Thursday, January 26, 2006

Battle of Bermondsey reprised

The Evening Standard tonight highlights the Bermondsey by-election of 1983 in the light of the Simon Hughes revelation.

But I feel certain that it is wrong in saying that the Liberals described Simon as 'the straight choice' during that election campaign. 'It's a straight choice' was a standard slogan for promoting tactical voting – i.e. a straightforward choice between Party X and the Liberals.

The real homophobic campaign was run by 'Real Bermondsey Labour' candidate John O'Grady, who was supported by outgoing MP Bob Mellish. Despite this Labour were more than happy to quote Mellish's endorsement of subsequent Labour candidates on their leaflets.

Opponents often accused the Liberal by-election team of the 1980s of dirty tricks. For the most part this sprang more from the against-the-odds victories it achieved than what they actually did wrong. Tactics that are now commonplace in all parties – tabloid newspapers, spoofs of opposition leaflets, quoting canvass returns to promote tactical voting were all pioneered by the Liberals during that period. Opponents complained of dirty tricks then copied the tactics.

The Hot ginger and dynamite blog prints a leaflet from what it calls the 'notoriously un-homophobic Brecon By-Election, in which sexuality was famously not an issue' using the 'It's a straight choice' tactical message. This is not a wise example to quote since Brecon and Radnor in 1985 was the Liberal campaign team's one real moment of shame. One leaflet referred to the Liberal candidate as the only one with a secure/stable/normal (I forget which) family background. This was designed to contrast with the Conservative candidate who was in his thirties and single and the Labour candidate who lived with but was not married to the mother of his children.

On this occasion, even making allowances for less enlightened times, this clearly crossed the line. Richard Livsey apologised at the time and it prompted some soul-searching within the party to make sure that the by-election team did not lose the run of themselves again.

However, at Bermondsey it seems to be a case of the Liberals being tainted by the sins of others. Certainly it will have suited the Labour Party who were quite happy to have the support of O'Grady and Mellish at future elections to blame the Liberals for the homophobia of the by-election campaign.


Stephen Glenn said...

I can't remember how common 'straight' was in common parlance in 1983 either although I was 14 at the time.

However, I found the following on wikapedia:

The term "straight" is an ordinary (nontechnical) English word used to describe a heterosexual person, although the term appears to have originally derived from mid-20th century gay slang, ultimately coming from the phrase "to go straight" (as in "straight and narrow"), or stop being gay [3]. One of the first uses of the word in this way was in 1941 by author G. W. Henry. Henry's book concerned conversations with homosexual males and used this term in connection with the reference to ex-gays. Though not originally intended to refer to heterosexuals, like the meanings of many words, its primary usage has changed over time.

cymrumark said...

Iain there has been a persistent story that a prominent liberal by-election campaigner was involved in the O'Grady campaign. For years I thought this was non-sense but have got good reason to believe its true....though I cannot print it here!!

After the Brecon by-election the next one I really helped in was Newcastle Under lyme. After that perfectly reasonable campaign Simon Hughes launched a public attack on the by-election team even though he had never been to help and was mistaken in his attack.

Sadly their are homophobic people in all parties . In the Ceredigion by-election in 2000 the local Lib dems told people, via telephone canvassing, Simon Thomas was gay because he had an ear ring..I have never come across anything like that in Plaid or any racisim etc though both probably exists as they do in all parties. If anything we are to careful.

As you are fully aware there was/is a culture within Lib dem campaigning that encourages people to "go over the top" and do all it takes to win. Sometimes this strays into territory that is quite alarming....but still not as bad as the Labour party:)

Angus J Huck said...

It was indeed the same individual who wrote the offending Brecon leaflet and who penetrated the O'Grady campaign (and successfully neutralised it).

But I won't identify him in a public forum.

This individual (1) denied that there was anything unethical about his campaigning techniques and (2) justified them by pointing to the bias against the then SDP/Liberal Alliance in the electoral system.

The same individual was also the pioneer of the "Labour News" tactic, which eventually backfired in Tower Hamlets.

I can remember Simon Hughes criticising (in private) the "Labour News" leaflet used in the Enfield Southgate byelection (as did David Steel in public).

Angus J Huck said...

I don't know quite how to put this without identifying people and pointing fingers.

Sometimes, people who are themselves gay make use of homophobia for instrumental purposes (such as winning elections).

Now, I recall a gay rights activist at Brecon making this point very forcefully (read into this statement what you will).

The author of the "normal family background" leaflet told me that all he was doing was stating a fact. He felt that David Steel and others were unduly sensitive about literature which went out in the Party's name. (I've been accused myself of overstepping the mark in years gone by, but not by Simon Hughes.)

Simon has always had a firm line on the ethics of electioneering. For instance, he was deeply critical of Tower Hamlets and the now infamous "toilet" and "boxer" leaflets. And I can see his point. Pandering to racism or homophobia, stirring up fear of crime, demonising young people, all these are unacceptable electoral ploys.

When I was on the London Regional Executive I was on the same side as Simon in his dispute with Steve Hitchins over his proposal to require members to sign a pledge of faithfulness to the Party's aims and values. Hitchins sees membership as a fundraising mechanism, and will have more or less anybody (Nick Griffin and Ian Huntley presumably excepted) - and as long as Hitchins has dictatorial powers, of cpourse. Simon, as a lawyer, regards it as ownership of the Party's assets (which, in law, it is). Do we want racists, crooks and paedophiles owning the Party? If not, we have to have a mechanism for keeping them out.

Oh, the term "straight". Yes, it was used to mean "heterosexual" in the early 1980s. Though, in the 1970s it was more likely to be employed to indicate someone who didn't take drugs, had short hair and deferred to authority.