Monthly Archives: July 2009

Harvey Milk, Pepin Tuma and “Just shut up, faggot”

rainbowstarsstripesOn a day when US President Barack Obama approved assassinated gay rights activist Harvey Milk for a Medal of Freedom, the highest US honour for a civilian, I was concerned to hear of the recent arrest of Pepin Tuma, a lawyer and LGBT activist.

I was introduced to Pepin Tuma at the Manassas rally on the eve of the presidential elections. Before we bumped into each other I had heard – and been impressed by – the work he had been doing with Obama Pride, the LGBT wing of the Campaign for Change.

So it seems, particularly on this day when Harvey Milk is to be honoured posthumously, a sad reflection on the position of LGBT people in the US that Pepin Tuma was recently arrested by police in Washington DC. 

Tuma was out with friends at around midnight and the case of the black professor Henry Louis Gates who was recently arrested, and the conduct of the police, had dominated the conversation. A police officer overheard Tuma chanting in a ‘sing song’ voice “I hate the police”. Not a crime, particularly in a modern democracy, and in a country that sets such store by free speech.

As a politician who deals with policing issues every day, it’s not something I would ever say, let alone sing. I don’t think it. The police here in London tread on eggshells every day in relation to all manner of equalities issues. Mostly they get things right. Sometimes they get things wrong. It’s part of my job to help them get things more and more right and less and less wrong.

But it’s not an offence to express disapproval of the police, here or in America. And it’s Tuma’s right to be free to say it without being arrested. But that is not all the story.

District of Columbia police chief Cathy Lanier has ordered an internal inquiry into the arrest. In an email to Lanier, Tuma has said: “I said nothing at this time, except asking why I was being detained, whether I was being arrested, and my belief that it was not a crime to offer an opinion to my friends about the police.”

Tuma alleges that the officer, Second District Officer J. Culp, pushed him against a transformer box and handcuffed him without explaining any charge.

Tuma adds: “As Officer Culp moved me toward a police cruiser, he told me to ‘just shut up, faggot,’” Ah, a raised voice and a raised prejudice.

Tuma was then taken to the Second District police station where he was given a choice of either paying a ‘post and forfeit’ fine or a night in the cells and an appearance before the DC magistrate in the morning. He opted to pay the ‘post and forfeit’ because he had church and a church committee meeting in the morning, despite the implied admission of guilt it brings, but he has since said he intends to pursue the matter in court.

Meanwhile, I understand, two friends who had been with Tuma at the time of the arrest were being approached by another police officer, named Geer, who asked them if they agreed that Tuma had been disorderly and attempting to “resist” arrest and whether they would back that up.

“No, we did not see that at all,” they said.  One of them, fellow lawyer Luke Platzer has said since: “We thought he was trying to trick us into saying that there was physical resistance by Pepin to the arrest. That is not true.”

Acting Lieutenant Brett Parson, who deals in LGBT liaison in the DC police has said the LGBT community should “withhold judgment until the chief [Lanier] has had an opportunity to review the investigation and take any action she deems appropriate.”

It turns out that Officer Culp has had five complaints made against him in the past. I don’t know the details of those previous five complaints, but none of them have been upheld.

In the context of Proposition 8 in California, the Pepin Tuma incident compounds my sense of a hastening backward drift on LGBT equality in the US, despite the symbolic honour for Milk. Have attitudes in America really moved forward in the past 30 years? I have my doubts.

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Why not have a Brown-Cameron debate?

Peter Mandelson is ‘open’ to a broadcast debate between the party leaders at the next general election. He said yesterday: “The public needs to choose and find out what is behind these leaders, who has the most experience, the best ideas and who can really build Britain’s future.”

And why not? It’s a kite that gets flown by broadcasters every time there’s a general election in the offing. There’s an inevitability that it will happen one day. So why not just say yes and get on with it.

As a former Labour press officer I remember tedious exchanges of letters between party and media bigwigs, which generally galloped towards brinkmanship and ended up, at the brink, with a frosty agreement to disagree.

Head-to-head debate is so familiar in our culture, from the marketplace hustings of past centuries to BBC Question Time today, that it seems odd that in Britain we don’t have a debate between party leaders.

It’s an accepted part of national elections in other modern democracies – the US being the best-known example. In the US, the debates are carefully moderated and prepared for at length beforehand.

Over here the argument against has always been that we have a parliamentary democracy and voters are electing their MPs, not the prime minister. Whilst that is true, it’s also the case that voters are electing a government which will be led by a prime minister. So it makes sense to line those candidates up for national inspection, just as at the next election parliamentary candidates will be lined up at hustings in hundreds of community halls for local inspection.

