Thursday, January 26, 2006

From Bermondsey to Bethnal Green

WELL, WELL. So Liberal Democrat leadership hopeful Simon Hughes has told the Sun newspaper that he has had both homosexual and hetero-sexual affairs, and used a gay chat line service called Man Talk.

It seems odd considering that only recently he told other papers he wasn't gay. Most people would not regard the Murdoch-owned Sun or its reputedly well-connected Thatcherite political editor Trevor Kavanagh as a sympathetic audience for confession. Maybe Hughes feared they already had something and decided to come out before they "exposed" him. It seems there was some pressure there.

Hughes has usually had a good press, earning a reputation as a sound constituency MP, not afraid to stand up to central government or local gangsters. He needed round-the-clock protection in 1999 when a contract was taken out on him for persuading witnesses to testify in a murder case in Rotherhithe. His decision to speak about his private life may even help him now in the leadership contest.

But the immediate thought provoked by his gay admission will relate not to the Liberal Democrat contest now, but back to the election contest in which he won the Bermondsey seat in 1983.

The by-election then, occasioned by the retirement of right-wing Labourite and papal knight Bob Mellish, saw a vicious ant-gay campaign aimed at Labour's left-wing candidate, Peter Tatchell. Tabloid newspapers, alerted by the Labour Party machine's moves to disown Tatchell as a "loony leftie", dug out whatever they could about his activity with the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s. Even his arrest for leafletting at an East Berlin Youth Festival was treated as an outrageous scandal by the normally anti-communist press.

Indeed, reporters were sent to Tatchell's estate, instructed to literally dig for dirt. They delved in dustbins and rubbish chutes, and tried to get local children to say something they could use

Labour did not help, telling Tatchell to keep quiet about his sexuality, when he had previously declared himself "out", and scrapping tons of leaflets just because they had been printed by Cambridge Heath Press, which was linked with Militant. The cost of their printing was still counted against the limit on election spending.

Following newspaper attacks on Tatchell, hostile graffitti about him spread around the constituency, and people who put up his election posters had their windows attacked. Peter himself received hate mail, including a bullet in the post, and was attacked on the street. An anonymous leaflet showed Peter Tatchell and Queen Elizabeth II, asking "which Queen will you vote for?" It gave Tatchell's home address and 'phone number.

Meanwhile Southwark council leader John O'Grady, who had been Mellish's choice to 'inherit' the seat, stood as "Real Bermondsey Labour' with Mellish's support, and went round the seat in a horse and cart singing a song about Tatchell "wearing his trousers back to front". Since then it has claimed that Bob Mellish was either bi or gay.

As for the Liberals, they tried to play it both ways. Men canvassing for the Liberal Party were seen wearing badges saying "I have been kissed by Peter Tatchell" John Hen, who stayed with the continuing Liberal Party rather than joining the Liberal Democrats, said in 1997:

"As a member of the Liberal Gay Action Group which produced and wore the 'I have been kissed by Peter Tatchell' and 'I haven't been kissed by Peter Tatchell' badges, I think I should explain why the badges were produced and worn. (Although I wasn't there on the day that they were worn and had I been, mine would have read 'I wouldn't want to be kissed by Peter Tatchell').
We were furious at the way in which Peter was attempting to go back into the closet (something which he has since admitted was wrong). This was our protest".

If so, it rings ill with Simon Hughes' late confession.

Hughes has apologised for the actions of Liberals in the 1983 campaign:
"I regret that in a campaign, actually run often by agents and organisers, the candidate does not have nearly as much say as perhaps they should have, but I take responsibility". "I have never been comfortable about the whole of that campaign, as Peter knows, and I said that to him in the past . . . Where there were things that were inappropriate or wrong, I apologise for that."

More than a dozen candidates stood in the Bermondsey by-election, admittedly some no-hopers, but the Liberal's leaflet claiming it was between Tatchell and Hughes was headed "A STRAIGHT CHOICE"
Asked recently for his thoughts about the Liberal Democrat leadership contest after Mark Oaten stepped down over a gay prostitute scandal, Peter Tatchell hinted that Oaten was not the only gay in the Liberal Democrats.

Things have changed since 1983, and some MPs have come 'out' as gay without it noticeably damaging their chances. Simon Hughes may yet do well in his party's leadership contest.

Peter Tatchell, a member of the Green Party these days, is often at loggerheads with people on the Left who won't condemn homophobia or other reactionary features under some Middle Eastern regimes. He has fallen out with one-time ally Ken Livingstone over the mayor hosting a controversial Muslim cleric.

But a week before the Hughes revelation, Tatchell very graciously recommended the man who vanquished him in Bermondsey as the best person to lead the Liberal Democrats, saying "if I were a Lib Dem member, I would vote for Simon Hughes as party leader".

