. The campaign commanded massive local, national and international media interest and Keys was quickly seen as the one man who could defeat Blair. On election night however, although his share of the vote was reduced by six percent, Blair won the seat with a massive majority. Keys came fourth with just over ten percent of the vote. It was a respectable tally for an independent whose campaign had only run for a month, but a long way from the historic victory that had been hoped for. So where did it all go wrong?
In Sedgefield, where people joke that votes for the Labour party are ‘weighed rather than counted’, it is easy to assume that Keys had no chance of overturning Blair’s majority. Indeed whilst this may be the case, a number of things would have made a Keys victory more conceivable. Principle among these would have been if the Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates had agreed to stand down in favour of Keys. Although it rarely happens, there are precedents for rival parties standing down to make way for an Independent candidate. Martin Bell’s challenge in Tatton was unopposed by opposition parties as was Dr Richard Taylor’s campaign in Kidderminster. Dr Taylor stood on behalf of the town’s "save our hospital" campaign in 2001 managing to turn a 6,946 Labour majority into a 17,630 majority in his favour as well as winning a second term this May. However, both Bell and Taylor, were standing against regional MP’s on matters of local concern. Keys was challenging the Prime Minister on a matter of national principle.
Whilst the Liberal Democrat candidate offered to stand down if his Conservative counterpart did the same, the Tory candidate steadfastly refused. Apart from the fear of looking opportunistic or hypocritical, the Conservatives no doubt feared that helping an Independent candidate overthrow a sitting Prime Minster might set a dangerous precedent. Such tactics could be targeted against them in the future thereby making even the safest of seats precarious. Whilst the idea that unpopular or discredited politicians, no matter how large their majority or how senior their position, could be defeated in this way might be good for democracy, it is unlikely to be welcomed by the two main parties in the British system.
It is possible that the intransigence on the part of the Conservative candidate might have been circumvented had Keys promised to stand down if victorious and call an immediate by-election. By standing down it would have meant that the opposition parties would not have been forfeiting the seat, merely agreeing to contest it a few months later. There is nothing in British electoral law to stop a candidate from running on such a platform and by employing this strategy Keys could, in effect, have turned the vote in Sedgefield into a referendum on Blair and his leadership.
The strategy of promising a by-election would have also helped to remove one of the other major obstacles faced by Key’s, namely local people’s loyalty to the Labour party. It would have allowed even dyed-in-the-wool Labour party supporters to vote against Blair without betraying their party or their beliefs. A common sentiment expressed by many Sedgefield constituents, was that they supported the Party but not its leader and would be voting Labour through gritted teeth. By promising a by-election Keys would have given locals the freedom to register their frustration with Blair. It was the crucial difference between asking people to ‘vote Blair out’ and asking them to ‘vote Keys in’.
With little interest in politics before his son’s death and no knowledge of the constituency, the by-election route would have also enabled Keys to focus on the single issue around which his campaign was based; namely the war. Instead, questions about local matters provided an unnecessary distraction from the power of Keys’ message. There is no guarantee that this method would have been effective, but promising a by-election could have potentially helped overcome some of the obstacles faced by Keys’ campaign and could be a method employed by Independent candidates in the future. In addition, it would have given a pleasing symmetry to the powerful narrative of Keys’ story. The aggrieved father who slays the duplicitous ruler, frees the kingdom, and then rides off into the sunset.
The way forward
According to Martin Bell, there are three essential elements needed for an Independent campaign to succeed: a good cause, a well-known candidate and an unpopular incumbent. In Sedgefield, Keys believed all three elements to be in place and yet the election result begs to differ. The precise reasons for Blair’s victory will never be known, but it is clear that Keys ran a remarkable campaign.
By channelling his grief into action, Keys did something that transcended the usual cut and thrust of politics. His burning desire to hold to account the man who he believes to be ultimately responsible for his son’s death spurred him on, touching hearts and capturing imaginations across the world. Like the McCartney sisters in Ireland, whose anger at their brother’s murder has helped to restart the peace process in Ireland, so Key’s grief helped to ensure that the legality of the of invasion of Iraq remained central to the 2005 British election. The dignity of those calling for justice for the death of a son or a brother is starkly contrasted against the weasel words of politicians: their unscripted raw emotion giving the lie to the politician’s lip-quivering proclamations of sadness and sympathy.
Although Keys did not defeat Blair at the ballot box, his campaign has not stopped. The Labour government is now facing a series of legal challenges launched by the families of British soldiers killed in the Iraq war. Lawyers acting on behalf of ten families and anti-war organisations recently presented evidence to the International Criminal Court that Britain had committed war crimes in its participation in the Iraq war. They argued that British forces were directed in a manner disproportionate to the stated objective of the war, namely disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. They further argued that there is, at the very least, a reasonable suspicion that the Prime Minister committed Britain to war on the basis of regime change. This charge is all the more serious in the light of the fact that Blair was given unambiguous advice from the Attorney General and the Foreign Office that to invade Iraq on the basis of regime change would be illegal.
Keys and other families of British soldiers killed in Iraq are also planning to launch a separate legal action if the Prime Minister does not convene a full, public, and independent inquiry into the legality of the Iraq war. Using the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its British counterpart, the Human Rights Act, they will argue that, if it can be shown that soldiers were sent to war on an illegal basis, it would have been an infringement of their Article 2 right under the ECHR which imposes an obligation on governments to protect the lives of those under their authority and control.
Whether Keys will have more success in the law courts than he did at the ballot box remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that in a matter of months, Keys has become one of the most outspoken and recognisable opponents of the Governments policy in Iraq. Blair has always repeated that, when it comes to his actions in Iraq, history will be his judge. But history does not just happen. History is made by people. People like Tom Keys who laid down his life for his country, and people like Reg Keys with his historic attempt to unseat Tony Blair and his continuing fight to ensure that his son did not die in vain.