Guardian asks Lib Dems, “When did you stop beating your wife?”

The Grauniad, bastion of liberal values. But also a newspaper which today gives vent to a number of unsubstantiated smears against the Lib Dems in an article by Steven Morris – Liberal Democrats accused of dog whistle politics over Gypsy claims – which buys hook, line and sinker into the spin from Labour and Tory HQs.

The Grauniad’s story focuses on Islington (though cheerfully throws a few other snide half-truths into the mix to legitimise turning a local issue into a story for a national newspaper – of which more later), and the recent proposal by Islington Labour party to consider locating a site for travellers and gypsies in Highbury Fields, the borough’s premier open space. The Lib Dems in the area have campaigned against the idea, arguing that Highbury Fields is unsuitable as a location for any development, including new travellers’ sites. Agree or disagree with the local party’s position, but it’s an entirely consistent view.

What’s most definitely not consistent is Islington Labour leader Catherine West’s spin. Here’s how the Grauniad presents it:

In Islington the row broke out after the Labour leader, Catherine West, raised the possibility of allowing Travellers on Highbury Fields. She claims the suggestion was “off-the-cuff” joke but the Lib Dems, who narrowly control the council, seized on it.

It’s a bit hard to square Ms West’s claim with her statements to the Islington Tribune, though, where she’s quoted saying:

I said we could look at Highbury Fields. … Everything, including Highbury Fields, should be looked at if that’s what’s required of the local authority. No green space should be ruled out.”

Doesn’t sound like much of an “off-the-cuff” joke, does it? (Note to Grauniad journalists: it took me 30 seconds on Google to find that quote – is Steven Morris too busy taking short-hand dictation from Labour spin-doctors to do his own research?)

So much for the Islington accusations – controverisal planning disputes, even in the leafier parts of the meedja suburbs, rarely make it into the national press. The Grauniad needed to bolster its lead slur against the Lib Dems with some mini-slurs – to paint a picture, you understand, of the party’s so-called ‘dirty tricks’ machine. It pulled in two further examples, each as meretricious as the other.

Next up, then, is the Tories’ blatant attempt to whip-up a storm in Chippenham, Wiltshire, where the Grauniad hints at racism on the Lib Dems’ part for referring to the Tory candidate Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones as “the Conservatives’ Devon farmer”. Now it’s standard tactics for the political parties to try to ‘out-local’ each other in all elections, so there’s nothing exceptional at all about the Lib Dems’ endeavouors. Except that Mr Emmanuel-Jones, who is black, has willingly teed it up for hacks desperate for a story by supplying an innuendo-laden quote: “Their strategy is: foreigner, outsider. It’s not exactly racist, but …”

Lib Dem blogger James Graham has already posted a superb refutation of Mr Emmanuel-Jones’s allegation here, as well as acutely anticipating the Grauniad’s descent into flat-earth news:

The worry is that an unthinking media, steeped in churnalism, is going to end up being complicit in branding a blameless Lib Dem MP a racist for years to come simply for committing the heinous crime of doing a better job.

The Grauniad’s final attempt to smear the Lib Dems is almost too trivial to be worthy of mention, even to defend the party:

in Cornwall, members of Mebyon Kernow, which champions Cornish independence, are angry that one of their successful council candidates, Stuart Cullimore, was described as a “greasy-haired twat” in a Focus leaflet sent to homes in the run-up to an election.

No-one disputes the facts in the case, and it was one which Lib Dem Voice reported at the time: 40 ‘rogue’ Focus leaflets, out of a batch of 1,700, included the gratuitous insult. Who knows how it happened, though one thing’s for sure: it wasn’t a deliberate piece of dirty trickery on behalf of the Lib Dems, but an embarrassing cock-up which has (not surprisingly) damaged the local party’s reputation. For the Grauniad to lump this kind of local difficulty in with serious allegations of prejudice and racism is laughable/contemptible.

To return to where I started… The Grauniad: bastardising liberal values.

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26 Comments

  • I really was amazed at this dire biased journalism. The line ‘suspictions that the Lib Dems will fight dirty’ surely doesn’t belong in a national newspaper?

    Anyway, what suspictions? Oh Steven Morris means the concerns of sitting Labour politicians that they are facing wipeout.

    And why shouldn’t local people campaign to keep their open spaces exactly that, open? I don’t care who it is, I don’t want my local park used for anything other than an open space.

    Indeed, surely the dog whistle politics is coming from Labour, who said it in the first place?

    How could the Guardian’s editor allow this to be published? In what is supposed to be a national newspaper?

