With the party conference season in full swing Tony Grew, political correspondent for The Pink News, speaks to gay party activists from the Tories, the Greens, the LibDems and Labour to find out what being gay and being political actually means in 2006.
For those of us old enough to remember the passage of Section 28 and lesbian avengers storming the BBC news and abseiling into the House of Lords, back then it seemed the only way to fight homophobia was to rally behind the red flag.
In the 1980s being gay and being politically active meant only one thing – being a Labour supporter.
By the time the red flag changed into a red rose, suddenly Chris Smith was not the only gay in the Commons. By 1999 Colin off EastEnders was in the European Parliament, and New Labour had a whole new set of attitudes towards LGBT people.
The guerilla tactics of OutRage gave way to the measured lobbying of Stonewall, and as the nasty Tories died a slow and painful political death, the sun started to shine on LGBT people. The sheer pace of legal reform has been breathtaking.
So has the recent change in Conservative attitudes. While the LibDems and Greens always had a liberal social agenda that broadly supported gay rights, it is the transformation of the Tories under David Cameron that has provided the most open challenge to old prejudices.
But is the change profound or cosmetic? Is it a conversion to the gay rights cause, or just a smart political move designed to convey a wider message of modernity?
28-year-old Chris Taylor certainly does not look like a typical Tory councillor. First elected to Greenwich council in 2001, he was re-elected in 2005 with an increased majority.
Chris was born and raised in the south London ward he represents, and with a group of other councillors recently started a surgery aimed at the LGBT community – and held in a gay bar.
“LGBT people make up a substantial proportion of the population and speaking for the Conservative party I don’t think we could function without the gay men that run the London party. I would take a guess that we have more gay men than the other two parties put together.”
But while the Tory party might be full of gays, until very recently the vast majority were not out. The party’s image as homophobic still resonates with many LGBT people, but Chris insists it is a generational thing.
He describes Margaret Thatcher as one of his icons and says that the new leaders of the party should not be constantly reminded of the mistakes of the past:
“The problem the party has had is that in the 1980s the party was being led by politicians who grew up in the 1940′s and had a different morality and way of looking at society.
Now the party is run by a new generation and attitudes have changed.
“We played a big role in shaping the civil partnerships bill, in fact a colleague of mine on Greenwich council played an integral role in drafting the legislation.”
Chris rejects the charge that the rank-and-file of the party are homophobic, and says bluntly that he would not be a member of a party that did not completely accept him.
As for the Tory MPs still on the back benches who spoke out against gay rights, he responds: “Our leader David Cameron would have no place on his front bench for anyone who wasn’t totally accepting of gay and lesbian people.”
Chris is wary of sexuality as a political motivation: “It is only one part of who I am to be honest. I liked the message of freedom and the rights of the individual, and as a gay man that is a message that is appealing.
“I don’t like the state telling me how to live my life, wherever possible we should trust people to make their own decisions and live their life the way they want to.”
Chris supports the A-list, a controversial policy designed to select more gay, lesbian, women and ethnic minority Tory candidates in time for the next general election.
“For us, it is about changing the type of people that we get elected, to inform the debate internally. We need a range of people and not just white middle class heterosexual men.
“Up and down the country where we are in power locally, there is work being done.
“In Southend, would you believe, that bastion of Essex, we are working hard to ensure that NHS money is passported thought to HIV and AIDS treatment, which it often isn’t.
“In Greenwich we have our outreach work with the gay community. What we need to do as a party is make sure that is publicised. That is the evidence – actions speak louder than words.”
With the warnings about global warming getting more dire by the month, it seemed natural to speak to the Green party. Although without a single seat in Westminster, the Green movement have two MEPs, seven MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, and 92 councillors in England.
39-year-old Darren Johnson is one of the best-known Green voices in the UK. One of two Green members of the London Assembly, he ran for Mayor against Ken Livingstone in 2000 and 2004.
For Darren, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, when an accident at a Russian nuclear power station caused a huge cloud of radioactive material to be released over Europe, was the catalyst for becoming a Green.
After 20 years of campaigning on environmental issues, surely it must be frustrating to see the main parties now all preaching the same message?
“Its easy to say you care about the environment but the other parties have all found that difficult to compare that against all our policies. Airport expansion for example. Only the green party is being consistent.
“I am not frightened about it, I think its great. David Cameron has done us a big favour. It helps raise the profile of the issue and the voters see us as the party that is serious.”
Darren rejects the accusation that the Greens are a one-trick pony, and points to the work they have done on the London Assembly. His sexuality has in the past meant he has been painted as a one-issue politician: “In elections I have always been open about being an out gay man. When I did that in early 1990s the local paper made out it was all I was interested in.
“Contrast that to 2000 where people treated it as a biographical issue and a matter of policy concern for LGBT issues but the there was nothing negative about it.
