I’m really not sure quite what to make of the case in Waltham Forest in which Miranda Grell is currently awaiting a verdict on two counts of making false statements about an opponent, a sitting Lib Dem councillor and cabinet member, during the course of the 2006 local election campaign, in which Grell unseated the councillor in question, Barry Smith, is what has been reported as having previously been an ‘unwinnable seat’ for Labour.
Let’s get a few facts down to begin with.
The offences with which Grell has been charged, if I recall my election law correctly, constitute illegal practices under section 61 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, although the specific offence of making false statements is defined in section 106 of the same Act. If she is found guilty she faces a maximum £5,000 fine, her election victory in 2006 will be declared void, resulting in a by-election in the ward in question, and she’ll be disbarred from public office and from even voting in UK elections for a period of five years and from standing as a parliamentary candidate in the constituency in which the offence took place for seven year – all from the date of the conviction, give or take the outcome of any appeal. For a young career politician who is reported on the fast-track upwards, the stakes are very high.
The allegations against Grell are that, during the course of the 2006 campaign, she smeared her opponent, smith, by claiming, or making allusions to his being a paedophile in conversations with residents in the ward in question.
Smith is 56 year old gay man in a long term relationship with a 39 year old Malaysian national of Chinese extraction, and as Tim correctly points out, as such he is particularly vulnerable to insinuations about both his sexuality and about the age and nationality of his partner. South-East Asia is widely known to have problems with human trafficking and sex-tourism, although these centre of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia rather than Malaysia, but as those who dabble in ignorance and prejudice are hardly renowned for their concern for the finer points of geography and geopolitics that’s near enough as makes no difference to the rumourmongers.
And Grell has, apparently admitted in court, that she did on one occasion refer to Smith’s sexual orientation and to his having a ’19 year old Thai boyfriend’ while talking to a local resident who testified against her on Tuesday, which she conceded was ‘indiscreet and unwise’, a statement that looks for all the world like a very strong contender for ‘understatement of the year’ in addition to being inaccurate by a matter of 20 years and several hundred miles.
On the face of it, that is clearly a false statement about Smith and one that can be construed to be likely to affect his personal reputation and standing as a candidate for election. What’s not been reported, however, is whether Grell offered anything in defence of that remark other than the observation that it was ‘indiscreet and unwise’.
The legal framework for section 106 offences is quite narrowly drawn inasmuch as even if the prosecution can show that the statement made was false – which it clearly is in this case, the defendant has an ‘in good faith’ line of defence open to them under which there can be no offence if the person making the statement reasonably believed it to be true and made the statement without the intent to influence the outcome of an election.
Whether or not Grell offered any defence of this statement along those lines appears not to have been reported in the press, however this may all be somewhat academic as the specific charge this evidence relates to appears to have been dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service after they, first, unsuccessfully attempted to get the charge altered part way through the trial so that it related to evidence from a different witness and not to the witness to whom Grell admitted making her ‘indiscreet and unwise’ comment.
This is where things starts to get just a little bit more complicated and unclear, because thus far the reporting of this case in the national media has been somewhat less than complete and its only by piecing together reports from local press sources that a full picture of the case emerges.
Grell contention, in her defence, is that the charges are politically motivated and amount to revenge for her taking the seat from the Lib Dems, and she has specifically alleged that a senior Lib Dem councillor is, in effect, orchestrating things from behind the scenes to the extent of pressuring Smith, who has since left the area, to bring these charges.
There were originally four charges laid against Grell, two of which have been dropped during the course of the trial.
One, based on evidence from a Mavroudis Kounis who, incidentally, is the only police witness in the case, has fallen because it has not been possible to establish that the offence he alleges to have taken place occurred with the statutory period in which charges can be brought – allegations under electoral law have to be lodged within 12 months of the alleged offence taking place or no further action can be taken other than in exceptional circumstances in which a court can extend this period by up to a further 12 months. Kounis’s allegation was that Grell has told him during a canvassing visit that a Lib Dem councillor was gay and had a young Thai boyfriend, but admitted in court that at no point in this alleged conversation was Smith specifically identified as the councillor which this alleged comment related.
Kounis, so the defence have claimed, has a grudge against the local Labour Party, or more specifically local Labour councillors, over a disputed planning application – I can’t find anything on this in Waltham Forest’s on-line planning system but that may indicate only that it relate to a commercial business rather than a domestic application and is listed, therefore, under a company name rather than under the name of Kounis.
The second charge dropped is that relating to the evidence given by a Kevin Sorkin, who is the witness to whom Grell made the incorrect statement that alleged that Smith had a ’19 year old Thai boyfriend. Sorkin’s specific allegation was that he was told by Grell specifically that Smith was a paedophile who slept with 15 year old Thai boys.