He says "let bygones be bygones". Maybe Hughes is not bad as bourgeois politicians go. But I can't imagine ever wanting to be, or vote for, a Liberal Democrat.


I went to two political events at the weekend (three if you include a Saturday night fundraiser in Willesden where a good time was had by all ). On Saturday afternoon I was among almsot 300 people who crammed into a hall at Friends House, Euston, to hear RMT union leader Bob Crow, Labour MP John McDonnel, former MP Dave Nellist and others talking about "The Crisis of Working Class Representation".
Most people who spoke in discussion said Labour was beyond repair, and we needed a new party. Then John Rees and Alex Callinicos, of the Socialist Workers Party told us that the Respect Coalition was up and running, it had an MP, and we just needed to make it bigger. Following this there was hearty applause when Brian Heron said we need leaders who are accountable and don't just go off and do their own thing.
Respect's one MP, George Galloway, was not there, nor at the vigil on Sunday at Stockwell for Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician murdered by police gunmen on a tube train. Jean Charles' family members spoke, Respect members had a stall, and a "Socialist Worker" seller took some stick over George Galloway.

(I caught a cold , and some photos, including some of another photographer, a big guy who seemed to be getting mug shots of everybody).

The Respect MP has spent the past few weeks in Channel Four's "reality" TV Big Brother show. As John Rees explained when he went in:
George Galloway has issued his own statement about appearing on Big Brother. In it he says he did it to raise money for a Palestinian charity, which he will, and to reach out to an audience turned off by conventional politics. Nevertheless lots of people feel that it's not an appropriate way for an MP to spend their time. People in their workplaces and communities say that many Respect supporters don't think that this was a good idea. We didn't know that George Galloway was going to go on the programme until 24 hours before it happened. We didn't agree with the idea, but by that stage the die was cast and the contract signed."

Nevertheless, Rees reassured his followers that "come May, people will not decide to vote Respect or New Labour on the basis of Big Brother". Notice that narrowed choice. What point us meeting to talk about the need for working class representation, when it's already been decided for us. You can either have Blair or that bloke off Big Brother!

As it was, Galloway was given little opportunity to "reach out" to anyone with politics. What did he expect? As "Socialist Worker" itself has said in the past, this TV programme is about voyeurism and humiliation. And the capitalist media are bound to use any opportunity to make a dissident MP or left-winger look a fool. The Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow got to play a cat lapping milk from a has-been actress' hands and to prance around in a red leotard. There must be other ways to raise money for charity!. Galloway's hard-working constituents were not amused Nor, I suspect, were the left-wing activists whom the SWP mobilised to canvas for him.

Yet, despite having no say in Galloway's decision to play the clown, the SWP/Respect spokespersons now are rallying to defend his "bravery". What next? Maybe Galloway and the SWP's Chris Banberry could emulate Delboy and Rodney and turn up as Batman and Robin for the election count?

It is no good pretending the only people pissed-off with Galloway's performance are Blair's New Labourites. Matter of fact the Respect MP's cavalier attirude to his duties has delighted them. Missing a transport debate on Crossrail to be on Big Brother was the least of it.

On November 2, Blair's government survived by one vote pushing through its "ant-terror" legislation, against an amendment that would have removed the proposed offence of "glorifying terror". One MP said it would have rendered him liable for prosecution for supporting the ANC, another (he must have been reading this blog) wondered if it would ban films about Robin Hood.

Among those Labour MPs voting against the government's attack on rights were not just left-wingers like Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnel but Frank Dobson, Gwyneth Dunwoody and Kate Hoey. But Blair scraped through by one vote. One MP who might have been expected to vote against Blair's bill, who was returned to parliament to oppose the "war on terror" and attack on people's rights, was missing. George Galloway.

The Respect MP was 350 miles away in Cork on his one-man tour, An Audience With George Galloway, subtitled The Mother of All One Man Shows. "If I had known in advance that the government would get through an amendment by just one vote and if there were not a contract which would have meant losing thousands, I would have been there, although it would still have been a difficult amendment for me to vote for. I may be prosecuted under this bill. The amendment would only have made it less bad. I have to balance my time between parliament, the constituency and the duties I have as a national figure in Respect, as an international figure and as a fundraiser.",9061,1634966,00.html
If Galloway was just one man, maybe his eccentric sense of priorities could be shrugged off. But Respect was built up around this one man, for this the SWP effectively liquidated the Socialist Alliance, and opposed the principle that socialist MPs should only take a workers' wage.
For this they tell trades unionist who are discussing what do with their political fund that we should rely on a one-man band. One remarked on Saturday that the ship had already left port. They should have checked who was at the helm, his charts, and its seaworthiness, before jumping on board.

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