“I know its not the same all over the country but attitudes are changing.”
The problem for the Greens has been getting noticed on the national political scene, and even under the current first-past-the-post system Darren thinks we will be seeing Green MPs very soon. At the last election the party won 20% of the vote in one Brighton constituency.
What can the Greens offer then?
“We need a complete change in policy on climate change it needs to be a much higher priority.
“A real green revolution in terms of renewable energy and certainly no new nuclear power stations. Every home, office,shop and building is potentially a mini power station with solar panels and wind turbines.
“A move away from reliance on big business in favour of local business and regeneration of local high streets.
“We want a fairer and healthier society – think of all the kids who have ashtma. It is its not just all doom and gloom though.”
Talking tough on policy is often derided as the luxury of never being in government. It is a charge levelled at the Liberal Democrats on a regular basis.
29-year-old Stephen Gilbert is a former LibDem councillor in London and Cornwall, and has been shortlisted for his party’s nomination in the newly-created seat of St Austell Newquay.
Like Conservative Chris Taylor, Stephen is hoping to represent his home seat – he was born and brought up in the constituency.
He counters the accusation that the LibDems make wild promises by saying at least they tell it like it is:
“Saying that to get good services we have to put tax up – we were the only party to say that.
“Now we are saying that climate change will need tax changes to deliver action – if you want these outcomes you have to change the system.
“The belief in international co-operation is embedded in the Liberal Democrat party, whether climate change or terrorism, we have to work with others.
“The party puts an emphasis on the individual, that is what appeals to me. You can group people together in different ways but they don’t always have the same needs within one group. I think the gay community is a good example of that”
His first real battle, apart from fighting the Newsround 1992 mock election (“I got 70% of the vote), came when he returned home from university and was furstrated by the lack of a cash machine in his home town.
He is sceptical about how deep an effect sexuality has on political opinion:
“The truth is I can’t be sure I can say I consciously thought ‘I am gay so I must join a together with other gay people – sexuality is just one level of identity.
“Worrying about poverty or poor housing is another level of identity, namely a belief in social justice. That first campaign is an example of what I mean -getting money out of a cash machine isn’t a sexuality issue!”
Stephen is clear, though, that the increased visibility of LGBT people in all parties is long overdue: “I don’t think it’s the case that in the last few years a huge number of gay people have suddenly joined political parties. There have been gay and lesbian people in every town and every city and there have always been gay and lesbian people in every party.
“The increased visibility of LGBT people in society and the media has been a factor in more gay people feeling more confident in making their presence felt. Attitudes are changing across the country to sexuality issues and it’s about time.”
Finally, we turn to the Labour party. LGBT people have much to be thankful for. This government has delivered all it promised gay and lesbian people, and more. The challenge for the party now is how to continue to have fresh ideas.
Ten years in office is a very long time for any party, and the fear among activists is that we could be left in a post-Blair political landscape that makes John Major’s premiership look thrusting and dynamic.
27-year-old Gavin Hayes is one Labour activist determined to stop that from happening. He is national organiser for the left-of-centre think-tank Compass, who argue for a return to the true values of the Labour party.
Gavin was brought up in Taunton, and educated in what he calls a ‘bog-standard comprehensive.’ He is proud of his working class roots and of the achievements of Labour since 1997: “This government has delivered more gay equality and more equality across the board than any government before it in history.”
Unlike the other activists, Gavin does think his sexuality was a key factor in getting
involved in politics:
“The Conservatives, particularly in the 1980s, attacked gay people continuously and scapegoated gay people. In 1996 when I decided to join a political party it was the Labour party that was advocating gay equality, equalising the age of consent, abolishing Section 28 and that was a motivating factor in deciding which party I would join.”
Like many in the Labour party, he was a child of Thatcher, and he is still angry about it:
“I remember the gross inequality that Thatcher brought about by her reckless policies and I think that also motivated me to join the party. There has always been that sense of wanting to change the world. I think that is why, generally, people join Labour.”
But now the challenge for Labour is to renew and re-energise its core vote. What does Gavin as a Labour member want to see?
“We elect a Labour government to deliver greater equality for those that most need it and those are the working classes. I think one of the big things is how we go about ending child poverty.
“If we are going to end child poverty, it is not good leaving it to charities and the voluntary sector, because that will not work. We need the Treasury to introduce real economic benefits to lift children in this country our of poverty. There is also a question about delivering a living wage. We have delivered a minimum wage, so now we need to think about extending that and be even more progressive.”
It is an exciting time for anyone interested in politics. As the parties meet at conference, and we look forward to what will be the most turbulent parliamentary session in a decade, it is comforting that for the first time the voices of LGBT people are listened to in all parties.
This article first appeared in the October issue of The Pink News which is out now
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