It's wearying already. The election hasn't even begun, and already here we* are, endlessly analysing every single spit and cough of what the Westminster Village are gossiping about. Is Gordon Brown a bully? Did he shove someone, once?
Leave aside for a minute that some of the people writing about how terrible it is that bullying exists will be working for bullies - that's kind of beside the point, though you have to plough through a certain amount of hypocrisy and cant before you get anywhere with these political stories. Leave aside, also, the fact that the timing of this story is a bit whiffy - if these allegations have existed for so long, why are they coming out now, right ahead of an election, other than to potentially damage the electoral chances of Labour? - because there is still a story here. And leave aside, as well, the sudden interest in bullying and workplace issues from politicians who ordinarily wouldn't give a shit if some poor bastard was on the receiving end of abusive behaviour from a boss, and who have happily chipped away at employment rights because 'red tape' is such a bad thing for wealth-creating employers.
Let's leave all of that aside, and consider that if this really happened, it is a big deal. Let's suppose Gordon Brown is a bully. Let's suppose he does shove people around and is a bit of a tyrant. I think it's important that we do find out about that. I think it is pretty unpleasant for the person running the country to do that. Bullying is a despicable thing, and it can ruin people's lives. If Brown is responsible for it, then I think that's a big deal. But it's whether he is or not that's the issue, and whether anyone really cares or not.
We can suppose that there's a bit of a Tory whiff about where this story's come from. We can point to problems Caroline Pratt, the person who reported that phonecalls came from No 10 to the Bullying Helpine, has had in the past, or the fact she's still a bit flaky about the details. I don't think the breach of confidence issue is relevant here because it really is in the public interest to know if this is true or not. However, I'd be a might pissed off if I were one of the people who'd complained, and is now being looked at with suspicion because of this. And I'd be pissed off if my employers had been tipped off that someone had accessed the NBH from their computer at work, because I'd imagine the very first thing that'd happen would be that someone would try and find out who it was, which would lead them to me. So the way in which that information has been put across by Pratt could, if people are being bullied, potentially lead to more bullying. Which doesn't seem tremendously clever for someone at an anti-bullying organisation to do. Pratt does not come out of this with flying colours, by any stretch of the imagination.
The important question is whether this is true or not, and whether that matters. I think it's important. And there are two other things to bear in mind. First, it's not good enough to say that no-one has made a complaint, therefore it can't have happened. That's not right. The very nature of bullying means that people are under pressure to stay silent, to leave the job and get a good reference rather than take out a grievance against their boss or to go a tribunal once they've quit, and spend weeks preparing for it. That's the way it is, and it is foolish to imagine that if you don't speak out, it hasn't happened. Bullying is by its very nature intimidatory.
Secondly, it's not right, either, to say that because Brown hasn't gone and sued, that means it must have happened. That's an awful way to look at things, and plays right into the hands of the press. "He didn't sue, therefore he did it" is not the way a society should judge things. There are all sorts of reasons why people don't sue despite damaging allegations, including the cost and time and effort involved - similar reasons to why people don't go marching off to tribunals every five minutes. It's a whole load of effort. OK, you might say, but surely the Prime Minister could get hold of the best legal advice and see this off with a minimum of effort. But then isn't there a bear trap there as well? That this might drag on through the election campaign, and be hanging over him; or that he would be attacked for doing that, for trying to silence his critics with big-shot lawyers?
But is it true? It keeps coming back to this. If it is true, then that's a big deal. I don't think there's enough evidence to provide a conclusive case, though there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence. The question is whether the press think we're capable of dealing with difficult concepts like circumstantial evidence or 'no smoke without fire'. I think we are, but I'm not so sure they think we are. That's often why smears happen, not that I'm saying this is one - because some people think that the public are yo-yos who can't see beyond BULLYING ALLEGATION and won't be able to process the difficult idea that it's not cut and dried. Whether we are or not remains to be seen. For now, there is no smoking gun, just a lot of smoke and mirrors.
If only this whole election ahead could be about policies and plans, about tax and what the Government can do to improve the country, rather than just whether Dave or Gordon is the bigger buffoon... but I am not so sure it can.
* I say 'we', but I wonder if it really is 'we' or just a small cadre of excitable men - it always seems to be men, for some reason - scuttling around Parliament, chatting to each other like Les Dawson's Sissy and Ada over the garden fence about what who said to whom and who's got trouble *whispers* 'downstairs'.