Lib Dem News columns for Oct and Nov 93
As ever, it was invigorating to meet so many new faces at Conference and to catch up with old friends. Bumping into Frank and Joyce Elliot, now councillors in Devon, reminded me of the best qualities of Liberal Democrats. When I fought Cecil Parkinson in 1983, Frank spent a morning rushing around Hertsmere, putting up posters for me. For campaigners there's nothing particularly unusual about that, except that it was his daughter's wedding day. Such friendship and dedication "above and beyond the call of duty" is a major reason behind our successes.
Of course, the BNP win in the Tower Hamlets by-election cast a shadow over conference. I wonder if the people responsible for the infamous leaflets thought they were being dedicated Liberal Democrats. Certainly, one went on the record to say that "we won't change the way we campaign just because there are some unpalatable truths that must be aired." I say that some things must be changed. It utterly appals me that a BNP candidate could accuse a Liberal Democrat campaign of stealing his 'islander' policies.
The disquiet felt by members of the Asian community about some of the campaigns of the Tower Hamlets party should not have come as a surprise to any reader of Lib Dem News. Akbar Ali, the former chair of Mossley Hill, Liverpool, spoke out years ago after finding Tower Hamlets was a major issue on the doorsteps two hundred miles away. "It's no good ignoring the issue," he said less than a year ago in this paper.
The result of these missed opportunities to prevent future embarrassment for the party nationally was that Paddy was left dashing around Torquay telling people that there would be "no whitewash, no witch-hunt." This time, there must be no hogwash either.
The Liberal parliamentary by-election team used to be famous for the "dirty tricks" aspect of some of their campaigns. Under Chris Rennard's inspired leadership, we should be proud that this is no longer the case. Indeed, in Christchurch, the traditional phrase "it's a straight choice" was missing from our leaflets because there was a tiny chance it would be taken as a homophobic reference to other candidates' sexuality.
If the Tower Hamlets party want to criticise Labour councillors being employed in a youth group funded by the council, that's fine. But to appear to criticise that it's a Bangladeshi youth group is not. As we all know, Liberal Democrats won Christchurch handsomely. The party in Tower Hamlets came third in their by-election.
Yet when they concentrate on true pavement politics, Tower Hamlets is a highly successful example of community action. Perhaps because the spokespeople from the borough all seemed to be white, some journalists clearly have difficulty in believing the fact that Asians make up a very large section of the party membership there.
That's down to the positive delivery of services: local people know that if they complain about a broken paving stone, Liberal Democrats will make sure it'll be fixed, fast. Under Labour, little was done. As Tony Greaves has been saying for years, action is the way to win votes at local elections.
Action is the way to attract more members into the party too. The debate on the ethnic minority report was more about ill-advisedly bashing other parties than positively promoting our own policies and record. Housing is at the root of many of the problems for all communities in Tower Hamlets, but there was nothing at conference on housing. Or education. Or health.
Even the long overdue debate on racial attacks was an emergency debate, despite being the main issue within the minority community for years. The setting up of police racial attack squads is something I have long campaigned for. As I said in the policing debate, the minority communities were grateful and impressed with our practical measures to combat real problems. Like everyone else, they are not impressed by people standing up and denoucing political opponents. It gives politicians of all colours a bad name.
I see the BNP victory as a chance to do something positive in the party and the community. I look forward to us having a democratic and representative body for ethnic minorities in the party at last. But then I am an eternal optimist.
More Homes, More Truths [From the title of the Tower Hamlets response, 'Home Truths']
Watching the Labour and Tory conferences on TV was profoundly distressing: two deeply divided parties with little to offer Britain were thrown the unifying lifeline of LibDem-bashing. Even ministers not known for their liberalism on the issue of community relations went out of their way to bash "the Liberals" as a party of racists.
As I meet Liberal Democrats from around the country, I'm always struck by how fair-minded and decent our membership is. No wonder they are upset at the bad publicity brought about by the Millwall by-election and our part in it.
I accept that it's easy to make mistakes, but it's much harder to get rid of a bad image. When I joined the old Liberal Party many moons ago, everyone thought I was wasting my time. But they respected my decision to campaign for social justice in a party identified with people such as David Steel, Alan Beith, Lord Avebury, Mark Bonham-Carter and more whose examples of fighting injustice were unrivalled.
