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Viva la barber? Who are the Beard Liberation Front?

Alexi Demetriadi spoke to KEITH FLETT about why male facial hair remains so taboo in politics and what is being done to change things

THEY are more bacteria-infested than a dog’s coat. They only belong on woodsman and Glastonbury hipsters. They convey a sense of laziness you don’t get with other men. Damningly, they are hiding something within their dark, bushy confines — germs, dirt, scandal, corruption, perhaps an extra-marital affair?

A simple Google search will quickly highlight the prejudice, fake news and the misunderstandings associated with man’s most trusted companion and tool — the beard.

But there is a group that is standing up to this soft form of discrimination, and in a similar vein to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), the Beard Liberation Front (BLF) seeks to preserve, help and fight on behalf of the simple beard-wearer.

The founder and organiser of the group, trade union official Keith Flett, has been heading the front since its establishment in 1995, at the dawn of New Labour and its more corporate, clean shaven brand of politics.

“There is an age-old prejudice that if you’re wearing a beard, you’re hiding something,” Flett explains. This prejudice perhaps goes far in explaining the distinct lack of beard-wearers in British politics and media.

“So, for example, the idea is that if you’re reading the BBC news and you’re wearing a beard, maybe you’re not being quite as honest as you should be,” said Flett. “Although, many people on the left would say — well, the BBC isn’t being honest at all anyway…”

Flett has been the bearded face of the BLF since before the third millennium — set up to campaign against pogonophobia, stir debate and, he says, provide a general relief from the more serious forms of discrimination by providing light, sometimes comic, beard commentary.

“It’s not a formal organisation and I’m not sure why it would need to be — it’s a very informal network,” Flett says of the BLF’s membership base.

“We don’t have a physical presence — so you’re not going to see the BLF turning up in person at a picket line or anything like that,” he says.

“In that way it fits into the modern era, ideally suited for social media and the online world — perhaps it was before its time.”

The majority of the BLF’s views and commentary can be found on Flett’s personal Wordpress site, where he and the front put up opinion pieces, news announcements as well as run their famed “Beard of the Year” poll.

And while it is no Momentum and doesn’t have a fresh supply of university graduates manning its desks, it has been a consistent and constant online presence over the years.

“It’s always been a less than serious thing — it’s not entirely unserious — but it does fall mainly on that side,” admits Flett.

“We do sometimes get involved in slightly more serious things — but it’s probably about 10 per cent of the stuff we do,” Flett tells me.

When the BLF does get involved in campaigns for the acceptance of beards, or in defence of them, it does so in a number of specific cases.

“The most well-known thing that pops up all the time is people not being allowed to wear or work with respirators because of their beards,” says Flett.

“I mean obviously if you have a ZZ Top beard the respirator won’t work … but provided you’ve got a relatively normal beard it will be absolutely fine.”

He recalls the recent case of a Northern Ireland-based police officer, who took the force to a tribunal for disciplining him because of his beard.

“He rang me up and I provided some advice,” Flett says. “He argued that female officers are allowed to have long hair — why not a beard then? And he actually won the case.”

The discussion turned to British politics and media, and Flett admits that the beard-shaped landscape is looking much better than it was in the late 1990s.

“They are much more common now — in the 1990s it was much more of an issue, and people not being allowed to have beards at work,” he says. “The world has moved on, for the better.”

But even with some notable exceptions, the majority of front line politicians and mainstream media figures still adhere to the doctrine of shaving each morning.

The Corbyn project has been taken off life support, while Jeremy himself has moved to the backbenches. Bearded politics in the US is represented by the abhorrent Ted Cruz.

“The Tories do have more beards than they used to — so I guess it’s progress of a kind,” Flett says.

Although the BLF recently announced they had barred Dominic Cummings from being associated with the group, with the charge stating: “The BLF has received photographic evidence that Cummings has been trying to grow a beard in the recent past — such action is rare but is taken when the BLF believes that the association of someone with the organisation may risk bringing not just it but beard-wearers into disrepute.”

The recent sightings of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sporting a groomed, stylised beard is also a relative rarity for a country’s leader.

“When I first saw it, I thought he’s probably not the best model for beard-wearers, to be quite honest,” says Flett. “But it’s definitely a beard and not just stubble.”

Tony Blair’s New Labour reportedly were anti-beard to the extent manoeuvrings took place to try to force prospective MPs to abide by the clean-shaven image that it tried to propagate.

“A couple of bearded Labour candidates in that period have said to me that New Labour used to produce photoshops of them cleanshaven and show them to focus groups, to gauge if they preferred them clean shaven rather than bearded,” Flett recalls.

“There may be some truth in that — we’ll have to wait and see.”

There are heroes too. The long running Beard of the Year award has counted Jeremy Corbyn, Rowan Williams and most recently Rylan Clark as winners.

Similar to Time’s Person of the Year, the beard equivalent awards not beard appearance, but significance.

“It is awarded to the beard that had the most positive impact in the public eye for that year,” Flett says. “It’s not about the length of the beard or how marvellous it is.”

The Beard Friendly Pub of the Year is also run by the BLF, with Peterborough’s Bumble Inn micropub being crowned the winner, the first outside London.

“The criteria basically is that the pub should welcome people with beards — certainly not a pub that is full of suits,” says Flett. “But it’s also about being a diverse, tolerant pub that allows people to appear as they want — including, but not just, those people with beards.”

But misinformation and prejudice still abounds. In certain occupations, beards are still looked at with distrust and fiction can often reported as fact.

“Men with beards carry more germs than DOGS,” writes the Daily Mail while the Daily Express covered a poll that found 70 per cent of participants believe bearded politicians to be “untrustworthy.” Lazy, dirty, and improper are just some of the terms to be thrown unduly at beard-wearers.

But that perception is changing, improving, to incorporate beards into an ever more accepting society where the image of the individual is secondary to their character, and one where difference in appearance is celebrated and encouraged.

And until that ideal is achieved and Britain can bask in the light of a beautifully bearded prime minister, the BLF and beard-wearers home and away can at least take solace in a little-circulated fact.

The most circulated portrait of a human face in existence is not clean-shaven, but bearded.

Even if most of those find themselves on a one-cent coin, the beautiful, bearded face of former US President Abraham Lincoln has more portraits in existence than that of any other face. A victory for beard-wearers everywhere. Take that, Tony Blair.

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