After Lord Mandelson gave his view, it has been said that No 10 suggested Gordon Brown remains against the idea (just as Tony Blair was). Whatever Brown’s view is – let’s not forget there are far bigger national issues on his desk – I have no doubt he (like Blair) could wipe the floor with Messrs Cameron and Clegg on substance and policy, depending on the format.

Ah, it’s always the format that is the problem, with three parties (at least) involved, each wanting to insist on the format that suits their position best. It would be like organising a wedding ceremony where the bride and groom loathe each other and the bridesmaid (who is never the bride) insists on elbowing her way up the aisle between them and snogging the vicar.

The Conservatives have sought to capitalise, with a letter from Cameron to Brown seeking ‘clarification’. Perhaps Brown should respond asking for clarification on a list of Cameron’s policies.

The Lib Dems have said they would be happy with as many debates as possible. Well they would, wouldn’t they?

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Broadmoor or Wildmoor?

Question: Why does a good school change the name by which it has been known for generations?

Answer: When it has been standing next to a mental hospital for 146 years and the governors don’t like it.

Crowthorne in Berkshire, where I grew up, has some much-loved primary schools. The oldest is Broadmoor School, where I went, with a history stretching back to the time the hospital of that name was built as a ‘criminal lunatic asylum’. The earliest pupils were the children of staff at the hospital. That tradition, at least, continues.

So why cancel out nearly a century and half of history? A local paper reported earlier this year: “The governors of the school decided the current name’s connotations with the infamous high security hospital in the village were stopping parents choosing the school for their children.”

It grieves me, genuinely, that the school will this autumn change its name to Wildmoor Heath School, which sounds to me like something out of some lost Bronte novel.

So the school loses a name that relates directly to its history and its location in favour of a name that relates to a nearby nature reserve, a name that few people in Crowthorne recognise.

As a former schoolmate remarked yesterday: “Where the bloody hell is ‘Wildmoor’? Actually, it’s a little bit insulting.”

Broadmoor School is a typical red brick Victorian village school, with later additions at the back and a tarmac playground where countless children have played ‘It’, ‘British Bulldog’ and a curious game called ‘Off Ground He’, which involved racing to get off the ground at a given moment to hang from drainpipes and railings. There’s also a field for football, cricket, fetes and sports days. What marks the school out, in a good way, is the name, which far from being the stigma its current governors fear, is a source of pride for people like me who started a happy education there.

I’ve been thinking in the past few days about how a love of learning started in me at the school, and where it started. It was not in the classrooms but in the little library, which used to be in one cramped room off the corner of the school hall, and which doubled as a photographer’s studio once a year.

When my sister, brother and I were all at the school together in the mid seventies, we would be lined up annually for the Bennett ‘usual suspects’ mugshot. Here’s one. That’s me on the left.

Mark, Debbie and Chris Bennett

Mark, Debbie and Chris Bennett

I remember being yanked from the infants class by the no-nonsense Miss Foster (who had also taught my dad back in the forties). I had barely finished the tepid milk we were given every morning in squat glass bottles. “No timewasting and no burping. You say ‘pardon me’ when you burp. What do you say? Quick, quick.”

The photographer had set up a big white umbrella on a tall stand, with a big white light pointing into it. At the age of 6, I hadn’t seen anything like it, and stood staring.

I remember how the bright light fell on the shelves full of the clever books that the big children were allowed to read, in this room where only the big children were usually allowed. Hardback books with fat, glossy spines, not like the thin scrappy paperbacks in my class – some with teeth marks – which were kept in a jumble in a box.

A few years later I would spend a lot of time in that library, looking through the books and learning.

When I moved up to Mrs Cooper’s class, we learned about China. There was no mention of Communism – we were eight, this was Berkshire and Mrs Cooper’s husband was the local commissioner of the scouts.

Instead we learned about the Great Wall, gunpowder and the story of the willow pattern plate. We painted nonsense in made-up Chinese script. I know it was nonsense because when my grandad proudly showed my handiwork to Ping, his Chinese neighbour who owned the village chip shop, he was told: “Don’t mean anything.”

One day Mrs Cooper mentioned a man called Confucius, whilst dramatically chalking his name up on the blackboard. She had buck teeth and an enthusiastic way of teaching, which meant she would often spray spit over children in the front row. She turned round, and repeated: “Con – few – shoosssss”. Forewarned by my brother and sister, I always sat near the back. I watched the front rows duck.

Off I went to the library that afternoon, looked up Confucius and read about him.

Confucius came to mind when I heard about the move to change Broadmoor’s name.

He said: “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.”

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Are the Lib Dems serious about high standards in politics?

