Senior Lib Dem accused of Nazi slur over 'skinhead' William Hague

When it comes to highly personal attacks against their political opponents, local Lib Dems clearly take their lead from the very top.

Back in September, it was revealed that the senior Liberal Democrat MP and former leadership contender Chris Huhne had been planning a "Nazi slur" against Conservative foreign affairs spokesman William Hague.

According to the
Evening Standard, in his keynote speech to his party's annual conference, Mr Huhne was intending to brand Mr Hague a "skinhead who has toured the beer cellars of central Europe".

The startling attack was shown in a draft copy of his address, but at the last minute Huhne scrapped it from his speech.

The omitted sentence from his draft said: "Skinhead Hague has toured the beer cellars of central Europe, and has come up with the dregs."

At the simplest level, calling a bald man a skinhead is crass and unfair. But in invoking that far-right imagery and in referring to the known preferred venues for Adolf Hitler's political meetings, Mr Huhne's more sinister attempted analogy was clear.

When Nick Clegg's chief-of-staff, fellow MP Danny Alexander, was quizzed on the missing "skinhead" line, he admitted: "There was a line in an early draft and I think he decided that the substance of that was important, not getting into a discussion on William Hague's hairstyle or drinking habits."

However, this wasn't the first time Chris Huhne has found himself in trouble over the propagation of personal smears against his political opponents.

During the 2007 Lib Dem leadership battle to replace Sir Menzies Campbell, a
document circulated by Huhne's campaign was revealed to have labelled his chief rival, Nick Clegg, "Calamity Clegg".

The document set out a series of quotations aimed at showing Mr Clegg's policy "flip-flops".

Huhne claimed that the document was the work of an "over zealous researcher" but was forced to issue an apology.

Lib Dem campaign guide: "be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly"

The underhand tactics evidently often deployed by the Lib Dems at the local level could perhaps best be described by one line from a campaigning guide published by a group representing Lib Dem councillors.

The strategy guide titled Effective Opposition, first exposed back in 2002 but remaining available for several years until discontinued, set out clearly the group's attitude to how Lib Dem campaigners should approach local elections.

Published by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors (ALDC) - an autonomous but official 'Associated Organisation' of the party - the handbook's most controversial recommendation was to: "be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly".

However it also advises candidates to "exaggerate" claims and to use a range of other negative campaigning tactics.

As a blog posting on The Guardian's website reminded us more recently, on page 23 the handbook advises candidates "Don't be afraid to exaggerate" and on page 4 "Positive campaigning will NOT be enough to win control of the council."

On page 6 the handbook encourages duplicity, saying "you can secure support from voters who normally vote Tory by being effectively anti-Labour and similarly in a Tory area secure Labour votes by being anti-Tory."

We're finding evidence of all these tactics being employed in the Lib Dems' local campaigning.

What this publication shows is that the incidents we're uncovering can't just be dismissed as the ill-judged actions of the occasional 'bad apple', but are instead symptomatic of broader, rotten attitudes to democracy.

Sussex Lib Dem candidate in planning decision smear

A Lib Dem councillor in Sussex has been forced to apologise for misleading voters during last year's county council elections, according to the Bognor Regis Observer.

Bersted councillor Simon McDougall distributed a leaflet accusing the Conservative-run district council of favouring the building of houses on a local farmland site.

In fact, the site was one of three possible options for future development in the area being considered by the council and the final decision had yet to be taken.

Cllr McDougall narrowly retained his seat with 992 votes ahead of the 873 for his main rival, Conservative Ann Smee, and is now the Lib Dem candidate for Bognor Regis & Littlehampton at the next general election.

In a statement before the council, Mr McDougall said: "I apologise unreservedly to the council and the Conservative group for making a statement that was incorrect."

"I realise there were legal implications for the council because of the statement which I made and I am quite happy to correct it."

