Stephen Williams on life at Westminster for an out gay MP
For the aspiring political journalist, getting an MP to even speak to you can be a struggle.
So it is a tribute to Bristol MP Stephen Williams that he was the first one to say yes to PinkNews.co.uk’s Tony Grew. For this reason alone it would have seemed rude to give him a rough ride.
But the honest truth is that there would be no need to get all “Paxman” with Williams. He is one of those rare politicians who speaks like a human, willing to admit to past failures, happy to acknowledge the brutal nature of what he describes as the “defenestration of Charles.”
He is also the only out gay Liberal Democrat MP, Given the revelations about the behaviour of some of his colleagues, that alone makes us respect his honesty and force of personality.
He has been involved in Liberal politics since his years at Bristol University. By the age of 26 he was a city councillor, and contested Bristol parliamentary seats in the 1997 and 2001 elections.
By 2005 he had built up his vote in the student-dominated Bristol West seat, and took it from the Labour party on an impressive 8.2% swing. The seat itself was Tory for 112 years before the 1997 political massacre.
His first few days in the House of Commons were like being back at university.
“Everybody asks you the same things but instead of which A-levels and where did you go to school, they ask which seat and of course how big was your majority. As a new MP I am on a big learning curve but I haven’t crashed and burned – yet!”
Even today, coming out is an ongoing process. Williams points out that every time a gay person changes job, they have to go through that whole process again. Even in the House of Commons a gay person will still be asked about their wife and children.
“Being gay is not an advantage in most scenarios. It is less of an issue, but it is still an issue. Scratch the surface of the Tory party and you will still find a lot of prejudice.”
Since taking his seat in June last year, Williams has highlighted a range of issues of importance to gay and lesbian people, including the lack of progress on homophobic bullying in schools.
Williams is more than a poster boy for gay rights, however. He was appointed as a shadow Education spokesman by Ming Campbell: he is passionate and angry about the conditions in the 1980s that many people were educated in.
“I can remember having as pupils to pop down to Woolworths and buy our own exercise books because the school just could not afford them.”
Williams highlights the more recent problems in education as emanating partly from illusion of choice. He refers to his own constituency in terms of choice-by-mortgage, with house prices near the site of a proposed new school rising tens of thousands of pounds, “before the windows are even in.”
Williams supported Chris Huhne for the LibDem leadership and describes himself as disappointed but not upset at the outcome. He feels the election was positive for the Liberal Democrats, putting them in a position where there are “known people apart from the leader.”
No-one could argue that the competition excited the interest of the tabloid press. Williams declines to discuss the Oaten scandal: “Mark may have been a one-off mistake so lets put that to one side.”
The way that many LibDem members refuse to even talk about the Oaten affair indicates how damaging it has been to the party. Oaten recently announced he will be standing down from parliament at the next election.
Williams has sympathy for the other LibDem leadership hopeful exposed as living a double life by the tabloids: “Simon Hughes I defended when people called him a liar.
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“Simon has gone through a very different experience to me. At 56, he is 16 or 17 years older than me. When he was in his mid-20s to do what I did would have been very difficult.
“He was active in the party at the time of Jeremy Thorpe and would have seen the damage that caused.. I also think Simon’s mother was a factor. I don’t think he handled it very well.”
Williams is clear on what won him the seat in Bristol – a large local base and lots of hard work for up to four years before polling day. In common with many other urban LibDem wins, a large student population naturally opposed to tuition fees was also a factor.
“I represent the most educated seat in the country – the most graduates and PhDs!”
Finally the conversation turns to the things that really matter – how does it feel to be turning 40?
“It is flattering that people say I am a young MP and I think I have aged well. I don’t think it matters that much – though it is interesting that I am two days younger than David Cameron.”