 

 

Councillor Ayoub Khan

Councillor Ayoub Khan

There’s something very worrying about the case of Cllr Ayoub Khan, a Liberal Democrat councillor on Birmingham City Council and Cabinet Member for Community Safety. Khan is also a barrister, and in his spare time the Lib Dem PPC in Birmingham Ladywood. A busy man.

 

Last week his appeal to the High Court to challenge the findings of an election court last year was thrown out by judges. The findings of Elections Commissioner Timothy Straker QC suggest that Khan made “sordid” claims that Labour politicians had been involved in witness intimidation, attempted “scurrilous” smears about Labour opponents, making an “unpleasant and unsubstantiated” allegation that Labour activists were responsible for an arson attack on a Lib Dem supporter’s Range Rover.

The Birmingham Post reports that: “Lord Justice Leverson and Mr Justice Wilkie said there was “no sensible basis” for Khan’s claim that Mr Straker’s findings were perverse or unsubstantiated by evidence. His assertion that Mr Straker’s judgement was flawed was “barely even arguable.”

So why is he still a PPC and why does he remain in the Cabinet of the largest local authority in the UK and the largest council in Europe? Will the Lib Dems, who specialise in spluttering moral outrage, do the decent thing and sack this man as a PPC and Cabinet councillor? Or are they waiting for the decision of the Bar Standards Board, which will be Cllr Khan’s next opportunity to defend an indefensible position. Or are they waiting for the findings of a Lib Dem inquiry into Cllr Khan’s activities, which was announced in May last year but which has yet to report anything?

Birmingham Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore has written to Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg as follows:

“Can you please explain why the Liberal Democrats call on others to hold high standards in public office but have taken no action whatsoever against a man who is running for parliament under your party banner after he was described by a judge as bringing forward a scurrilous and unwarranted allegation whilst under oath in an Election Court and was reported to the High Court for that conduct.

“The public will see the case of Coun Khan is a test as to whether you are serious about the need for politicians to take urgent action to restore public trust.

“If you fail to take urgent action against this leading local Liberal Democrat, we will know that your public statements are no more than hollow rhetoric.”

“Now that both the election Court and the High Court have found decisively against Coun Khan, are you going to ignore the judgements of the court or follow through your professed principles?”

Let’s not forget the Lib Dems in Birmingham have been in a so-called ‘progressive partnership’ with the Conservatives since 2004. Will Conservative council leader Cllr Mike Whitby do what the Lib Dems seem reluctant to do and dispense with Cllr Khan from the Cabinet?

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Some thoughts on Norwich North

 

ballotpapersFirst thought … bugger.

Seriously, now that the multi-coloured by-election circus has packed up and left Norwich, and the commentators have commented the tongues out of their heads, it seems worth recording a few reflections.

It was a big and disappointing defeat for Labour, especially given the large numbers of activists who travelled long distances to work in the constituency in past weeks up until the very last minutes before polls closed. They have nothing to reproach themselves for. Nor does the candidate, Chris Ostrowski, who I know and like and am sure will make a very good MP one day.

But the political damage that kept Labour from winning was entirely self-inflicted. The treatment of Ian Gibson in the wake of the MP expenses scandal was ill-judged, just as his cheap sale of a home to his daughter was ill-judged.

I have nothing against Ian Gibson, in fact I have supported his past positions on a number of issues, especially calling for compensation for the veterans of the Christmas Island nuclear tests.

It would have been better to let Gibson face the electoral music and explain himself to his constituents. I have heard some people say Gibson is the only real winner in this by-election, but as things stand, I don’t think anybody has been vindicated by the result. The reputation of MPs – of all parties – remains at the lowest ebb I can remember in my lifetime.

Looking at the results, it seems Labour voters, instead of switching to other parties, simply stayed at home. But was it a big victory for the Conservatives? I don’t believe so.

The Tories got 39% of the vote which at a turnout of 45% means that something like only 1 in 5 of the electorate actually wanted them. So it is possible to win back, particularly with boundary changes that seem to favour Labour by as much as 2000 votes. So the work starts now for the general election.

And let’s not forget that the Tories got 2000 fewer votes on that 45% turnout than they did in 2005 on a 61% turnout. So this is not a time to crow if you are a Conservative.

The Lib Dems – traditionally so slickly snaky at playing the by-election game – slithered in third, which is always pleasing. So no crowing from Clegg and co either. (Though I did like the name of their candidate, April Pond, which sounds like a beauty spot in Sussex).

The fact that the three major parties denied smaller parties and the ‘honest man’ independent the hoped-for breakthrough is encouraging. Party politics is not so dead as some commentators have claimed.

That independent, the former diplomat Craig Murray, says he spent £46,000 on his campaign only to poll 953 votes.  Hard lines, old boy, as they say in the Foreign Office.