Cllr McDougall agreed to fund local newspaper adverts withdrawing his statement and a letter to 340 households who received the original leaflet.

Long Lib Dem history of dirty election tactics

The activities of the Lib Dems in Norwich North are far from the only example of dirty tactics being employed by the party during a by-election battle.

Lib Dems have a long history in particular of launching personal smear campaigns against rival candidates, rather than focussing on their own policies and ideas.

The 2006 Bromley & Chislehurst by-election was a classic case not just of underhand tactics but also of dirty politics.

The Lib Dem bid to win the seat started rather shamefully when the party's then leader, Menzies Campbell, had to intervene to "put a stop" to local activists campaigning before the funeral of the former local Conservative MP - Eric Forth - had taken place.

Once the by-election campaign was underway, the party's tactics didn't get much better when a series of leaflets issued by the Lib Dems appeared designed to mimic Labour and Conservative party literature, a general interest magazine and not one but two styles of local newspaper.

But it was the so-called 'Bromley Mail' Lib Dem leaflet (pictured above) that set the scene for one of the Lib Dem candidate's key themes of the by-election - a front page splash not setting out his main policies, but a highly personal attack on this chief rival.

Castigated with the nickname "three jobs Bob", Conservative candidate - now MP - Bob Neill was criticised for being a member of the Greater London Assembly (GLA), sitting on a health authority board and working as a barrister.

But beyond the dramatic headline, repeated by the Lib Dems in leaflet after leaflet, the essence of the attack was misleading as none of the jobs were full-time and Neill's work with the health authority was shortly to end as the authority would soon be abolished.

Criticising Neill for being a barrister was particularly short-sighted, as another Conservative MP, Ed Vaizey, pointed out at the time in a Guardian article headlined "unedifying attacks".

Neill would hardly be the only barrister in Parliament, among not least one MP who at the time listed "occasional practice as Queen's Counsel" in his register of member's interests - then Lib Dem leader, Menzies Campbell.

The 'Bromley Mail' Lib Dem leaflet further misleads by quoting comments made on a website purportedly "used by Conservative members to exchange views", clearly seeking to portray that the party's own activists were upset with the choice of Bob Neill as their candidate.

Neglecting to point out that anyone can post comments on the ConservativeHome site - not just Conservative "members" but also, potentially, supporters of other parties.

Making over-hyped personal attacks on rival candidates, leaving out critical information that diminishes claims being made and publishing campaign material that appears to be designed to imitate independent or another party's literature are the sort of tactics it's time the Lib Dems left behind.

Lib Dem smears Green rival as 'extremist' in Norwich by-election

The Lib Dem candidate in last year's Norwich North by-election came under fire from even her own side for a campaign leaflet that accused her Green Party rival of holding "extreme views" on the 7th July terrorist attacks.

As seems to be the form in such examples of Lib Dem mud-slinging, no direct quote was given and comments denouncing the Green candidate, local councillor Dr Rupert Read, are ascribed to the nameless pair "one local person" and "another Norwich resident".

So far, so dirty. Even more so when you take into account Dr Read's response, in which he calls such depictions of his views "both baseless and (in a number of cases) libelous" and condemns "any terrorist attacks on civilians" - together with defending himself against a range of other smear attempts.

Sadly this experience of Lib Dem tactics in Norwich North was probably all too familiar for Dr Read, who wrote an article titled "Those FibDems" exposing false claims made by the Liberal Democrats about the Green Party's chances during the earlier European parliament elections.

According to Dr Read, the main Lib Dem election leaflet delivered to all households across the Eastern regional euro-constituency set about "systematically misrepresenting the facts about the electoral arithmetic".

The leaflet included statements like "The Green Party has no chance of electing a European MP for the East of England", inappropriately basing the view on results in completely different elections.

The lie was given to the claim when, in fact, the Greens missed out on a seat by a little over 1% of the vote.

