New collection of leaflets

A strategically hashtagged tweet brings an interesting new site to the attention of The Voice. It is being built by people with some connection to MySociety, who are responsible for the excellent non-partisan sites intended to improve how politics works, such as WriteToThem, PublicWhip and FixMyStreet.

The new site is intended as a repository of the leaflets that are routinely delivered by local political activists day in, day out up and down the country.  Whilst similar sites have tried to do this before – particularly for the bigger by-elections – no-one has really got a site together that works quite as well as new one before us today.  Built from a modern web perspective, it allows the grand publique to upload whatever is pushed through their letterboxes, and to tag it and comment on it.

Its first snag is that it’s only just arrived, and so far sums up the state of British political campaigning – in this election period – in just five leaflets, which are the only ones to have been submitted so far.  But their site is open to all and they are keen to see many more leaflets uploaded. The more there are, the more interesting the site will become.

Liberal Democrats are often accused of inconsistency from one area to another, so it will be interesting to see how national patterns emerge from all parties.  One of the first leaflets to be uploaded featured a Labour opposition criticising a Lib Dem council for losing money in Iceland.  I’m almost tempted to see how those Labour words go down on my own authority, where a Labour controlled authority lost the second highest amount in the country to the crisis.  Do Nottingham Labour believe, like Cambridge Labour, that the money is unrecoverable? Or that losing it is a sign of mis-management?

Finally from a Lib Dem perspective, there’s the name of the new site: The Straight Choice.  Ouch.  A blog post attributes the name directly to the Bermondsey by-election controversy, and links to the Wikipedia page about the battle.  Happily the Wikipedia page (at time of writing) is rather more LibDem friendly than the way the episode is described on their own blogpost.

For all that, the site will be useful once people start using it, so I urge our readers here to send in whatever leaflets they have knocking about.

See also: Matt Wardman’s review

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This entry was posted in Online politics.


  • Grammar Police 11th May '09 - 1:35pm

    Given that the quote was actually “A straight choice between Labour and Simon Hughes” I’m rather concerned about the neutrality of this site (“The straight choice” sounds much more homophobic, doesn’t it?). Similarly the comments by the person posting the Holborn Lib Dem leaflet are hardly neutral.

  • GP – just because a contributor to the site has a particular bias doesn’t mean the site shares that bias. It’s a site designed to critique political leaflets that is clearly going to get political responses.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th May '09 - 2:14pm

    The “Straight Choice” blog writes of the 1983 Bermondsey by-election that it was “a contest between Simon Hughes, standing for the Liberal Party, and Peter Tatchell — the gay rights campaigner — standing for the Labour Party.

    That is not how it was seen at the time. Right up until the last week before the by-election it was seen as a contest between the official but disowned by its leadership Labour Party candidate, and the independent or “Real” Labour candidate who had the explicit backing of the previous Labour MP and Labour leader of the borough council, and, it was assumed, the implicit backing of the national Labour leadership. The Economist magazine in the week before the by-election actually published a cartoon illustrating this as a “two horse race”, showing the official Labour candidate on one horse and the independent Labour candidate with the former MP on another.

    The Liberal candidate happened to share the same surname as the Conservative candidate, and was written off (I cannot remember where – one of the national newspapers, I think) as “same surname, will probably get the same number of votes”. Bermondsey was one of the safest Labour seats in the country – the Conservatives only ever gained a tiny share of the vote. It had no recent Liberal tradition, but there were reason for many months before the by-election happened to suppose there would be one, and the Liberals had been quietly working the constituency knowing this to be the case from well before when the new Labour ppc was selected. The media did not pick up on this at all, even though the cat was let out of the bag when the BBC wrongly announced it as a Liberal gain in the GLC elections the year before (the Liberal commentator on the BBC said something like “oh, we had been putting a bit of work in there”, which was true, but he hadn’t expected – also true – for it to pay off that quickly).

