Current Affairs

Comment: East London gay pub isn’t at risk, so why smear Ken Livingstone?

Tom Copley February 17, 2012
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It looks like the Conservative Party is stepping up its smear campaign against Ken Livingstone following the evaporation of Boris Johnson’s poll lead. Today it’s the turn of Conservative businessman Ivan Massow to attack Ken with an article in the Evening Standard that attempts to tarnish Ken’s name within the gay community.

Massow claims that Tower Hamlets council is deliberately attempting to close down historic gay pub the White Swan by designating it as a “sex establishment” on the grounds that it holds an amateur strip night.

Attempting to associate Ken Livingstone to this via the elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, Massow wants to tarnish Ken’s standing with LGBT Londoners.

It is simply inaccurate to say that anyone is proposing to close the White Swan. Its closure has never been proposed. What is happening is that Tower Hamlets is bringing forward a plan to deal with lap-dancing clubs. That means putting a framework in place.

The White Swan will be able to apply for an exemption that allows it to continue with its entertainment, but within a framework that means local people will have to put up with less of the sleazy, seedy, anti-social lap-dancing clubs that residents all over the capital are complaining about.

We need boroughs to take a stand on the proliferation of lap-dancing clubs. In this, Tower Hamlets is merely following a number of other London boroughs, including Labour-run Camden and Hackney councils, in clamping down on the growth of lap-dancing.

This has absolutely nothing to do with closing gay bars and everything to do with the safety of women and the protection of local communities from the unpleasant side-effects of the sex industry.

Home Office figures show an explosion in the number of lap-dancing clubs, with numbers more than doubling since 2004. As a result, the last Labour government granted powers to local councils which allows them, if they so choose, to designate certain shops and venues as “sexual establishments”.

Before these powers were available to councils, lap-dancing clubs were licensed in the same way as ordinary bars. This meant that councils could only reject an application on very narrow grounds or face legal challenge. Lap-dancing clubs do not exist in a vacuum. Groups of drunk, sexually charged men piling onto the streets does not just intimidate women but can also lead to an increase in rapes and sexual assault in the nearby area. It is right that they be treated differently from ordinary bars.

In Camden, where I live, the council has used its new powers to bring a halt to the growth in these seedy venues, particularly around the Holborn area. Gay pubs and clubs are not affected – Camden has a number of gay bars, including the New Bloomsbury Set, the Black Cap and the King William IV pub, not to mention the hugely popular Popstarz gay night which is hosted at the Den in the south of the borough.

Ivan Massow’s article is interesting only for what it tells us about Tory tactics in the run up to May’s elections. Boris Johnson clearly has no intention of fighting this election on the issues that matter to Londoners – cutting fares, halting police cuts and dealing with rip-off rents and agency fees for Londoners in the private-rented sector – but instead wants to shift the debate to a sideshow of smears against Ken. This is hardly surprising given Ken’s popular pledges to cut fares and increase police numbers. But their much darker agenda is an attempt to use divide and rule to drive a wedge between the gay community and the Muslim community. The implication is that you have to choose one. Ken is a friend of both.

We want a united London, not one in which the Tories divide-to-rule.

Ivan Massow finished his article by calling on Ken to “do something epic to show [he’s] not a homophobe”. Well take your pick from these, Ivan: introducing the first civil partnerships register for gays and lesbians in the UK, forcing the Sandals travel agency to change its homophobic policies by banning it from advertising on the Tube, hosting an annual gay pride reception at City Hall during his two terms as mayor; not to mention being one of the only mainstream politicians to consistently speak out in favour of gay rights in the 1980s.

Massow’s article praises Tory writer Matthew Parris. Ken was speaking out for gay rights when Matthew Parris was still in the closet.

To quote a Labour Party spokesman, “Ken is probably the most pro-gay politician in the history of the world”. That’s not an overstatement.

Ivan Massow himself should do something epic, and campaign to get Ken Livingstone elected, not campaign to re-elect a Tory Mayor who took his office out of the Stonewall Employer’s Index, cancelled the annual Pride reception and City Hall, who has compared gay marriage to bestiality, and one of whose first acts was to make spending cuts to Soho Pride. That’s the real choice.

Tom Copley is a London Assembly candidate and member of LGBT Labour

Related topics: ken livingstone, London, London, Tower Hamlets

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