    I switched my daily paper from the Independent (a proper paper) to the Guardian – I now realise what a mistake that was.

  • The idea that the Guardian is Liberal is laughable – when push comes to shove it cowardly follows the new labour line.

  • This was the worst piece of reporting I have ever seen in the Guardian – biased, inaccurate and blatantly cooked up. But I wonder if this kind of Labour-supporting populism has anything to do with the fact that they’ve just raised their cover price by 10p…?

  • This is the blog item he refers to. How does that look to you as a depiction of gypsies and travellers? highburyeast.mycouncillor.org.uk/2009/07/16/labours-vision-for-highbury-fields/+islington+labour%27s+vision+for+highbury+fields Do you genuinely feel comfortable about that kind of stereotyping?

  • Yes, I nearly choaked on my cornflakes too!

    I think this kind of poorly researched article with supporting ‘evidence’ of some masterminded plot drawn from very odd / disconnected stories each of which has already been shown to be significantly ‘unplanned’ is disgraceful. It is so clearly a plant.

    It amazes me that they can find so little to hit us with in a party with over 4,000 local councillors – I mean if we were really organising a dirty tricks campaign we’d be a bit better than that!!

    I expect this means that Labour will be chucking everything at us in trying to defend parliamentary seats like Islington… When they start this kind of campaign you know that they know they are losing.

  • Don’t forget to email the Guardian with your opinions. The customers’ voices should count for something for a paper losing so much money.

  • Labour and the Guardian really don’t get this do they? I just looked at the page, and the point is made very well. The Labour councillor Mrs West isn’t taking this issue seriously by making her joke. The picture is backing this up by showing they are not taking it seriously, they are trying to turn gypsies into a joke. This is the insult to gypsies and these sorts of comments are what provoke mistrust and prejudice. I understand from talking to other Liberal Democrat friends in Islington that they have just released a planning strategy document (the one that the Labour councillor was referring to when she suggested no parks should be ruled out) that identifies the need for gypsy and traveller sites in Islington and that this is nothing but positive and also serious, which is more than can be said for Labour’s stupid comments. The silly Labour councillor shouldn’t have said these comments in the first place and from reading the website it doesn’t seem like it is the first time she has said something insulting and claimed it was a joke. Labour through and through are so hypocritical and go to great lengths to try to turn the blame on others..

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Sep '09 - 10:26pm

    Looks to me like a return to the bad old days when the Guardian regularly ran anti-Liberal articles, taken more or less directly from Labour Party activists pumping the stuff to them.

    What we have here is thousands of people running their own campaigns writing their own material – local campaign material doesn’t have to be passed through central party HQ, we aren’t a Leninist party – and inevitably in the heat of electoral competition one or two people say stuff they really shouldn’t, opponents work up acceptable stuff and put a slant on it to make it seem as if it says something it doesn’t, difficult decisions have to be made in difficult circumstances and can be played up by opponents who ignore those circumstances. Of course you can pick a few of these and work it up into a coherent “Nasty, dirty unprincipled party” article. You could do just the same for the other parties.

    In the bad old days, Tower Hamlets when the Liberals ran it was a particular focus of attention. The Liberals there did tend to be a bit cocky, yes, and ran some material where one thought “hmm, I can see what they’re trying to do, don’ t think I’d quite do it that way myself”, but they were in general good-hearted and fighting the sort of worn our Labour Party that had blighted inner cities through being without serious competition for years. They also had some particularly difficult decisions to make, but you could be sure the Guardian would report the Labour opposition’s spin on those decisions as if it was straight news and without the context and without reporting whenever other (but Labour run) councils had to make similar difficult decisions.

    This really is appallingly biased journalism – if they want to run parrty political propaganda, they should at least put it in comment pages where it can be seen as such, and not as a supposedly straight news article.

  • Certainly some poor judgement, if anyone thinks the guardian is a a bastion of Liberal values. They seem to be having a with “Camerons Conservatives” and have been awash with pro-blue labour bias for years.

    Of course the Guardian could have highlighted the record of 12 years of Labour Government on the issue.

    Too tough an assignment ? Perhaps an easier task to point out the liklihood that Darling Dave will scrap all requirements on Councils to provide sites for travellers.

  • Paul Richards 13th Sep '09 - 1:10pm

    It is a great shame that the record of Labour isn’t reported in the Guardian newspaper (as opposed to just on blogs).

    Just look at this appalling campaigning by Labour:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/davehillblog/2009/mar/12/labour-london

  • Albert Shanker 14th Sep '09 - 9:56am

    The Highbury East website is inapporpriate and offensive, and some of the comments above are apologisms for a clear lack of judgement by Lib Dems in Islington, who also have had a tradition of mopping up Conservative votes there. It is not ‘Labour spin’ but local misjudgement, so pointing finegrs elsewhere is no excuse.

