Labour sleaze and innuendo: The leadership fight has turned dirty

When Chuka Umunna pulled out of the contest before it had really begun he had a point - by now, he would have faced weeks of innuendo and smear

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The Independent Online

A prominent sportsman is granted an injunction to prevent media coverage of an affair he has had with a celebrity. Yet in Westminster, there is no mechanism to  stop unfounded gossip, black propaganda and smear.

John Woodcock, the campaign manager for Labour leadership contender Liz Kendall, has taken the extraordinary step of publicly denying rumours that the pair are in a relationship, suggesting rival camps are behind the smears. For the record, he says the claims are “not true, have never been true and would never be true”. You might think it is not for me to comment on gossip about politicians’ private lives, and you would be right. But Woodcock’s intervention allows me to say this: how can the so-called modern Labour Party allow the subplot of its 2015 leadership contest to be the systematic character assassination of one of the brightest stars of her generation?

Since the contest started, Kendall has had to put up with innuendo, smear and outright attack about being childless, single, “Taliban New Labour”, a Tory, and now the false allegation that she is sleeping with her campaign manager. When the race began, some Labour figures spoke of having an “open and honest debate”, which would be healthy if it were true. Yet this kind of behaviour is anything but open, and it is certainly dishonest. This is not just the cranks on Twitter who are piling in with abuse – such as the Jeremy Corbyn supporter who described Alan Johnson, one of the most admired and likeable people in British politics, as a “fascist” – but Labour MPs, elected only three months ago by their constituents to do an honourable job of representing them in Parliament.

When I interviewed Kendall last month, she told me she was having a great time touring the country and speaking to members, and I know she must have a tougher skin than me. I know politics is a dirty business, a game of snakes and ladders. But in 14 years reporting on Westminster I haven’t seen this level of personal nastiness against people in the same party.

Her three rivals, including Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, have vowed to not engage in personal attack but they are clearly not doing enough to stop their lieutenants getting their hands dirty. Why is it the case that Cooper and Burnham, in particular, are not suffering this kind of abuse?

At the launch of his environmental policies on 7 August, Corbyn was invited by a supporter to have a go at the Conservatives for “breeding” too much, and he immediately recoiled, cutting the woman off mid-sentence and telling her he will “never go down the road of commenting on other people’s children”. You can say what you like about Corbynomics and how unelectable he is, and some of his supporters on Twitter are clearly not afraid of engaging in vile abuse, but Corbyn and his campaign team just don’t comment on rival camps. They don’t even really do “off the record”.

It is suggested that Kendall is the main target because she is a woman, and I think there is a sexist element to some of the criticism – particularly in relation to her marital status. When Chuka Umunna pulled out of the contest before it had really begun because he feared intrusion into his private life, he had a point. By now, he would have faced weeks of innuendo and smear. It wouldn’t have just been the media, but also members of rival camps piling in.

I am sure Kendall is resilient enough to brush off this nonsense. But the depressing thing is that the tone of this contest, Labour’s summer of dishonour, will put off a future leader from entering next time.

Ambassador, you’re spoiling us

Tom Fletcher, who until last week was Our Man In Beirut, wrote a valedictory dispatch about his four years in Lebanon which became a viral hit for its colourful and inspirational prose, even prompting a warm response from Walid Jumblatt, one of Lebanon’s most prominent politicians.

Diplomats such as Fletcher are great ambassadors, in every sense of the word, for Britain. Yet where is Britain’s position as a global “soft power”? Despite our history of welcoming Jewish refugees, we do everything we can to shut out refugees from Eritrea and fret about the BBC sending a Songs of Praise team to the makeshift chapel in Calais. How heartless can we get, to object to people deprived of home, security and belongings, wanting to get closer to God?

But it is not just our changed attitude to the refugee: Britain stands half in, half out of Europe. Those in favour of Brexit claim leaving the European Union would boost our trade with China, yet Germany is a superior trading partner with the Asian powerhouse, and Berlin isn’t leaving the EU any time soon.

This is only half the problem: the post of foreign secretary is stuck in the past, a throwback to stuffy diplomacy. This position should be revamped to make it more economic and trade-focused, with the appointee responsible for selling Britain abroad.

The star who kept in touch

I loved the tribute to Cilla Black by the couple she brought together on Blind Date who later married, prompting Black to buy her legendary hat. After the star’s death last weekend, Sue and Alex Tatham, revealed that Cilla stayed in touch over the years, asking them how their children were as they grew up.

As a Liverpudlian I am of course biased, but there is something about the Scouse matriarch that is unmatched anywhere else. Once, as a young reporter in Liverpool, I went to Stan Boardman’s house to interview him and his mother, Lily, about how the comedian’s six-year-old brother Thomas had died in the Blitz. During the interview, Lily grabbed my arm and told me: “Oh queen, you’re too thin! You need to eat some more,” and then went about stuffing apples into my handbag.

Twitter: @janemerrick23