In an undiplomatic piece in the Mail today, Murray says he was denied media exposure, not seeming to realise that the media narrative was never going to be about Martin Bell style independents but about Conservatives v Labour.

In any case, Martin Bell was able to win as an ‘independent’ in Tatton in ’97 because Labour and the Lib Dems made a pact not to stand against him, after the idea of an ‘anti-sleaze’ candidate was thought up by my former boss, Alastair Campbell, who approached Bell to stand (see Blair Years pp 169-70). The only true independent to have been elected to Parliament in recent years is Dr Richard Taylor of Wyre Forest, who was elected in 2001 on the back of a campaign to save his local hospital.

What troubles me about Mr Murray’s candidacy is not his independence, he is welcome to that, but his corrosive cynicism about politics.  It’s very easy to be cynical about politics and politicians, but it’s a negative, cul-de-sac attitude that doesn’t offer any fresh direction, and simply tars all politicians with the same tired brush. 

That he stood under the slogan ‘put an honest man into Parliament’ seems a clunking attempt to suggest there are no honest men and women there already, which is simply not true.  And to claim to be more honest than anyone else standing as a candidate has the off-putting odour of vanity. No wonder the people of Norwich kept their distance.

Looking at Murray’s website, it seems to me that, far from being the ‘change’ candidate, he resorted to the kind of mudslinging that switches people off from politics. For example, under the headline ‘Rotten to the core’, his website says of Conservative candidate Chloe Smith:

“Chloe has deceived the voters of Norwich North. She has been disingenuous if not dishonest. What else has she been less than honest about?

“The whole system of politics is rotten to the core. The political parties are thoroughly infiltrated with big business, international finance, and the old boy network. It is time for change.”

Yes, it is time for change. But not of the Murray kind. It is time for the major parties to reform our ways and rebuild trust in British politics. That’s the lesson I take from the result in Norwich North.

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Blériot and the Wokingham Whale

Today marks the centenary of Louis Blériot’s 22 mile flight across the English Channel between Calais and Dover. An important moment in aviation, it was the first flight across a large body of water in a heavier-than-air craft.

Blériot’s flight was inspired by a competition organised by the Daily Mail, with a prize of £1000 – about £90,000 in today’s money. A rare example of the Mail welcoming a foreigner on to British soil without wailing that the country is doomed. No doubt Lord Northcliffe was grinding his teeth as he wrote the Frenchman’s name out on the cheque.

This is what Mail reporter Harry Harper had to say when he watched the aviateur take off for Dover:

“Again I felt that overpowering rush of excitement which I find almost everyone has experienced who has seen a man fly. It is an exhilaration, a thrill, an ecstasy. Just as children jump and clap their hands to see a kite mount, so, when the machine leaves the ground and with a soaring movement really flies upon its speeding wings, one feels impelled to shout, to rush after it, to do anything which will relieve the overcharged emotion.”

As with most aviation competitions (the Mail staged a series), a lot of attempts were made at flight by other would-be aviators, in an array of contraptions. You probably remember those early silent films where intrepid souls with huge moustaches attempt to take to the air sitting in something that appears to have been fashioned out of kites and coathangers, and which very quickly crashes, collapses or shakes to pieces.

It is one of those forgotten fledgling aviators that I think of today. Coming from Berkshire as I do, I want to pay tribute to A. M. Farbrother and his improbable invention, the Wokingham Whale. What a name for an aircraft!

Farbrother was a joiner in Wokingham, Berkshire who designed and built the Whale in 1909 or 10 to compete in one of the Mail’s competitions. He sold his house to finance his project, and accepted donations from the people of Wokingham, who seem to have been rather proud that they were helping to carve a niche for Wokingham in the field of aviation.

 

A M Farbrother's Wokingham Whale

A M Farbrother's Wokingham Whale

Though Farbrother’s great monster resembled an airship, in fact it was designed to have wings, and the 66 foot gondola was capable of extending to more than twice that length. It was designed with an 80 horsepower engine which would power a rotoscope or propeller capable of 1200 revolutions per minute. Inside there were to be seats, electric lights and lavatories (“for navigation over seas and other waters”) as well as ‘self-balancing’ hammocks, suggesting that Farbrother was envisioning an age of long distance passenger aviation that was still many years away.

 

The Whale did in fact make it the dozen miles from Wokingham to Windsor, but only on the back of a Pickfords removal cart. As with many of the eccentric and unworkable aircraft of the Edwardian era, it did excite curiosity from the national press, but only for a time.

The Wokingham Whale was doomed to stay on terra firma until it was broken up, along with Farbrother’s dreams.

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