Cornish Lib Dems forced to apologise over offensive leaflet

Lib Dems in Cornwall were forced to make a formal apology after using a highly offensive obscene term to describe an opposition councillor ahead of last year's county council and Euro elections.

According to Plymouth newspaper
The Herald, a campaign leaflet supporting Lib Dem Cornwall Council candidate Anna Pascoe distributed to houses in the Camborne South division called a rival council candidate a "greasy-haired t***".

The offensive remarks came to light when the local Lib Dem office received complaints from Camborne residents.

The target of the abuse, Camborne Town Council member Stuart Cullimore, said he was "absolutely appalled" at being the subject of foul-mouthed abuse in an official Lib-Dem leaflet.

Commenting to The Herald, he said: "It's just unpleasant and nasty. It has been extremely upsetting for me and my family. I don't know who is responsible for this but the Lib-Dems have a responsibility to find out and make it public".

The local Lib Dem agent officially responsible for the party's leaflets was unable to offer an explanation for the obscenity and was forced to apologise formally to Cllr Cullimore.

Liverpool Lib Dems in 'ban on children' smear

The activities of the Lib Dems in one Liverpool ward is something of a case study of the party's brand of local-level negative campaigning, misleading claims and false accusations against their political rivals.

Green Party councillors in the city's St Michaels ward have challenged the Liberal Democrats to defend a lurid leaflet that
claimed the Greens planned to "force limits on the number of children local families can have".

A second smear was headlined "Green councillors make homeless sleep in the snow."

In response, the Greens condemned both accusations as "completely unfounded" and
launched a legal fund to "fight Lib Dem libel" in a bid to force local Lib Dems to defend or explain their accusations.

On population, the party pointed out core Green policy that "PP106 The Green Party holds that the number of children people have should be a matter of free choice."

And on the cold weather shelter accusation, in a full explanation of the shelter arrangements the Greens responded "The preposterous idea that "Green councillors refused to allow a local community building to be used" for cold weather shelter is not only untrue - it is impossible. Local councillors do not have that kind of authority."

Perhaps demonstrating the Lib Dems' desperation to hold on to their last seat in the ward, the double-smear leaflet was followed by more negative campaigning - this time a 'holiday postcard' claiming Greens wanted to add £100 Air Passenger Duty to "every air ticket".

However, the Green Party budget statement (pdf) published a couple of months beforehand in fact suggested a doubling of air passenger duty, which in the case of a standard flight to Spain would be £20 - five times less than the Lib Dem postcard suggested.

In a bid to bring a halt to such smears and dirty tactics, local Green councillor John Coyne invited his Lib Dem rival Cllr Peter Allen to attend a public meeting to account for the content of the dirty tricks leaflets.

However, Cllr Allen did not turn up.

Introducing ... is a resource designed to reveal to the British electorate and media the extent to which the Liberal Democrats engage in dirty tricks and negative campaigning against their political rivals.

For too long they have got away with presenting themselves on the national stage as 'whiter than white' - as a political force operating on a morally higher plane than Labour, the Conservatives and the other parties.

Yet their actions on the campaign trail reveal a different story. In reality, Lib Dem candidates and politicians have often dragged British politics into the political swamp with the shameful use of techniques that would not be out of place in the dirtiest of election campaigns in the United States.

By directing a seachlight on to the unacceptable face of the Liberal Democrats we intend to make their brand of dirty politics itself an issue in the forthcoming general election, to make the party more self-conscious about their political practice.

In part, the Lib Dems behave as they do because they perceive that questionable tactics such as character assassinations, false accusations, deliberate misrepresentations and misleading claims work.

By taking a stand against these Lib Dem tactics, we aim to force Nick Clegg to clean up his party's act and focus instead on policy.

This will be good for politics. Labour, Tory and other party candidates will then not need to spend so much time counter-attacking and rebutting Lib Dem accusations and will be free to participate in a more rational contest based on competing policies and visions of the future.