This is the charge that the CPS attempted to have re-written after the start of the trial, such that it would not rely on the evidence given by Sorkin, There was, also, before the trial began, and attempt to exclude Sorkin’s evidence on the grounds of ‘bad character’ – Sorkin, apparently, has a string of previous convictions for domestic violence towards his, now, ex-partner, plus one for attacking a police officer who had called to break-up just such an incident. Both he, and his former partner, who also appears to have given at least a statement, if not evidence, have been described by Grell, in court, as being ‘vulnerable’ – which one might take as a coded means of saying ‘not the sharpest tools in the box’ – and as being ‘exploited’.
Sorkin also admitted in court to having offered to help leaflet for Smith during the election campaign in question.
All this leaves two charges, and three main witnesses ‘on the table’, one of whom – Nicholas Russell, was a Labour candidate in the same ward as Grell at the same election.
Russell alleged that he overheard Grell telling two young men that Smith is gay and claims to have been offended when Grell allegedly made ‘homophobic kissing noises’ towards Smith on a occasion on which he took a mobile phone call from his partner.
As with much of the other report testimony, so far, what there appears to be a distinct lack of corroboration, while the allegation about Grell making ‘homophobic kissing noises’ seems a bit thin – making kissing noises when someone takes a phone call from a partner is a tad immature but a fairly common way of alluding the fact that someone has their partner on the phone rather than, say, taking a work related call. Quite how one ascribes such behaviour as being homophobic in the absence of anything more to go on is a bit perplexing to say the least.
Russell also, apparently, has his differences with Grell, who lodged an official, internal, complaint with the Labour Party about Russell’s performance early in the campaign to which the charges relate.
Then there’s Barry Smith, himself, who has nothing specific to add by way of direct evidence against Grell as, unsurprisingly, he did not witness any of the incidents to which the charges/allegations relate – and that’s ‘unsurprising’ as in sense that Grell would have to be a complete moron to try to smear Smith while he was actually present.
Most of what Smith had to say to the court appears to have amounted to a mix of hearsay – reporting allegations made by other witnesses in the case as they were reported to him – and anecdote, as in relating to the court a number of alleged incidents which took place after the election in which he was subjected to homophobic abuse at least one of which included remarks which indicated that his harassers also thought him to be a paedophile.
None of these incidents were reported to the police and although Grell testified that Smith had confronted her on the night of the election – one would assume at the count – with the allegation that Labour had made use of his sexual orientation to smear him during the course of the election campaign, it was only two months later that Smith lodged a complaint with ALERT, Waltham Forest’s anti-harassment and discrimination, although to be fair he appears not to have become aware of the specific allegations regarding Grell’s involvement or that his sexual orientation has been, allegedly, conflated with paedophilia, until after the election.
In response to this Grell has claimed that despite his obvious concerns about what may have gone in Labour’s campaign, which he raised on election night, immediately after the election, Smith blamed his defeat on having been stabbed in the back by his own party by their choice of a Muslim candidate – this was an ‘all-up’ election in which all three seats in the ward were contested and each party could put up three candidates – and that Smith had also considered crossing the floor to join the Labour Party.
Smith also conceded that a controversial decision on the closure of a library in the ward, which fell under his portfolio as cabinet member on the local authority, could have affected his support at the 2006 election – and it has to be said that in local elections, even a seemingly unwinnable seat can change hands pretty easily if a local issue blows up in a councillor’s face.
And that brings us finally to Caroline Dargan, who appears, from everything else that’s been reported, to be the critical witness on whose verisimilitude and credibility the fate of Grell’s political career rests.
Dargan is described in the various reports as being the former chair of Orient Neighbourhood Watch, but if I’ve got the right Caroline Dargan – and there is only one listed on the electoral roll for the area – then she’s also the seemingly highly regarded educational consultant and former head teacher profiled here in The Times’s Public Appointments section in 2004 and a former Olympic swimmer, according to the same article, although someone, somewhere has got a little confused in referring to her swimming career as the 1976 Olympics, in which the Times states she competed, were held in Montreal, Canada and not in Mexico City, which hosted the 1968 games.
Dargan’s specific allegation is that Grell told her that Smith slept with 16 year old Thai boys, a claim she related to Smith at a meeting that took place after the election – this is the meeting that appears to have been the main trigger for Smith’s complaint and for a complaint to ALERT lodged by Dargan, herself, which went in two days after Smith’s.
Dargan denies discussing her complaint, or her intention to lodge a complaint Alert, with Smith prior to either submitting their individual complaints.
Grell’s defence here has been to allege that Dargan is an ‘ally’ of Smith’s and, consequently, taking an active role in what she alleges is a politically motivated revenge attack, which Dargan has countered by claiming to a be Labour supporter and to have voted Labour at the election to which these charges relate. This is perfectly possible given that she, like other voters, would have been in a position to cast votes for three candidates at this election, even if one finds it difficult to believe that she would have voted for Grell given what she claims to have been told by her during the campaign.
