Issue 209 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: In the pink

Esme Choonara

For many political commentators and journalists it is accepted 'common sense' that opposition to bigotry is the preserve of the 'enlightened middle classes' and that the majority of ordinary people are easily swayed by prejudice. Certainly the Tories believe this to be the case. Yet their attempts to use sexism, homophobia and racism to undermine the Labour vote failed spectacularly.

Birmingham Edgbaston, Labour's first gain of election night, was notable also for the fact that the seat was won in the face of the Tories' disgusting nationalist campaign against Labour's Gisela Stuart, on the basis that she was born in Germany. A local Tory councillor, John Lines, warned people 'not to vote for a kraut' and to 'vote British, not for a German'.

In Welwyn, Labour candidate Melanie Johnson won the seat from the Tory MP with a swing to Labour of 11 percent. This despite Tory David Evans's attacks on Johnson as a 'single girl with two bastard children' and also his demands for castration of 'black rapist bastards'.

In the run up to the election, the right wing press were convinced that Evans's views were shared by what the Daily Mail labelled the 'Great Unwashed'. They believed that only the 'incestuous world of Westminster and the chattering classes' might object to Evans's tirade of abuse against Ms Johnson and that in actual fact millions of people 'in saloon bars and supermarket queues...think in exactly the same way as Evans'. The Daily Telegraph suggested that 'the prissy ideologues who express deep shock at [Evan's] words are out of touch'. Yet what the examples from the election show clearly is how out of touch is this view of ordinary people.

One of the most viciously bigoted campaigns of the general election was waged in Exeter by the Tory, Adrian Rogers, against Labour's openly gay candidate, Ben Bradshaw. Rogers, president of the Conservative Family Institute, waged a six week campaign to 'stop the pink flag flying over Exeter' as he put it in one election leaflet. Rogers, a local GP, said in his final election leaflet that 'school children will be in danger if Ben Bradshaw is elected to parliament'.

Exeter, a 'cathedral town' of the south west, has been a safe Tory seat for over 50 years, although the Tory majority has been declining for the last 15 years. Adrian Rogers was defending a Tory majority of over 3,000. The Labour victory in Exeter not only blew a hole through the myth that the cathedral towns of the south west are populated by Tory voters and 'middle Englanders'. It also demonstrated that a sense of class and class unity can cut through bigotry and attempts at scapegoating.

Rogers' attempts to pander to what he thought would be popular prejudice completely failed to undermine the swing to Labour. In fact, at 78.18 percent the turnout was higher than average with a higher than average swing to Labour of 11.91 percent a majority of over 11,000. As Bradshaw stated, 'I won with the biggest swing to Labour in the south west even though the campaign against me was ferocious.'

Bradshaw's victory was a result of a class vote which, in rejecting the Tories, undercut the Tories' bigotry. The massive swing to the Tories nationally was a class vote a rejection of 18 years of Tory attacks and a vote for change. Exeter was no exception to this. Perhaps in Rogers, with his bigotry not just towards gays but women, environmental protesters and local Aids charities, the workers of Exeter had a particularly good reason to vote in such large numbers against the Tories. What is clear is that in rejecting the Tories' marketeering, privatisation and fat cats, voters showed that Rogers' attempts at stoking up homophobia failed to find a resonance with ordinary people. The class vote cut through the bigotry in Exeter as it did in Edgbaston and Welwyn.

Bradshaw's election demonstrated that ordinary people can and do reject reactionary ideas. He was open about his sexuality throughout the campaign from his first selection meeting where he declared 'for the benefit of anyone who doesn't already know, I'm gay now let's get on with it', to his acceptance speech where he refused to follow the custom of thanking the Tory and Liberal Democrat candidates, instead thanking his friends, family and partner, Neal.

It is brilliant to see the election of openly gay Labour MPs, even if there are still so few, just as it is good to see more women MPs, black MPs and disabled MPs. However, the fight for equality will not end with voting for a gay candidate. It is to be hoped that Labour learns the lesson of these election results that class unity can break down the prejudices and discrimination that divide us.

There are already worrying signs from Exeter that these lessons have not been learned. Teaching staff at the university of Exeter are already disappointed in Bradshaw faced with the sacking of approximately 120 of the 600 teaching staff, they plan to ballot for strike action, only to be branded by their new Labour MP as 'too confrontational'.


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