    The revisionism for the disgraceful episode in Tower Hamlets was not shared at the time by Paddy Ashdown/Lord Lester, who launched an immediate investigation. Would that people had the same spine today!

  • Interesting that it’s one of the few pages on the Guardian website not allowing comments – it’s almost as if they know the story’s a load of bull but don’t want to admit it!

  • Albert Shanker 14th Sep '09 - 11:34am

    Total denial on your party – Ah so pictures of black men looming over cowering old (white) ladies is just freedom of speech the Richard L?? At least the Labour Party go out and take on the BNP, I don’t see how that is racist at all! What a bunch of mixed priotities Lib Dems have!!

    “There’s very little that is more hypocritical than the Labour Party claiming to support minority right.”[sic] In practice, the first thng lIb Dems cut when they get to power is support for voluntary groups, e.g Islington.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Sep '09 - 11:37am

    Albert Shanker,


    The Highbury East website is inapporpriate and offensive, and some of the comments above are apologisms for a clear lack of judgement by Lib Dems in Islington, who also have had a tradition of mopping up Conservative votes there. It is not ‘Labour spin’ but local misjudgement, so pointing finegrs elsewhere is no excuse.

    I haven’t seen the website, but my comments were meant to note that, yes, local misjudgment can happen, and is more likely to happen in a party which is run on decentralised and liberal lines. Examples can be found from all the parties. It is often very difficult to separate out reality from spin from the other parties with these matters. Anyone who wants to knock any party can very easily find a few examples of local misjudgment and mix it together with a bit of spin from the local opponents to produce a party political propaganda article masquerading as “news”. The lesson to local activists is be very careful about what you are doing, remember how it could be spun even if you didn’t mean it that way.


    The revisionism for the disgraceful episode in Tower Hamlets was not shared at the time by Paddy Ashdown/Lord Lester, who launched an immediate investigation. Would that people had the same spine today!

    Were you there, or are you just relying on news reports? There were errors of judgment from Tower Hamlets Liberals, sure, but a lot of people had a lot of reason to throw mud at them – not all of them people in the Labour Party. You might recall that the SDP was founded on the grounds that it could win urban working class votes that the “sleepy” Liberals could not, its founding declaration was called the “Limehouse Declaration” from where it was signed, so a bunch of Liberal Party people energetically winning votes at the same time it was signed and in the same place were a bit of an irritant to some at the top of the Alliance.

  • The Labour Party has serious history on equalities issues:

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/miranda-grell-loses-her-appeal-1733.html

    Also from the Highbury East website:
    http://highburyeast.mycouncillor.org.uk/categories/News/

    “Cllr West has been reprimanded and forced to make a public apology by the Council’s Standards Committee after a homophobic “joke” she made in another public meeting.”

    Seems to me like the Labour Party are trying to get themselves out of hot water here, and don’t have a strong record in London on respecting minority groups.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Sep '09 - 2:52pm

    Indeed, anyone who knew what was really happening here would know that the proportion of people of African origin in Tower Hamlets is very small and was even more so in those days, and local people would not suppose a cartoon of a black man was supposed to refer to local youths causing problems. On the other hand, the boxing tradition in the East End was strong, and a classic boxer pose would neatly illustrate “Fighting for you”.

    On cutting support for voluntary groups, it’s something all local authorities have to do, particularly when under pressure from national government which often finds cutting grants to local government and leaving them to fill in the details serves well to spread the blame. Of course voluntary spending goes first, because you cut what you don’t have to provide first, not what the law tells you must provide. This is just what I said – when a Labour authority does it, it isn’t news, when a Liberal authority with a Labour opposition does it, it’s a “nasty dirty Liberals” press release from Labour to the Guardian, and a tame journalist at the other end printing it as news.

    Plus, one sometimes finds these voluntary groups whose funding is being cut are doing very little, but provide nice well paid jobs for Labour Party activists …

  • I love the names used on here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Shanker

  • Liberal Neil 14th Sep '09 - 4:13pm

    ‘Albert Shanker’ has clearly never seen the leaflet in question. I have.

    It showed a drawing of a boxer in fighting pose alongside the slogan ‘fighting for you’.

    It clearly identified the Lib Dem Focus Team with the image of the boxer.