Whatever. The fact is that there’s no way of verifying Dargan’s claim as to how she actually voted and who she voted for which means that, evidentially speaking, who she did or did not vote for at the time is of little consequence unless other evidence can be produced to support her assertion that she is a Labour supporter.
According to Black Information Link – which is unsurprisingly sceptical about the veracity of the case against Grell, and which entitles its coverage of the case ‘Conspiracy? What Conspiracy?’ accordingly – in answering the allegation that she was an ally of Smith, Dargan initially denied attending several council meetings with Smith only to admit, later she had attended these meetings, although she continued to deny being a Lib Dem sympathiser.
Grell’s defence has also focussed heavily on Dargan’s conduct while chair of Orient Neighbourhood Watch.
The court was told that Dargan had specifically excluded Grell from attending meetings of the Neighbourhood Watch she chaired on the grounds that she did not live in the area covered by the group. However it emerged in court that a Lib Dem member, Naheed Qureshi, who also did not live in this area had been a regular attendee at these meetings, where she had acted as minute-taker. This was all before Qureshi was elected as a Lib Dem councillor for the same ward as Grell at the same 2006 local elections – Qureshi is the Muslim candidate whose inclusion on the ballot, Grell alleges, led Smith to believe that he had been knifed in the back by his own party immediately following his defeat.
Like both Qureshi and Grell, Smith does not live in the area covered by the Neighbourhood Watch, but he was invited to attend one of its meetings after losing his seat, this being the meeting at which Dargan informed him of what she claims to have been told by Grell about Smith’s sexual proclivities prior to the election.
Dargan is also alleged, during the course of meeting last September, to have shouted at a newly-elected Labour councillor, Anna Mbachu, telling her to ‘Get out, we don’t want Labour here’, an allegation she denies.
The Blink article also includes this rather curious exchange between Dargan and Paul Williams, the barrister acting for Grell:
Mr Williams continued: “What I am going to suggest is there is a clear association between you and Barry Smith going back many years.”
She responded: “I’ve known him on the Neighbourhood Watch but not as a Lib Dem. Presumably if you say I have you’ll have some dates there… [to prove the point].”
Mr Williams countered: “You are supporting Barry Smith in some sort of revenge for him losing his seat.” She hit back: “That’s a very interesting summation but I don’t see how you could have reached that conclusion.”
I’m assuming the ‘not as a Lib Dem’ remark refers to Dargan not being a member of the Lib Dems or attending party meetings – its scarcely credible that someone who chairs a neighbourhood watch and who has admitted to attending meetings with a local councillor can be unaware of the councillor’s political affiliations.
But what really piques my interest is her response to the the direct allegation that she is supporting Smith in a revenge attack on Grell. It is pretty well established, and certainly well known to anyone whose work involves the interrogation of suspects or examination and cross-examination of witness, that the instinctive response of an innocent person to a direct accusation is almost always to issue a flat denial, if not then go on to directly protest about having been accused at all. By way of contrast, an accusation levelled at someone with something to hide generally results in a demand to see the evidence to support the accusation or an assertion that the questioner lacks the evidence to back up the allegation.
Accuse an innocent man and he’ll say ‘I didn’t do it’, Accuse someone who’s guilty and the reply is, more often than not, ‘You can’t prove that’ or ‘Where’s your evidence?’.
Without trying to prejudge the outcome of the trial, which has been adjourned to the 21st September, when both sides will sum up and a verdict will be given, I can’t but wonder if Dargan’s ‘You might think that but I couldn’t possibly comment’ response to the question (above) might not hurt her credibility as much, if not more, than her seeming inability to recall going to meetings with Smith.
Whatever. So far as I can see from what’s currently in print about this case that covers pretty much all the most pertinent points that have been raised during the trial – much more completely. I might add, than anything I’ve seen in the national press – and, to be frank, I really am not sure quite what to make of it all other than that it looks very much like a near complete cluster.
Grell’s admission that she did make a reference to Smith’s sexual orientation while talking to a voter and that she incorrectly identified his partner as a 19 year old Thai rather than a 39 year old Malaysian looks bad.
No two ways about it, you can’t just blow that one off as being ‘indiscreet and unwise’. It might not – quite – point the finger at Smith as a paedophile but to suggest that, as a 56 year old man, he’s in relationship with a 19 year old Thai would, at the very least, lead many people to put Smith firmly into the closet marked ‘Dirty Old Man’.
Whether that’s enough to convict Grell of any the offences for which she’s been charged is another matter, but even if she is acquitted by the court her admission should mean that she is far from being fully exonerated in the eyes of party – she’s currently suspended from the Labour group on Waltham Forest Council in any case.
