Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Man in the White Suit

I always feared that if Simon Hughes became leader we would wake up one day, turn on the Today programme and find that he had committed the party to something crazy. Not out of ideology, but because there is something a little unworldly about him. Think Alec Guinness in The Man in the White Suit.

He was on the radio this morning for a very different reason. It is hard not to have sympathy for Simon. He was elected to Westminster at a time when it was thought impossible for a gay politician to be open about his politics. He is standing for the leadership in an era when it is possible even in the Tory party.

It would have been better if he had told the world somewhere along the line, before the Sun forced him to. But that is easy to say.

Yes, he has lied to the public, but the public may be forgiving. Many will believe that they have no right to know about the politician's sexuality in the first place. He has not been a hypocrite or damaged his own family, which are what led to Mark Oaten's downfall. It is possible, though, that he will find it is more socially acceptable to be gay than to be bisexual.

The other question this affair has reopened is the Bermondsey by-election. Did Hughes really benefit from what we would now call a homophobic campaign?

That election took place just before I moved down to London, so I cannot speak from personal experience. But if this leaflet is the best the critics can do, I do not think he has much of a case to answer. Did Liberal canvassers really wear "I've been kissed by Peter Tatchell badges"?

The nastiness of the Bermondsey campaign has always been blamed by Liberals on John O'Grady, the "Real Bermondsey Labour" candidate endorsed by Bob Mellish. (Mellish was a former Labour chief whip who despaired of the left-wing takeover of the party and resigned to cause Michael Foot as much trouble as possible.) O'Grady was certainly publicly offensive about Tatchell's sexuality.

Yet I recall being told once that O'Grady received considerable help in his campaign from certain Young Liberals. Does anyone know the truth of this?

So Simon will not become Lib Dem leader, but then I don't think he was ever going to win the election. But in the long run I do not believe his career will suffer too much.


Anonymous said...

I see no reason why Thursday's events should stop Simon becoming leader. In fact, I think it should make him - and the party - even more determined to achieve that.

As you so apositely point out, his case is very different to Mark Oaten's.

He will come through this with dignity, and if "God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform", perhaps Simon's current plight might be just the event needed, if you will forgive a badly crafted pun, to truly put the ghost of sexual-preference-bias to bed, once and for all.

Personally, I feel that what someone does in their private life, so long as it doesn't involve minors or would anger the RSPCA, couldn't be less relevant to their ability to inspire and lead.

Iain Sharpe said...

You (and Iain Dale) miss the truly shocking thing on the leaflet, namely the aberrant apostrophe after Simon Hughes' name. I despair sometimes at some Liberal artworkers' lack of command of basic grammar and it is sad to see it has been the case always.

As regards whether Young Liberals helped the O'Grady camaign why would they have done so? I wasn't a member back then. I suppose that it is possible that in those days there were so many Liberal activists that we had spare ones to lend to other parties but somehow it seems unlikely.

Anonymous said...

The question Simon really needs to answer is whether he feels he has the political judgement to be leader of the party, not about his sexuality.

It's hard to believe after this week's acutely awful story management that the answer could be yes.

Tristan said...

Helping the O'Grady campaign would have made some sense I suppose...
You have the Labour vote split between Labour and the Militant Tendancy 'Real Labour' with the latter deliberately campaigning on Tatchell's sexuality.

It would have been a matter of divide and conquer. If it did happen though it was a gross misjudgement, and Simon Hughes quite possibly did not know of it or sanction it.

Peter Pigeon said...

I spent a long time working on that campaign and don't recall anything overtly anti-gay. The leaflet seems just an unfortunate double entendre.

There were a few Gay Liberals wearing the badge on the Saturday before polling day. Their initiative and I don't believe they were sent canvassing with them on.

cymrumark said...

A prominent worker in Liberal by-election campaigns once told me he had helped run the O'Grady campaign. This was some years after the event and I can imagine the said person might have been trying to "boost" his image as tough guy election fighter. Not that his image needed boosting.

Anonymous said...

My recollection of the Bermondsey campaign is the same as Peter's (above). I also remember that the Labour Party was doing everything to keep the question of sexuality off the agenda: this was not a "gay rights" election. And let's not forget, this was when Militant was running wild in the Labour Party, and I certainly remember being followed around by a group of their would-be heavies: every time someone answered the door in one of those 1930s council estates, they would crowd around and say to the person who answered "Everything all right? You're voting Labour aren't you" and such like.

But what really bothers me is that, after years in which I've defended the campaign against allegations that we were running a homophobic campaign against Tatchell, Simon Hughes suddenly makes all that look a lie, and one that he willingly connived at.

That is not leadership potential. That is not 'clearing the decks so we can all move on'. That is treating the door-knocking activist as the PBI, or worse still mushrooms (to revive an old joke).

Peter Pigeon said...

I very much agree with "pissed-off" on this. Hughes is very careless with the repuration of our party.

On the O'Grady campaign, they were actually the main challengers to Labour at the beginning of the campaign. We only overtook them toward the end (revealed by the second or th¡ird constituency poll). This was - I assume - the moment at which the controversial leaflet was released.