    It was only ‘open to misinterpretation’ by someone intent on attacking the Lib Dems and it is a crying shame that Ashdown and others in the party were duped by the criticism from Labour at the time.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Sep '09 - 10:31am

    As Liberal Neil says, Ashdown and others were duped, but as the title to the article says, it was a “When did you stop beating your wife?” issue. It’s a clever political trap in which whatever answer is given, you’re condemned. Had the party leadership not responded, people like “Albert Shanker” no doubt would be using the line “look – total denial by the party, see how they close ranks instead of tackling racism in the party”.

    There are quite a few issues here. One is how these stories grow in the telling. See how a picture of a black boxer, alone, no other graphic, is now being told as “pictures of black men looming over cowering old (white) ladies”. The “old lady” was mentioned in the text only, I cannot recall the words, there were also words about local gangs of youths harassing people. As I have already said, anyone familiar with the geography of inner London would know a man of sub-Saharan African appearance would not be taken by locals to refer to youths in 1980s Tower Hamlets, where the predominant non-white ethnic group was Bangladeshi. The claim could more easily be made had the leaflet been distributed in a borough where the predominant ethnic minority was Afro-Caribbean. So now, see, quite a profound ignorance of the situation on the ground is mixed in, which actually reveals an ethnic stereotyping mentality amongst those making the accusations. Well, perhaps to people like Albert Shanker “they all look the same”. I suppose to people from places like Yeovil, London is just one big mess, so the fact that you can travel from one part a few miles to another and find a completely different ethnic mix on the streets is hardly noted. Or perhaps like many visitors they are hardly aware there’s a whole big London outside the Circle Line.

    So, sitting in judgment we have people who have little experience of politics in inner London. They have not witnessed the extent to which unfounded accusations of racism can be, and often are made by political opponents. Labour made an art of this when in opposition in Tower Hamlets – their game plan was essentially “find any way, however preposterous, in which something the council is doing can be played as ‘racist’ and stir up antagonism about it”. People from parts of the country where the politics is Conservative v. Liberal have little experience of the nastiness of Labour when dominant and when challenged – they thought of Labour as the sort of intellectual types and old-timers chugging along which it is when it’s small and firmly in third place.

    Consider also the national political environment, as I have mentioned. Early on, inner city Liberals were an embarrassment to those whose idea was that the SDP would dominate, and the job of the Liberal Party was just to mop up in the rural areas of traditional Liberal strength. Later, we had the “project”, Liberal Democrats co-operating with Labour with a coalition government in mind – again, inner city Liberals vigorously challenging Labour were an embarrassment. So there was a sense in which making Tower Hamlets Liberals sacrificial victims worked well for the wider politics of the Liberal/Liberal Democrat leadership. It looked good to be able to say “Look, we are challenging racism, even in our own party”.

    Having said this, yes, there were things which the Tower Hamlets Liberal did that were wrong, but the “black boxer” leaflet was not one of them. Because of the way this has been put by their opponents, it is difficult to pick out what really was wrong and what was mud thrown by their enemies. There were cases where they distributed literature which went “over the top”, nothing I haven’t seen also from Labour or the Conservatives, but I wouldn’t have done it myself. They did have an arrogance which led to them not considering the need to defend themselves, they tended to put it as “our voters don’t read the Guardian, so why should we waste time responding to the rubbish they print about us there?”. They did attract some local support whose commitment to liberalism was slight, but this happens in inner city areas. The alternative is to be elitist and not do much recruiting. Actually, Tower Hamlets Liberals weren’t big on membership recruitment, perhaps for this reason. Towards the end they were pulled apart by personality clashes, and also by Bangladeshi factionalism. Again, this is a feature of inner city politics. Numbers are small and pressures are high, it takes its toll. The Asian ethnic minorities tend to have a complex politics, which may involve various factions working through the different political parties, anyone familiar with politics on the sub-continent will know this.

    I felt the judgment made by the party inquiry was unfair, and picked on the wrong people. I say all this from having some contact with the people involved, and a short period of (inactive) membership of the party in Tower Hamlets at the time it was already falling apart.

  • After reading all of this, I have been doing a bit of digging around with some help of some Islington insiders (who reassure me there is not any sort of centrally planned campaign to be anti-traveller). It seems that the Labour Party in Islington are a bit split on the issue. Whilst their Leader, Catherine West, is calling for all parks to be considered for travellers sites, her Labour group deputy leader councillor Paul Smith proposed a motion which was passed by his fellow Labour Councillors on the Labour controlled West Area Committee calling for Islington to remain free of travellers sites. Was this really necessary? The Liberal Democrats have gone against this motion by issuing a planning strategy document with a statement saying sites for travellers will be found in suitable locations in the borough, but the Labour motion “objects” to this.

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