Grell simply had no business raising Smith’s sexual orientation with a voter while out on the campaign trail, with or without the added frisson of the potential for his relationship and private conduct being misconstrued as a consequence of Grell advancing inaccurate information about his private life. Mistake or not, that is not acceptable conduct for a Labour candidate and even if everything else she’s faced in court does turn out to be an orchestrated revenge attack by the Lib Dems, as has been claimed in court, that still doesn’t get her off the hook. There needs to be an internal party inquiry and, on the basis of her admitted conduct, disciplinary proceedings – and believe me there will be many Labour members who will expect that the question of whether this is a matter that demands consideration of a resignation or deselection will be considered very seriously by all concerned.
That said, it has to be recognised that Grell is, in her own way, vulnerable to attack in this, for all that she appears to have verifiably contributed to some small extent to her current difficulties. Just as countries in South-East Asia are known to have problems with human trafficking and sex tourism so its well documented that there can be, and are, serious issues within African and African-Caribbean communities in regards to attitudes towards homosexuality.
Grell, and other black candidates, are vulnerable to smears and innuendos about their views of the gay community, on the guilt by association and ‘no smoke without fire’ principles, in much the same way that Smith, as gay man in a relationship with a younger partner from South-East Asia was at risk of falling foul of the libel that conflates homosexuality with paedophilia and, sad to say, it is too often the case that Black churches and Christian organisations are amongst the worst offenders for perpetuating such myths and falsehoods. These are issues we cannot ignore as a party if we are to be honest in our principles and our belief in the importance of equality. Our desire to be inclusive and supportive of minority communities has to have its limits such that we cannot, and should not, tolerate or overlook ignorance and prejudice directed at any group in the name of being tolerant towards the views and opinions of another. Wrong is wrong.
Irrespective of the actual verdict that the court returns in this case, and unless it can be shown that everything that Barry Smith said in court as to his experiences during that campaign amounts to a politically motivated fabrication, it would appear that something untoward went on and his sexual orientation and relationship was unduly dragged in the campaign, and dragged in in such a way that he as subject to at least some rumours that suggested, incorrectly, that he may be a paedophile.
My own take on what I’ve read of Smith’s evidence is that he seems sincere in his account of the difficulties he encountered in canvassing and the incidents of harassment that took place after the election, which suggests that the scope of any internal party inquiry has to run much more widely that Grell, herself, and take in the question of what members of the rank and file may, or may not, have been up to during the campaign if only (hopefully) to rule out the possibility that rumours around Smith’s personal life originated from within Labour ranks.
Whether there is any substance to the counter-allegation that Smith is, himself, directly involved in a orchestrated act of revenge against Grell, its impossible to say on the information I’ve seen. I rather hope not and would much prefer to think that of everyone giving evidence against Grell, he is the one who is actually genuine in the sense of him bringing forward his complaint in good faith based on his experiences and on the information he’s received from that third parties, even if that would make him the patsy in all this should others not be anything like as sincere.
As for what happens to the other should the case against Grell fold completely, and especially if the court acknowledges an acceptance of the contention that parts of the case against Grell are politically motivated fabrications – well let’s just say that I’m personally of the view that the charges of perjury and attempting/conspiring to pervert the course of justice are not exercised nearly often enough in the aftermath of high profile cases in which the damage to personal reputation caused merely by the allegations levelled against the defendant can be almost as lasting as the consequences of a conviction.
Whatever the outcome of this case, Grell’s political career has taken a hit simply by her own admission of having made the ‘indiscreet and unwise’ remark – at the very least she should be off the fast track and due a spell in the political wilderness as penance for her error and any comeback will be tricky as opposition parties will, quite naturally, seek to capitalise on this case and her admitted error of judgement and make it a feature of any future electoral campaign she fights.
If she’s convicted of any of the two remaining charges then, subject to an appeal – which I think might mean a full retrial in a Crown Court, as the current proceedings are before a magistrate – she might as well start looking for a new career because she’ll have no road back, especially if in rendering its judgement, the court does indicate that it considers that she did make comments that suggested Smith was a paedophile, actions that would her conduct on a par with the rightly infamous ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’ campaign run by the Tories in the 1964 Smethwick by-election.
Even if everything else in the case does turn out to be no more than a carefully orchestrated series of embellishments of that one remark in which she erroneous identified Smith’s partner as a 19 year-old Thai there can be no ducking the fact that she did, by her own admission, make that comment to a voter and that, having done so, there will be consequences to be faced – and much as I’m aware that one or two Labour bloggers have leapt to her defence over the last few days, there can be no avoiding that one basic fact.
To steal a line from a man who knew more than more about electoral chicanery and its consequences, there can be no whitewash in Waltham Forest…
…although if Grell is acquitted, we still make damn sure we nail the Lib Dems to the wall for this, as well.