    My recollection is that Liberal activists were attracted to this contest firstly because they did not feel the old discredited Bermondsey Labour establishment deserved to win it. Secondly because they wanted to show the Liberals could do better than the SDP did in the Peckham parliamentary by-election (neighbouring and similar constituency) the previous year. Thirdly because they knew work had been going on for ages so this would be a better chance than it looked on paper. Only fourthly because the official Labour candidate looked a bit useless. The amazing thing is the media did not pick up on what was happening, even up to the last week when orange Liberal posters were all over the place – they still saw it as a contest between the two Labour candidates in which no-one else stood a chance.

    I spent a lot of time in that by-election, more than I’ve spent in any others. The Liberals studiously avoided any mention of the gay issue. My own recollection was that “straight choice” was indeed just a standard phrase like “it’s a two horse race”, used on Liberal literature in many other places, and not deliberately chosen here to refer to the gay issue. The “I’ve been kissed by Peter Tatchell badges” were a private joke, one or two made by one or two private individuals, not issued as part of the campaign and not worn by canvassers as has since been alleged. The independent Labour candidate and his supporters, however, made open ribald comment about the Labour candidate’s sexuality. This too was a motivating factor for Liberal activists to come to the campaign and fight against that independent Labour candidate.

    The Bermondsey by-election was perhaps the turning point in homophobic humour becoming unacceptable. I think you will find even up to about then jokes which made fun of homosexuality were broadcast on television. I certainly recall up till then it tended to be Liberals who were victims of homophobic remarks made as part of political banter – both because of Liberal support for gay rights and because of the Jeremy Thorpe case. I certainly recall the Labour club in my university doing a send-up of the Liberal club’s newsletter full of homophobic jokes, this was in my last year there so must have been 1980 or 1981. No-one thought this unacceptable then.

    In retrospect, yes, perhaps the Liberal campaign in the Bermondsey by-election should have explicitly rejected homophobic attacks on the official Labour candidate rather than saying nothing but hoping to gain from the fighting between the supposed two lead candidates in which this was an issue. But I do not recall myself any sort of homophobia in the Liberal campaign.

    How this has been written up since is a classic example of how history gets written down falsely – a point I have often made about the politics of the 1970s and 1980s. It is odd to have been there and now to see what is written up and believed by those too young to be there is so different from what I recall myself from my own experience.

  • Chris Keating 11th May '09 - 2:14pm

    Interesting that one of the first leaflets that’s been uploaded to this site is from the homophobic smear campaign against Lib Dem Cllr Charles Anglin in the Lambeth elections in 2006.

  • Grammar Police 11th May '09 - 4:06pm

    Thanks for the message Richard; I should point out that in the Bermondsey by-election “*the* straight choice” wasn’t the phrase used in the literature – as I mention in my first post above. I would question whether it’s as clear as you seem to state that it was a “local campaign turned nasty” (well, I think elements were nasty, but I’m not sure the Liberal literature was necessarily it).

    Alex, of course, you’re right – it just wasn’t clear to me whether the leaflets already on the site were placed by the site admin, or by “real” people as it were. I was considering placing all the leaflets we’ve recently done

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th May '09 - 5:16pm

    The Bermondsey by-election undoubtedly turned nasty. The eventual result, however, has led people to think it was primarily Tatchell v. S.Hughes, therefore S.Hughes’s campaign must have been responsible for the nastiness. The poor showing of the one who was seen almost throughout as the main challenger to Tatchell means he and his campaign have been forgotten. The assumption then that S.Hughes’s victory was based on S.Hughes running a homophobic campaign leads to further assumptions, such as a silly joke badge which wasn’t official or ever used in campaigning being put forward as if it was standard issue.

  • I have kept meaning to look at the Oxford English Dictionary to see if it can throw any light on the date at which ‘straight’ was first used as a counterpoint to ‘gay’, but I haven’t had time. I’m inclined to think that at the time of the Bermondsey by-election this usage of the word was not part of the vernacular and that therefore the attribution of homophobic intent to the Liberal Party in its employment of the word is completely without foundation. I may be completely wrong, of course, but it is interesting how difficult it is to pin down the precise time when words change their meanings.