Today, the people who told me Liberals would never have political power acknowledge that the Liberal Democrats have real influence around the country. Unfortunately, they now say our party is no different from the rest when it comes to racism.
I fear Tom Winnifrith [an arogant shit I knew from Leamington], co-author of the famous Millwall by-election leaflet, has missed the point. As Liberal Democrats, we rightly criticise tabloid papers for dwelling on a person's ethnic background when it has no relevance to the story.
Similarly, if Labour councillors are employed in a youth group funded by themselves, we should not be seen to concentrate on it being a Bangladeshi youth group, even if encouraged to do so. Headlines such as "Bangladeshi Shocker" should have no place in any leaflet. What was wrong with "Labour Corruption Shocker"?
I was working in Shelter before Tom was born. I know bad housing leads to many social ills, including intolerance. I've also suffered harrassment from both the left and the right. I know many families, some of whom live in low quality council housing in Tower Hamlets, who share my experience. We support any campaign that fights against poor housing, waste and corruption. But not one that plays on people's prejudice.
It is critical that people realise that everything that goes out in our name has to be not only legal and honest, but decent too. There cannot even be the hint of a racist smear. This isn't "Political Correctness" gone mad but simply correct politics.
An example is in the letter from the President of the Tower Hamlets party, Barry Blandford. As Mayor, he helped raise many thousands of pounds for flood relief in Bangladesh and received many thanks and much favourable coverage in the media. Alas, much of that goodwill has now gone.
When he says they are not racist, he adds, "We could not afford (sic) to be as the ethnic minorities make up at least 36% of the borough…" That could easily sound as if he believes that they could "afford" it if there were, say, 0.36%. I'm sure he agrees that Liberal Democrats should not be racist whatever the percentage.
Equally, it doesn't matter how many Asians sign a petition, or even help write a leaflet, if the content is dubious or downright stupid. Just as there are placemen and apparatchiks in the Tory and Labour parties, just looking for superficial honours, there are Asians in all political parties who see no further than their own personal interest. In the end, they are seen by their community as doing nothing but pleasing their political masters. They're known as "chumchars" (literally "teaspoons", Indians who used to spoonfeed their sahibs with sugar) and are invariably discarded by the establishment without changing anything for the better for anyone.
It did our party's credibility no good whatsoever to say in a recent party document that it is "OUTRAGEOUS" that many Asians vote for the Labour Party. You don't get votes or increase involvement in our party by outrageously accusing thousands of people of being stupid if they vote for other parties. At least the Labour and Tory parties have Asian and black MPs, peers and public spokespeople. We don't.
… bonus extract from Feb 94 Note that we were right as to what would happen!
For once the Tory party is right. It's often not policy that lets a party down, but presentation. By concentrating on one person, no matter how sun-like, you ignore the true strength of a party, its diversity and depth of experience and expertise.
Much of the knowledge within our party is that of women. Like many, I was shocked to see that there were no women in the list of members for Lord Darrendorf's commission. I'm all for involving the members of other parties, but I'd like to see more than half of our own party involved as well.
What's the result of all this male-bonding? If the last election is anything to go by, at the next general election we will concentrate resources around thirty-five target seats. Over half of these are currently held by our male MPs. If we're a serious party when it comes to the representation of women in parliament, every single one of the yet-to-be-won target seats should get a woman PPC. Instead, after most have been selected it looks like we may just have one or two. That proportion is pathetic and short-sighted.
If you comment on this, you're told that women are happier staying as local councillors, where they can control vast budgets and see their efforts to fruition. They realise, I'm told, that in parliament they are powerless to make an impact. I wonder how many male councillors realise they are heading for a life of impotence when applying for parliamentary seats?
On a lighter note, a friend of mine spent Christmas in Huntingdon, John Major's seat. He reports seeing a piece of graffiti reading, "F**CK THE LAW." I think that sums up the state of crime-ridden Britain under John Major's 'back to basics' effort. The anonymous vandal was too polite to spell the word in full and too illiterate, after nearly fifteen years of Tory education policies, to know how many letters a four-letter word contains.