Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Our blackest hour?

The bitterness of political rivalry can sometimes carry us away, and opportunism is devilishly tempting. So when Brian Gordon , the Conservative councillor for Hale Ward, Barnet, decided to “black up” so as to attend a fancy dress party as Nelson Mandela, he was asking for trouble. And the local Liberal Democrats were quick to make it. Now the authorities and the supposed victim have poured a lot of ice-cold water onto the row. Scorn might have been more appropriate.

When the news first broke I was very sceptical. Blacking up may be a rather stupid thing to do, but it pales into insignificance compared to the gibbering idiocy that would be required to publicise your own racism. That Mr. Gordon himself sent the picture to his local paper clearly suggests that he saw nothing wrong in what he had done. One might argue that he may be blind to the offence it could cause. However, offence is taken rather than given, and I doubt very much that he would be prepared to risk his political career and public vilification just to stick two fingers up at the black community. There may be a fine line between being “not politically correct” and being racist, but Mr. Gordon was very firmly on the unfashionable (as opposed to the unconscionable) side of that line.

The opportunity to score a political point was too great for some, however. Local activist Stieve de Lance pounced, telling journalists that “It is thinly veiled racism; you cannot make jokes like this.” In fact, the only thing that was thinly veiled was Ms. De Lance’s opportunism. The Commission for Racial Equality, to whom she referred the incident, suggested that “celebrities and politicians engage their brains before they walk out of the door?” but do not appear to consider this a serious incident.

Now the alleged victim of the racial abuse has made his feelings clear. Nelson Mandela’s spokesman has said that the only offence Mr. Gordon has caused was in suggesting that Mr. Mandela would wear such as dull shirt. “We don’t see any harm in this whatsoever,” she explained. “If it was a fancy-dress party and people were expected to arrive as a character or famous person, we are convinced there was no ill intent behind this.”

She then went on to add “We are not oversensitive about matters like these. We should try not to read racism into actions which may be completely innocent.” That is a lesson that many in the media and in local politics need to learn.

This whole, sorry affair has raised a another point, though, beyond the over-sensitivity of some people (often not, themselves, from ethnic minorities) to perceived racial slurs. Mr. Gordon is not a member of parliament – he is not even a candidate. He is not a career politician who has chosen a path that inevitably will lead to vicious personal attacks from journalists and opponents alike. Personally, I rue the passing of the more gentlemanly style of politics, where public debate was limited to such mundane things as policy. But at parliamentary level that is now par for the course; the price career politicians pay.

Mr. Gordon, however, was something very different: a local councillor. It is not easy these days to find people who are prepared to run for office, putting in a huge amount of effort with no guarantee that in the end that work will be rewarded (Mr. Gordon barely won his seat in 2002 and shared the ward with two Labour colleagues – never an easy task). Neither is it easy to find people who – if successful – will happily give up 20 hours a week, generally their evenings and weekends, to attend planning meetings, discuss licensing applications and read local authority accounts. The job does not even pay well.

Local councillors are one of three breeds. Some are aspiring politicians on the first rung of the ladder. Others are accidentally successful paper candidates. But most are committed local residents who want to do something for their area. They do not deserve to be dragged through the mud in this callous and opportunist manner. If we want to continue – to increase – the number of talented, local people who are willing to take on the work and the responsibility (and the unlimited financial liability) that this post requires, we need to avoid this sort of crass, calculated negative campaigning.

If Mr. Gordon is a bad councillor, attack him on his record. If the Liberal Democrats can do better, persuade voters with policies. This incident may have made Mr. Gordon look silly, but it reflects worse on those that have sought to make capital from it.

1 comment:

Steve Rutherford said...

Tom,

This is a good warning.

The public know when we are going for cheap shots, and this undermines our credibility on the big issues.

I hope that everyone involved in LD campaigns reads your piece.

Steve Rutherford, Beds.