Not without prejudice: LGBT politicians talk about how Parliament has changed

This month the Constitution Unit at UCL hosted a panel discussion on LGBT candidates in UK elections, exploring the UK parliament’s evolution to include more openly LGBT politicians than any other state legislature. The panel, chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, consisted of Professor Andrew Reynolds and four of the UK’s most prominent LGBT politicians: Angela Eagle, Baroness (Liz) Barker, Nick Herbert and Joanna CherryEvangelina Moisi reports.

sue sanders angela eagle

Emeritus Professor of the Harvey Milk Institute Sue Sanders (left) with Angela Eagle. Photo: Zefrog via a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

Introducing the seminar on LGBT candidates in UK elections, Professor Andrew Reynolds posed a question to the audience: why do people care about the sexual orientation of candidates and elected officials any more? Over the past few decades, the UK has undergone major transformations in its treatment of LGBT citizens, including abolishing Section 28 in 2003 and legalising gay marriage in 2013. The UK parliament has also become the most inclusive parliament for LGBT representation in the world, with 39 ‘out’ LGBT MPs. Despite this political (r)evolution, Reynolds suggested that not everything is settled: homophobia and transphobia are still significant in today’s society and present challenges for both adults and children in navigating their everyday lives.

This seminar provided the opportunity to understand the perspectives and narratives of those who have lived through this experience. Reynolds underscored that as ‘out’ LGBT politicians the members of the panel have all overcome significant hurdles to transform political life, values, and the laws of today.

Professor Andrew Reynolds

Opening the seminar, Reynolds presented highlights from some of his research, noting that the number of LGBT parliamentarians is still a tiny slice of the world’s representation. Only 0.4% of the 46,000 parliamentarians around the world identify as LGBT. However, the parties with significant representation in the House of Commons are among the most LGBT inclusive in the world – the Conservatives and Labour have 17 and 14 LGBT MPs respectively, whilst the SNP’s 8 (out of 54 MPs) makes them the ‘gayest’ parliamentary group in the world. Reynolds further elaborated that right-of-centre parties have actually overtaken left-of-centre parties in terms of LGBT MPs, in the UK and around the world. Gay rights have become less of a partisan issue, with conservatives becoming socially liberal but remaining economically conservative.

At the 2015 UK general election 154 LGBT candidates standing in England, Scotland, and Wales, enabling Reynolds to explore whether being an LGBT candidate was still an electoral liability. His research found that LGBT candidates did not perform worse than their straight colleagues and, perhaps surprisingly, gay candidates performed better in rural areas (a 2% boost). He also found that LGBT candidates did only slightly worse in areas with high Muslim populations. At the party level, LGBT Labour candidates performed better than their straight counterparts whereas LGBT Conservative candidates performed much better than their straight counterparts in winnable Conservative seats.

On a final note, Reynolds discussed Chris Smith’s ‘coming-out’ in 1984. Whilst the moment was greeted with a media backlash at the time, Smith is now the Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge and has returned to the highest echelons of British society as a gay, HIV-positive man. Reynolds emphasised that such dramatic changes in political life have been driven by the likes of Smith and the LGBT politicians present on the panel.

Angela Eagle (Labour MP)

Having lived through ‘both eras’, Eagle stressed that many like her have aspired to create a process that leads to equal opportunities for LGBT people, and to move away from a politics based on the prejudices she experienced when getting into politics. Prior to her coming-out in 1998 there had been only one previous lesbian MP, Maureen Colquhoun, and the example was not very encouraging. Colquhoun was ‘outed’ by gossip columnists at the Daily Mail in the 1970s and subsequently faced deselection attempts before losing her seat at the 1979 election. When growing up, Eagle saw newspapers engaging in enormous discrimination against LGBTs. The press often portrayed actions at the local level that sought to provide or legitimise services for LGBT people as actions of ‘looney left councils’. In Eagle’s words, these ‘looney left councils’ were so good at trying to represent all their constituents that they were suppressed by the Thatcher government through ‘Section 28’, which stated that local authorities or teaching in schools ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality’. This led to a stigmatisation and an isolation of LGBT people at school, allowing bullying to continue.

Nonetheless, Eagle noted that the 18-year period of Conservative rule disguised the mood of the population on the LGBT community, which came to be ‘ahead’ of the government. Because of this the change of government in 1997 enabled an opportunity for rapid progress for LGBT rights, notwithstanding having to use the Parliament Acts to make legislative changes, needing three attempts to repeal Section 28, and a backlash from the media. Eagle said that she knows progress has been made when people deny involvement with the previous repressive regime, and act as if this change was ‘just going to happen naturally’. However, such changes were greatly fought for. In closing her remarks, Eagle suggested that times can go from socially liberal to socially repressive, and ‘those who have come through must bear this in mind, whilst congratulating ourselves for being the gayest parliament in the world’.