  • ‘The name also has a secondary meaning since lots of candidates do put “the straight choice” on their leaflets normally accompanied by a very unscientific bar graph explaining how they are the only possible contender.’

    Um no – they would say ‘a straight choice’ unless they were grammatically illiterate.

    I’d recommend you read ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ by Lyn Truss to realise the difference two little words makes to your meaning (and reputation).

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th May '09 - 10:14am

    I’m pretty sure that “straight” was used for heterosexual way before 1983 as a counterpart to what was, when I was at school, the standard schoolboy slang for homosexual which was “bent”.

    However, the Simon Hughes leaflet as reference in the “The Straight Choice” blog, does not say “The straight choice”. You can follow the links in the article and see it. It says “This election is a straight choice. On the one hand there is the divided and declining Labour Party. On the other there is local Liberal/SDP Alliance … Simon Hughes.”

    It is putting S.Hughes as the main contender against the two Labour candidates, hence “divided”. The aim is to switch people’s thinking from this being an election in which those two candidates are the contenders to one in which S.Hughes and the official Labour candidate are the two contenders. A very standard squeeze leaflet, don’t mention the third contender, use words like “straight choice”. I must have seen and probably delivered his leaflet in Bermondsey, and it never occurred to me that the word “straight” here could be interpreted as a dig at the official Labour candidate’s rumoured sexuality (at this point Tatchell had not openly said he was gay). Neither do I remember anyone else pointing it out. Thus I stand by what I say – I do not believe there was any intention in this leaflet for it to be seen as a subtle way of drawing attention to the Labour candidate’s personal preferences. (Sorry, I am finding what I wanted to write here gets it ruled out as spam.

    “The Straight Choice” blog uses the words “infamous campaign leaflet”, as if this leaflet were intended to be a homophobic leaflet. The blog’s name suggests the leaflet used the word “The” when it did not, thus the blog’s name itself is spreading a lie about this leaflet. Had the word “The” been used, it would be harder to conclude the word straight was used entirely innocently.

    I would therefore suggest that Liberal Democrats boycott this site until its name and defamatory use of the word “infamous” are withdrawn. It is helping spread a very serious falsehood about our party and the campaigners in that by-election which led to the election of someone who is now one of our senior MPs.

    Sorry Richard, the wording you chose to use means this IS an anti-LibDem website.

  • Matthew Huntbach

    What do you think of the allegation that canvassers made an issue of sexuality? Was that the case?

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th May '09 - 1:06pm


    What do you think of the allegation that canvassers made an issue of sexuality? Was that the case?

    I can only say what I observed. I did not see the official Labour candidate’s sexuality used in any way in Liberal Party campaign material, nor was I witness to any verbal instructions from campaign managers to make use of it on the doorsteps, nor did I hear any canvassers making reference to having used it.

    By-election campaigns are dependent on volunteers turning up and being sent out to help, including doing canvassing, with very little checks on who they are. So I cannot say that no canvassers sent out from the Liberal Party campaign office made an issue of the official Labour Party’s sexuality on the doorsteps. I can only say that if they had done that, it would have been a private decision by themselves to do it, not an instruction from the campaign managers to do it, and not something picked up as what people were doing from general banter amongst canvassers.

  • If we boycott the site won’t that just mean that our opponents upload the (rare) scurrilous leaflets that we produce so that they can point at a corpus of work that ‘proves’ how the Liberal Democrats are dirty campaigners? Let’s face it, both the Tories and Labour hate us much more than they dislike each other. The only way to avoid that is to upload as much literature as possible so that there is a genuinely balanced sample in the public domain. Not that evidence is ever likely to change a partisan mind.

  • David Allen 12th May '09 - 5:48pm

    My memory of the TV coverage is that anti-gay prejudice was a massive issue, and the Liberals largely kept scrupulously clear. However, the BBC did pick up and report the phrase “straight choice”. They genuinely didn’t seem able to decide whether it was a deliberate low-level dog-whistle, or just an inadvertent and unfortunate choice of words.

