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Cause Célèbre - the Hoare Affair
During the mid 1980s, the Oxford University Student Union was controlled by the Liberal-SDP Alliance; this dominance ended with the victory of the Oxford Reform Association in 1987. However, Labour had actually polled more first-preference votes than ORA and, beginning with Felicity Spector's election in 1988, the party enjoyed five years of holding the OUSU presidency. In contrast, the fortunes of their Democrat or Liberal Democrat opponents declined rapidly. Paul Bromfield gained 24% of the vote and a Sabbatical post in 1989, only to defect to the newly-established Democratic Conservatives while in office. The following year, Mark Mitchell scored a derisory 9.1% and only one Lib Dem candidate was elected to the OUSU Executive (Beki Sellick). The Club had virtually ceased to exist late in 1989 and its ineffectiveness was no surprise.

The atmosphere of student politics was generally hysterical and poisonous at that time. Despite its control of OUSU, the Labour Club was divided between left-wingers and modernisers and was confused to the point of rage by the Lib Dems' continued success in winning Central Ward notwithstanding OUSLD/OULD's institutional weaknesses. OUCA was, then as ever, a seething mess of factionalism and personal feuds usually played out through the Union rather than local or student politics. The demented imperiousness of Mrs Thatcher still shaped political life, and made extremism and hate its dominant features. What developed in Oxford was a form of gesture-politics in which the aim was to use the structures of OUSU to promote positions which would annoy the opposing party rather than achieve anything practical. It was understandable that OUSU should have an opinion, for instance, about the 'Oxford Appeal', the huge effort by the University to extract donations from its alumni and from business, and which could be seen as undermining the principle of public support for higher education: there was a referendum on this issue in 1988. It was less reasonable that OUSU should be particularly interested in the case of Winston Silcott, the murderer dubiously convicted of the killing of PC Keith Blakelock in the Tottenham Riots - not exactly an issue of direct
relevance to students, but there was also a referendum in 1989 to decide whether the Student Union should make a statement in support of his release. The 1990 elections took place against this background. Mary Wimbury of Labour, the Independent Liam Foley, and Simon Hoare of the breakaway moderate Democratic Conservatives were elected with 42.2%, 23%, and 15.8% of the vote respectively.

By this time there were three Sabbatical posts in OUSU: the President, and two Vice-Presidents with responsibility for Finance and Welfare (a fourth, a Vice-President for Women, was added some years after). Students elected as Sabbatical Officers became employees of the Student Union for their year of office, and ceased their studies for that time. All three were elected en bloc by the Single Transferable Vote system, and then, theoretically, decided between them who would occupy each position. In 1990 Simon Hoare took the post of Welfare. Hoare was an affable, urbane character, personally liked by many people, notable exceptions being the Labour activists in OUSU who had to work alongside him. However, his interest in his post seemed limited, and he was not seen at the OUSU offices for days at a time. Labour began to consider the possibility of removing him.

Sacking a Sabbatical Officer was an unprecedented act, and the process was not an easy one. A motion of no confidence would have to be passed by a General Meeting of the student body (requiring a quorum of 250) and confirmed by a referendum. The meeting was called for 8th November. I well recall Labour activists rounding up people likely to be sympathetic in Balliol JCR before it began, and it was clear from the composition of the audience that Hoare's only hope was that the meeting would go inquorate. Accordingly Labour activists managed to get the motion of censure moved up the agenda. As Hoare's speech of self-justification wore on beyond twenty minutes the meeting began to grow rowdy. The Chair, the Green OUSU executive member Tim Weekes, allowed more and more interruptions and finally limited the Vice-President's speaking time. Hoare's chief spokesman Jacob Rees-Mogg then moved no confidence in the Chair for breaching Standing Orders, and President Mary Wimbury took over. The meeting quickly degenerated; Rees-Mogg fired points of order so fast that the acting secretary, the Lib Dem Sadie Maskery, had to borrow his notes to write out the minutes. Evidence later came to light suggesting he had been briefed on OUSU procedure by elements within OULD. The motion of censure was passed in some confusion.

There followed more than three months of 'phoney war': Hoare was still Vice-President, and the most efficient and least costly arrangement was for the referendum to take place as the same time as the annual elections in February 1991, leaving only a few months for him to serve anyway. However, it gradually became clear that Hoare would contest the referendum's validity, and he corresponded with OUSU's Returning Officer Nick Bamforth (a Wadham lawyer and former Lib Dem activist) over how the legal process should be managed.

Late on the afternoon of 20th February, Mr Justice Eastham in session at Oxford County Court granted Simon Hoare an injunction to prevent the referendum going ahead, agreeing with his argument that the General Meeting had been invalid and illegally conducted. The following day was OUSU polling day. As Hoare's lawyers scuttled round Oxford attempting to serve the injunction on Mary Wimbury, Liam Foley and Nick Bamforth, the three took refuge at 14 Sadler Walk, the home of former OSAS secretary and by-then railway manager Jonathan Pugh, who was most surprised to find them on his doorstep. Hoare's camp contented themselves with waving a solicitor's letter under the noses of College returning officers implying they would be taken to court if they carried on with the vote. Most ignored it, but at Magdalen the ballot box was broken open and the election halted. At Balliol, Hoare appeared in person to tell voters they might be in contempt of court. By the evening there were rumours that the whole Conservative slate would be disqualified, or that the entire election was invalid. Next day, Bamforth confirmed that the election count would not be held until the following week, once Magdalen had been repolled. When the election results were finally known, successful Conservative candidate Ian West was called upon to deliver a victory speech and stated merely 'I'm not Simon Hoare'.

The final d
énouement came in the High Court on 19th April where Mr Justice Pain dismissed all Hoare's arguments as 'a waste of the court's time'. There was no evidence that the General Meeting had been improperly conducted, he decided, and OUSU should have been represented at the hearing to consider the injunction. Finally, the judge stated that, as there had been three months for Hoare to obtain the injunction, to leave it until the day before the election was clearly malicious. Costs and damages were awarded against him. A fortnight later, he obtained the lowest-ever share of the vote by a Conservative candidate for Oxford Central Ward, less than 5% (although he managed a
respectable result in Cardiff West in the 1997 general election!).

OUSU was victorious, but in partisan terms it was a Pyrrhic victory. Nobody emerged smelling of roses. Hoare might have been guilty of bending the law to defend his job, but Labour had achieved only in reducing his tenure by a couple of months and their actions looked decidedly politically-motivated. The affair discredited not just the Tories, but the political establishment in general. Labour held on to the OUSU Presidency in 1992, but the following year five Independent candidates together scored over 70% of the vote; Labour came second, the Conservatives sixth, and there was no Liberal Democrat candidate at all. Times had changed.

Simon Hoare
Simon Hoare, from The Oxford Student

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