Toryboy: The True Story Of The Middlesbrough General Election
By Robin Fearon on September 25, 2012 in Society
John Walsh is a smug little Tory boy. At least that’s the semi-ironic stance of his political documentary, ‘ToryBoy The Movie’, 100 minutes of high jinks charting his (unsuccessful) general election campaign to unseat Middlesbrough MP Stuart Bell, who he calls “a rogue” and whose profile fits the description – labelled ‘Britain’s laziest MP’ in the national press.
Tory Boy has been a critical success on both sides of the political divide, as the tale of a newly minted Conservative contesting a safe Labour seat against the grain of his staunch left-wing upbringing; a ripping yarn that the cynical among you could be forgiven for thinking is a bit too neat. Walsh portrays himself as an arch, often naïve, political switch hitter putting tribal British politics under the microscope following his surprise selection by Tory central office.
“There were eight people interviewed for this seat and every single one of them was better qualified than me on paper,” he admits. “They had been councillors or worked as researchers for MPs, but because I worked in TV and I’d recently converted from the Labour Party they probably thought it might give me more empathy with local people, which actually it did.”
Walsh wasn’t so much parachuted in to contest the seat as shot out of a cannon and his attempts to unsettle the incumbent are a hit with locals fed up with Bell’s idleness. The Middlesbrough Labour MP has no local office and had not held a surgery for 14 years. “We could not find anyone with his combination of no local surgery or office, poor attendance at Parliament and a poor record on answering or asking questions in the house,” says Walsh. “Stuart Bell comes top of that class.
“On paper he is incredibly popular. At his height he had a majority of 32,000. So I thought I was stepping into a Labour stronghold with a grandee figure who is absolutely beloved in the town. In fact the absolute opposite was the case. We could barely find anyone who would say anything positive about him.”
“MPs not doing the job they are paid for is going to be the next political scandal after donations to parties”
Voter apathy and political tribalism were the only things keeping Bell in power, adds Walsh. “Everybody knew he was a bad MP, but at least he was not Conservative. If Stuart Bell had been a London MP in a Labour stronghold he would never have got away with behaving like that. We came across a population who were definitely pro-Labour but completely anti-Stuart Bell. It was really odd.”
What the film highlights, apart from a superb piece of political opportunism, is the danger of voter apathy and the lack of a viable alternative where people feel that voting for the right-wing in areas long neglected by the Tories and their perceived ‘home-counties friendly’ policies is like sheep voting for wolves.
Up to 2008 Walsh says he had always been a Labour supporter. He came from a working class background in south London – dad a factory worker, mum a home-maker – he and his brother (co-director in their film company Walsh Bros) went to a local comprehensive. “Throughout that time I watched television news about the miner’s strike and Arthur Scargill, and I was pro-Labour. When Tony Blair came in I was thrilled. After 17 years of the Conservatives I thought ‘finally, the good guys are back’.”
Walsh says his relationship with the Labour Party took an irreparable beating when he was asked to complete a film vanity project for Gordon Brown’s administration. Badly treated by political staff at No.10 and the Department of Education, he vowed revenge. “That was my moment of conversion and the point where I really washed my hands of the Labour Party,” he says.
Probe a bit deeper and the pro-Labour veneer starts to look a bit ragged. “I found that I was probably a Conservative for a long time and I just didn’t realise it. I’m wealthier now than I was before. Because I run my own business and I’m quite self-sufficient, a lot of Conservative policies suit me better.”
Walsh compares his switch in political allegiance as comparable to changing mobile or energy providers – finding the tariff that best suited his lifestyle. “I felt that actually this was a better personal fit for me, why shouldn’t I be self-serving and choose the best fit, and that’s what I did.” Questionable as a political philosophy, but he has few regrets on his choice.
“I love bashing Labour,” he offers. “So I’ll take any opportunity to do that – with a club. What most people have said is that this is a terrific vehicle to uncover a political scandal that has been going on for 30 years. Taking money for a job you’re not doing is not right – it’s certainly not moral and it might be illegal, the jury’s still out on that.”
Bell may have been censured in parts of the media for his conduct, but he is still in place. Walsh’s film is a humorous poke at what should have been a hornet’s nest of simmering discontent. What happens next is unclear. “MPs not doing the job they are paid for is going to be the next political scandal after donations to parties,” he asserts “I am hoping this film can highlight that.
“If you could deselect your MP more easily – I’m not suggesting you replace him with the ToryBoy from London – they need an MP who is local, who is actually doing the job that he is paid for. If you have a positive experience of meeting your constituency MP then you are going to be thinking more positively about local politics. That really isn’t much to ask.”
ToryBoy The Movie is available for dowload on iTunes. More information available on the website.
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