Patrick Strudwick: Ken's accusers are making a big mistake

Critics of the one-time Mayor have missed the remark that really is offensive
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The Independent Online

Context, of course, is everything. But in the furore over Ken Livingstone's comments about gay Tories, context has been dumped like an unwanted child. One word from an interview with the one-time Mayor of London in the New Statesman has sparked wildfire outrage: "Riddled". The phrase in which it appeared was "you just knew the Tory party was riddled with it like everywhere else is".

Countless right-wingers have decided that the "it" meant homosexuality. It didn't. But cold facts are the enemy of opportunism. And, so, in a jubilee of hypocrisy and idiocy, his opponents – from Louise Mensch MP to Brian Paddick to the Conservatives' own gay group LGBTory – has accused Livingstone of either being offensive or homophobic. If they had bothered to read more than 14 words of the interview, they would have realised that the mayoral candidate was in fact referring to repressed homosexuality.

It is, of course, noxious to use a word with cancerous connotations in conjunction with homosexuality. But repressed homosexuality is an entirely different matter. Staying in the closet is so corrosive, so twisted, as to warrant such imagery. If it weren't so, then the Deputy Speaker, Nigel Evans, would not have voted against a slew of gay equality measures before he came out. If you look up the voting record of all Conservative MPs, even in the past decade, you will see the truth: the Tories are in fact riddled with homophobia.

It isn't just the unwillingness of Ken's critics to convey context that is idiotic, it is the unfortunate reality that they have missed the remark that really is offensive: "As soon as Blair got in, if you came out as lesbian or gay you immediately got a job."

To imply that out gay MPs are only offered a position because of their orientation is to deny their talent and to provide perfect ammunition for any homophobe wishing to refer to the "gay mafia". It is also without factual basis. It took Ben Bradshaw 10 years before Blair gave him the job of Minister of State for Health. It took Stephen Twigg and Chris Bryant seven years to get their jobs. And Chris Smith, the first out cabinet minister, had left the closet in 1984 so could hardly be seen to have been "immediately" given a job.

This comment from Ken is mindless but he is no homophobe. While the Conservatives were implementing Section 28, which silenced the discussion of homosexuality in schools at the peak of the Aids crisis, Ken was championing gay rights. And years before Cameron performed his suspiciously abrupt volte face on gay rights, Livingstone introduced the first register for gay couples.

Ken's only grave mistake has been to associate with anti-gay extremists such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who described homosexuality as "an evil practice". In defence of al-Qaradawi, Livingstone spoke of the problem being people who "wrench" words "out of context". This week, this problem has befallen Ken more acutely than ever.