    My suspicion is that some back-room scribbler just couldn’t resist the pun, and didn’t recognise the harm it could do. It does also have to be borne in mind that Tatchell made gay rights a major campaign issue. It would have been quite reasonably liberal-minded for a voter to think “Well, I support gay rights, but, I want an MP who isn’t just a single-issue protest campaign.”

    So I don’t think we really have a lot to be ashamed of, but, I also don’t think we should protest overmuch. Why don’t we upload some examples of the occasions when the Tories are lying (which in my area is, when they open their mouths and make noises that aren’t snores)?

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th May '09 - 10:55pm

    It does also have to be borne in mind that Tatchell made gay rights a major campaign issue.

    No he didn’t. After the Bermondsey by-election he became a leading gay rights campaigner. But I don’t think gay rights were mentioned at all in his by-election campaign material. At that time he wasn’t even saying he was gay. Openly gay politicians are a thing that happened since then.

    Simon Hughes regrets the tactics used by the Liberals in that election, well as I have said in retrospect it would have been better had we actively spoken out against the homophobia coming from other directions instead of remaining silent and thus benefiting from it. In that way, yes, the tactics are to be regretted.

    My point, however, is that since that date history has been rewritten to make it seem as if the Liberals ran an actively homophobic campaign – they didn’t. I do not myself think the words “straight choice” were deliberate, they are standard words often used in squeeze leaflets. In a similar way, I do not believe the poster more recently from the Labour Party which depicted two senior Conservative politicans as pigs was anti-semitic, though it was claimed to be. Once it’s pointed out that the two politicians happen both to be Jewish, it looks very unfortunate, but I don’t think it was deliberately done for that reason.

  • Matthew Huntbach is spot on in pointing out that some people have attempted to rewrite history over this by-election.

    If anyone wants to get a full understanding of this by-election it is worth reading the Battle of Bermondsey, written by Peter Tatchell. It might surprise many people that the book makes hardly any reference to the Liberal Party. In complete contrast he has a huge amount of criticism of Bob Mellish, the independent Labour candidate that stood against him and the national Labour Party.

    Mark Morris

  • Peter Chegwyn 20th Mar '10 - 9:44pm

    Some very interesting posts here on Bermondsey, especially from Matthew whose recollections of the campaign are, I believe, largely correct.

    Although I was Agent for many Liberal by-election campaigns in the 70s and 80s I wasn’t involved in the Liberal campaign in Bermondsey (though that’s not to say I wasn’t involved in Bermondsey at the time).

    Peter Bray from North Devon was the Liberal Agent.

    To add to Matthew’s recollections, I seem to recall a newspaper (Mail?) poll a week out from polling that first showed Simon Hughes to be the main challenger (I vaguely recall by 1 per cent).

    The Liberals were past masters (still are) at exploiting such polls to create a bandwagon effect and this they did supremely well in Bermondsey, helped by Labour divisions and a national press that were certainly hostile towards Peter Tatchell and the official Labour campaign.

    It’s worth noting that the Bermondsey result helped influence the General Election campaign just a couple of months later, just as Labour’s defeat by the SDP in Greenwich in 1987 also influenced the General Election campaign a few weeks later.

    By coincidence, many of the main Liberal by-election campaigners from the early 80s met at a dinner to honour Chris Rennard in London a week ago. As Chris himself noted in his speech, the Liverpool Edge Hill by-election the day after the 1979 General Election was called also had a great influence on the General Election itself, in that case by helping to save the Liberal Party from complete disaster and the potential loss of almost all its seats.

    But that’s another story.

  • Esme Greenfield 17th Feb '14 - 6:37am


    My question is terminology related. I am a language practitioner and have to translate the term ‘squeeze leaflet’ into Afrikaans—one of South Africa’s official languages. I found quite a few instances of the term in LibDem internet reports. However, I cannot find a dictionary/glossary/term list definition for this term. I also contacted several printing companies in Britain and the USA but not one could help me. Would you mind providing me with a definition that will enable me to render it in Afrikaans appropriately?

    Thank you, and kind regards,
    Esme Greenfield

  • Esme Greenfield 19th Feb '14 - 12:43pm

    Thank you Joe, your definition of squeeze leaflet helps!

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