The Case For A Fair Fight
The lesson from the Miranda Grell affair is that smears and character assassination have no legitimate place in democratic politics.
Smearing a gay Lib Dem candidate as a paedophile was homophobic and a new low for Labour.
The courts last Friday upheld the conviction of disgraced Labour councillor Miranda Grell. She was originally found guilty at Waltham Forest Magistrate's Court on 21 September of smearing a rival gay Liberal Democrat candidate, Barry Smith, as a paedophile - in breach of electoral law - during a homophobic dirty tricks election campaign in Leyton Ward, Waltham Forest, in 2006.
What is particularly shocking is that right up until the opening day of her appeal, despite overwhelming evidence that she had engaged in a scurrilous, illegal smear campaign, Grell was backed by the Labour Party, Labour MPs and local Labour councillors. Indeed, Labour agreed to fund the legal costs of her appeal against conviction, which were estimated to total £30,000.
Labour only withdrew its support and funding the night before Grell's appeal - after The Independent exposed Labour's on-going backing for Grell. Initially Labour officials told The Independent that they were standing by their convicted councillor. Forty-one minutes later, they performed an embarrassing u-turn; confirming that although Grell had benefited from party cash "up until this point" Labour was now dumping her.
Following Grell's conviction in September, she was fined £1,000, ordered to pay £3,000 towards the prosecution costs, and barred from public office for three years.
Grell had unseated Barry Smith in the local council elections last year. He was a highly respected sitting Liberal Democrat councillor. She overturned his rock-solid 600-vote majority, securing a 28-vote victory. The swing to Labour in her seat was abnormally high. Critics say it can only be adequately explained by Grell's paedophile smear campaign; although her supporters claim her win was due to her relentless campaigning.
Indeed, even after having her conviction upheld, Grell still protests her innocence.
Grell had been previously promoted as a rising star in Labour politics and a future black woman MP; being photographed with Cherie Blair, Anita Roddick and Jesse Jackson.
She was also was a high-flying aide to Labour's Deputy Mayor of London, Nicky Gavron. Despite the gravity of her conviction, she was not sacked by Gavron - only suspended pending her appeal.
The way the Labour Party stood by Grell after her conviction raises some uncomfortable questions about the party's commitment to clean politics and its supposed support for lesbian and gay human rights.
If she had been convicted of racist smears, Grell would have been instantly dismissed from City Hall and no Labour MP would have defended her. Critics conclude that Labour is guilty of double standards. It is tough on racism and weak on homophobia. Indeed, it appears to be willing to collude with homophobes and character assassins.
Defending a convicted dirty tricks campaigner is a new low for Labour. Gordon Brown says he wants to restore integrity to politics and that he supports lesbian and gay human rights. By backing Grell for the last two months, some people see Labour as tacitly endorsing homophobia and cesspit campaigning.
Grell and her Labour supporters are adamant that she is the innocent victim of a Lib Dem stitch up. But this claim does not ring true. Grell's own Labour running mate in the 2006 election campaign, Nicholas Russell, the Labour representative on the UK Disabilities Forum, was appalled by her dirty tricks campaign. He testified in court against Grell; helping expose her homophobic tactics and what he describes as her "disgusting attitude".
This case is a personal tragedy for Miranda. She is obviously very talented. She had previously shown great political promise. Much of her local community work was admirable. I feel sorry for Miranda. I have no desire to do her down. But based on reports of the court proceedings, she seems to have bought this trouble on her herself.
Back in September, Grell was found guilty on two counts of making false statements for personal political advantage, in breach of electoral law, during the local council elections last year. She is the first person to be found guilty making false statements, contrary to the Representation of the People Act 1983.
Specifically, she was convicted for having spread false allegations that gay Waltham Forest Liberal Democrat councillor, Barry Smith, aged 56, was a paedophile who had sex with under-age boys.
The prosecutor, Gareth Branston, said that during her 2006 election campaign: "The defendant waged something of a smear campaign against her opponent Barry Smith in order to gain an advantage. As you can imagine these statements were false but were designed to prey on the inherent fears of paedophilia in the community."
Mr Branston stated that Grell advised voters: "Don't vote for Barry because he's a paedophile." She led a "whispering campaign" designed to play on constituents' "fears and aversion to paedophiles", he claimed.
One witness, Naomi Robinson, gave evidence to the court: "Miss Grell told me to ask him [Mr Smith] about his 14-year-old boyfriend as she was driving away from the front of the house.
The court heard testimony from another witness that Grell had warned local voters:
"Don't vote for Barry because he is a paedophile" and "Have you heard about him sleeping with Thai boys? His boyfriend is 16, he is dirty".
Caroline Dargan, a former chairman of the local Neighbourhood Watch, told the court how Grell canvassed her: "There was a suggestion that he [Mr Smith] had a leaning towards young oriental boys," she said.
Refuting accusations that she was part of a Lib Dem plot against Grell, Dargan stated that she was a long-time Labour voter and that she had respected Grell as a "bright, intelligent person".
Another local resident, Kevin Sorkin, testified that Grell had mentioned to him that Mr Smith "was a paedophile and how he slept about with Thai boys under the age of 15".
In fact, Smith's partner is 39 years old. He is Malaysian and they have been together in a permanent relationship for 13 years. Recently they underwent a civil partnership ceremony.
Grell admitted in court some aspects of the allegations against her, such as outing Smith as gay and claiming that he had a teenage Thai boyfriend.
She conceded to the court that some of her innuendos against Smith were wrong, according to the BBC.
Grell's false allegations against Smith coincided with him being threatened, abused and spat at in the street. On one occasion, he says he was followed home from a shop by two men who accused him of having sex with children and said: "We know where you live, kiddie f*cker."
Smith went on to explain how local electors became aggressive towards him in the run-up to the election. He said: "For the final couple of weeks I sensed a change of mood on the doorstep." He reported being subjected to homophobic attacks during which he was called a "f*cking paedo" and a "batty boy".
Fearing that he could be murdered by anti-paedophile vigilantes, Smith was forced to flee his home, move out of London and relocate to the north of England.
If Grell had apologised to Smith and to local voters, she might have won herself some sympathy for trying to make amends. But there is no reference to her ever having said sorry on her website or in any of the media reports I have read.
Her apparent failure to say sorry to Mr Smith for wrecking his life suggests that she is unrepentant and not deserving of empathy or forgiveness.
The seemingly misnamed Justice for Leyton Ward campaign, set up by her Labour supporters, gave a highly selective account of the evidence presented in court against Grell. It specifically fails to mention that one of her fellow Labour candidates testified against her, as did a self-proclaimed loyal Labour voter. Their evidence refutes Grell's claim that the case against her was concocted by her Liberal Democrat rival. Moreover, Grell herself admitted in court that some of the allegations against her were true.
Labour's reported tactics in Waltham Forest were even worse than the smear campaign against me in the Bermondsey by-election. Lib Dems resorted to dirty tricks in Bermondsey but they never stooped this low. They never tried to defame me as a child molester.
The lesson from the Miranda Grell affair is that smears and character assassination have no legitimate place in democratic politics. It is time that Labour - and all parties - reiterated their commitment to fight fair and clean. Voters have a right to honest, smear-free electioneering.
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