Baroness (Liz) Barker (Liberal Democrat peer)

Barker began her contribution by quoting the Liberal Democrat Constitution’s statement that ‘no one should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity’. She elaborated that the word ‘conformity’ was understood to be about personal differences and is a signal that LGBT people are an important part of the party. She further discussed her party’s role within the LGBT community: in 1979 the front page of Gay News said vote Liberal; they were the first party to have policies to repeal Section 28; their leader was the first to call for same-sex marriage and they have had many LGBT candidates running for election. However, Baroness Barker called attention to the intersectionality of women’s rights and LGBT rights – often these candidates were gay men and not gay women. She also highlighted the inherent problem that someone standing for public office historically had to be trustworthy, yet also had to hide an attribute so fundamental about themselves: being LGBT. The press and political opponents for a long time attacked this ‘area of weakness’ during elections, frequently emphasising a candidate’s status as a ‘family man’, cuing both sexual preference and trustworthiness.

Barker, who was made a life peer by Paddy Ashdown in 1999, never stood for elected office herself because she felt she could not be honest about who she was. It was not until after her mother’s death that she felt she could come out publicly, which she did during the debate on the same sex marriage legislation in the House of Lords. She observed that there were times before that when people threatened to ‘out’ her, yet friends and colleagues rallied round her. She ended her speech by agreeing with Eagle that there are still battles to struggle through, especially on transgender issues. She believes that big changes materialised when people were ‘out’ in both the main parties and previous statements made before could no longer be said in parliament.

Nick Herbert (Conservative MP)

Like Barker, Herbert is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT Rights. He sees himself firstly as a Conservative, and when elected did not want to make an issue of the fact that he was gay.  He is, however, proud to have been part of the change in Conservative attitudes led by David Cameron, including his apology for Section 28, the legalisation of gay marriage and supporting crucial legislative changes Labour achieved under Tony Blair’s leadership.

Whilst some Conservatives had previously ‘come out’ once elected, no one had been selected for a winnable seat as an LGBT candidate until Herbert in 2005 for Arundel and South Downs. Herbert mentioned that the Conservatives wanted to be non-discriminatory in their candidate selection process and so could not ask about marital status. However, many straight colleagues would bring up in interview if they were married or had children, echoing Barker’s statement about ‘family man’ and trustworthiness. When Herbert was shortlisted and then selected, he was candid about being gay and felt the issue uniting them should be that they were all Conservatives – regardless of sexual orientation.

Herbert lastly talked about his communication with the right-of-centre Australian Liberal Party on equal marriage. When rehearsing his arguments for them, he realised how far in the past these debates were in Britain, suggesting that colleagues who voted against gay marriage in 2013 would probably not vote against it now. He remarked that the greater representation of LGBT people is extremely important as role models for young people, revealing he received a letter from a young man thanking him for merely being elected. Like Eagle, Herbert stressed we should remember ‘that it was not long ago that it was all very different in our parties’.

Joanna Cherry (Scottish National Party MP)

Cherry’s speech focused mainly on the transformation of LGBT representation within Scottish politics. Like Eagle, Cherry lived through ‘both eras’ and wanted to be a Labour MP when growing up, but felt it was unthinkable to identify as a lesbian in Scottish public life at the time. The homophobic campaign (mainly by the Liberal Party) against Peter Tatchell during the Bermondsey 1983 by-election terrified her to be ‘out’ in public life. She noted that today the leaders of the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour Party and Scottish Green Party are all LGBT.

When Cherry decided to run as an SNP candidate in 2015, being openly lesbian did not cause her any concern. Yet, she feels she owes this to those like Chris Smith and Angela Eagle who came out at a difficult time in the face of vilification from parts of the media. Even less than 20 years ago, when the Scottish Parliament tried to repeal the equivalent of Section 28, the Daily Record – a Labour supporting left-of-centre newspaper – campaigned against it. However, the same paper came out in support of the Equal Marriage Act in 2013. For many years it seemed like things would never change but ultimately, Cherry remarked, Tony Blair’s 1997 government was pivotal in achieving the social and political change in Scotland for LGBTs.

You can download Professor Andrew Reynolds’ slides at this link.

About the panel

Andrew Reynolds is Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina and author of The Children of Harvey Milk: How LGBTQ Politicians Changed the World (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Angela Eagle is the Labour MP for Wallasey and a former member of the shadow cabinet.

Baroness (Liz) Barker is a Liberal Democrat peer.

Nick Herbert is the Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs and a former minister.

Joanna Cherry is the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West and her party’s Westminster spokesperson on justice and home affairs.

This post represents the views of the author and not Democratic Audit. It first appeared at the Constitution Unit blog.

Evangelina Moisi is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.

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