Nick Clegg leaves the Hall Park Centre after casting his vote in the AV referendum on May 5, 2011 in Sheffield. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Labour's "decapitation strategy" could help Clegg keep his seat

Local voters resent outside interference and Lib Dem activists will be encouraged to rush to their leader's defence.

For Labour, talk of a future coalition with the Lib Dems is politically dangerous. Party strategists fear that the prospect of Ed Miliband entering government with Nick Clegg in just over a year's time could be viewed by Lib Dem defectors as "permission" to return home. With Labour's poll lead heavily reliant on this group (it enjoys the support of around a quarter of 2010 Lib Dem voters), the party needs to do all it can to discourage this impression. 

Ed Miliband, then, has been quick to dismiss Clegg's latest overtures. While no longer insisting that the Lib Dem leader's departure would be a precondition of any coalition agreement (in common with Ed Balls), he told Daybreak: "What I'm looking for is a majority Labour government. There are such big issues that the country faces, I think Nick Clegg should be worried about the Liberal Democrats." Today, the party is briefing that it has launched a "major bid" to defeat Clegg in his Sheffield Hallam constituency at the next election, with one NEC source declaring that it is "pouring resources" into the seat. 

Whether these "resources" amount to more than a few extra leaflets is unclear. As I said, the story has much more to do with conveying the broader message that Labour isn't going soft on Clegg. But given his dismal approval ratings and the large student population in the area, the Deputy PM might be thought an easy target. Yet for several reasons, the odds are against Labour taking the seat. For a start, Clegg currently enjoys a majority of 15,284, making him the safest Lib Dem MP in the country. In 2010, Labour finished in third place with just 16.1 per cent, 3,812 votes behind the Tories (it has never won and last finished second in 1979) and 19,096 behind Clegg. That Labour chose not to make the seat one of its 106 targets suggest that it recognises there is little prospect of advancing to first. 

In October 2010, a Lord Ashcroft poll put Labour just two points behind the Lib Dems (33-31) but recent council election results suggest the party's vote is holding up better than many expected. In a by-election in the suburb of Fulwood last year, for instance, it won 400 more votes than in 2012. 

Labour's decision to explicitly target the seat could, if anything, tilt the odds further in Clegg's favour. Lib Dem activists now have an excuse to rush to their leader's defence (albeit potentially drawing valuable resources from other seats), while local voters are likely to resent interference by outsiders with little knowledge of the constituency. For the latter reason, no prominent "decapitation strategy" has succeeded in recent times. As Lord Ashcroft wrote (see p. 304) of the Lib Dems' attempt to oust prominent Tories, including Oliver Letwin, David Davis and Theresa May in 2005, "My polling uncovered many interesting facts, including that voters in the Liberal Democrats' decapitation seats were less inclined to vote against the sitting Conservative MP when they were told of the decapitation motivation...Oliver Letwin clearly understood the message because when he was interviewed by Ann Treneman of the Times during the campaign, he asked her to use the word 'decapitation' a lot because he said it would help him to get elected"

In 2010, the Tories similarly failed to oust Labour heavyweights such as Ed Balls, Jack Straw and John Denham. The smart money is on Clegg continuing this trend. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

0800 7318496