Bridlington: could blacks and gays cope?: Union members mutiny over a conference venue, saying the resort is racist and sexist. Nick Cohen reports

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The Independent Online
THE NATIONAL Association of Probation Officers is tearing itself apart. Its vice-chairwoman has resigned and six of its 36 branches are in open rebellion.

The heated dispute has nothing to do with such trivial matters as the links between poverty and crime or the manifest failings of the criminal justice system. Its origins are far more serious. Accusations of 'McCarthyism', 'intimidation' and 'oppression' have been sparked by a previously unasked question: is Bridlington racist?

Mary Davies has resigned from the union's national executive over its decision to hold Napo's annual conference in the Humberside seaside resort. She has no doubt that the answer is yes. 'Our black, and lesbian and gay members (have been left) isolated,' she said in her resignation letter.

Minorities were 'likely to experience racist and oppressive behaviour at Bridlington' if they allowed union officers whose 'entrenched racism masqueraded in a number of guises' to force them to the town's conference centre.

Many Napo members disagree. They say, in private, that a minor issue has been whipped up out of all proportion by a small group. Anyone who dared to argue was branded racist, homophobic, or worse. 'They're just playing into the hands of the right and the Home Office,' said one.

This week the union leadership will begin a desperate attempt to persuade activists not to boycott the conference. If the turnout is low, the meeting will be inquorate and the union's decision-making structure will collapse.

Similar divisions can be found throughout the public sector. Last week, social workers refused an Asian woman and her white husband permission to adopt a child apparently because the couple said they had not encountered any racism in their home town of Cromer, Norfolk.

It is a recurring issue. In 1992, protesters from the local government union Nalgo - which last week changed its name to Unison - invaded the creche at the union's women's conference in Bournemouth and were appalled to find there were no 'non-racially neutral' toys. They grew angrier still after they questioned childminders about sickle-cell anaemia (a blood disorder, which affects Afro-Caribbeans) and thalassaemia (a related disease which affects southern Europeans) and found the temporary staff knew nothing about either.

A ferocious dispute ensued, which ran until the union's annual conference last month. Supporters of the creche occupiers presented a motion which condemned Nalgo's 'blatantly racist' decision to provide child care which did not address the needs of black, lesbian, gay or disabled members. The motion was only narrowly defeated.

'We get stunts like this the whole time,' said one of the union's senior officers. 'They have nothing to do with left-wing principles. What it is really about is jobs. A very small group is demanding that we create about 50 full-time lesbian, gay, women and disability officers.'

In the United States, universities are the home of political correctness; in Britain, PC has found its nest in the public-sector unions. That Napo and Nalgo can be accused of being racist is, at first sight, astounding. The former is the most politically correct organisation in Britain. At its 1991 annual conference, monitors were appointed to ensure that no racist, sexist, disablist, heterosexist, ageist or sizeist words and metaphors slipped into the debates.

'Paymaster' was sexist, the union said in a circular to delegates. 'Turning a blind eye,' was disablist, 'fat chance' sizeist.

Before the 1992 conference, the national executive ruled that strike-breakers could not be described as 'scabs' because it was 'offensive to people with skin disorders' and banned a motion condemning the Government for 'tinkering with the criminal justice system' because it was offensive to gypsies (or should it be Romanies or travellers).

One visiting speaker confessed that he had excised all metaphors from his address. 'I knew that, if I used any image whatsoever, the audience would pause for five minutes and consider whether I had given the slightest grounds for offence,' he said.

So it is no surprise that when the demand to boycott Bridlington first appeared, the union was mildly sympathetic. The leadership said it would try to find an inner-city venue where racial problems might be less intense. But conference halls in Leicester and other cities were booked up. In March, Napo decided it would have to go to Bridlington.

Ms Davies, who is white, said attention at the March meeting had been diverted from the alleged racist nature of largely white resorts by claims that women would be safer in Bridlington than, say, London.

She and five others walked out of the executive committee and began appealing to branches to boycott the October conference. By last week, several big branches in London had backed the call.

Ms Davies said there had been a case of racist abuse at a previous Napo conference in Bridlington, although she could not remember the details. Black members would inevitably feel threatened in a 'white' seaside resort, she added. Homosexuals would be frightened of 'displaying gay affection in the streets'.

She denied that the widespread denunciations of the conference demeaned the real victims of racism. 'The point is that if you can't deal with lesbian and race issues in your union, you won't be able to take action on any other level,' she said.

Harry Fletcher, a spokesman for Napo, said that the decision to hold the conference in Bridlington had been democratically taken, but that the union was investigating other venues for 1994. Other members have been less reticent. Katrina Glennie, an executive member, said in a letter to Napo News that the constant accusations of racism had left her feeling 'intimidated and oppressed'.

In Bridlington itself, suggestions that the town was a kind of Pretoria on the Humberside coast produced a bemused response. Hoteliers said their prime interest was getting money out of people regardless of race, colour or creed. Neil Bravey, the town's director of tourism, added: 'We are just not prejudiced here. It's frankly insulting. This is one of the safest places in Britain for black or white people to visit.'

Jita Miah from the Bridlington Tandori Restaurant agreed. 'We've been here two or three years and there's never been any trouble,' he said. 'Nothing ever happens here.'



Population: 35,000

Location: On the east coast north of Hull.

Ethnic-minority population: Too small to be significant.

Sources of communal tension: Conflicts between locals and incomers from Hull. 'Hull people are very odd,' said one Hullophobic council officer.

Number of gay clubs: Nil. But there is a flourishing Bridlington Gay Association which meets in council premises. A local preacher was at the forefront of the recent campaign to persuade the Methodists to ordain gays.

Number of rapes and racially motivated attacks in past year: Nil.

Is it ageist? Not at all. Its tourist literature proclaims: 'You're never too old to enjoy Bridlington.'

How about sexist? There's no great call for sex in Bridlington itself, but nearby Pocklington features a decidedly unsound collection of turn- of-the-century 'What the Butler Saw,' 'Parisian Can- Can' and 'A Beauty Unadorned' amusement machines in its Penny Arcadia Museum of Mechanical Marvels.

Last interesting thing to happen in Bridlington: The drawing up of the Bridlington Rules in 1939, which regulated relations between trade unions.

Last genuinely interesting thing to happen in Bridlington: The great storm of 1871, which wrecked 30 ships.

Most notable local fish: The butterfish, so called because of its slippery skin. The golden, eel-like creature can be found in tidal pools all year round.

A famous Bridlingtonian: William Strickland who introduced the turkey to England in the 1550s, thus inventing Christmas dinner.

Les Dawson's reaction: At matinees in Bridlington, he said, 'you could see the dampness rising from the wet raincoats like mist on the marshes'.

(Photograph omitted)