Interview: Norman Lamb on ‘gay cure’ therapy and Lib Dem campaign failures
Lib Dem leadership candidate Norman Lamb speaks to PinkNews on how the party can move on from its defeat at last month’s election, and what it can offer to LGBT voters.
Where do the Lib Dems go from here?
We’ve obviously suffered a pretty dreadful trauma. My insight is that when the liberal voice in our country is diminished because our representation has been so badly damaged, actually, we’re in a liberal age.
That’s what I think- that there is, of course, the reaction against liberal values, the UKIP reaction, but actually, if you think particularly about young people, but not exclusively young people, there are millions of people out there who share our values, but don’t associate themselves with the Lib Dems.
That is the core of our challenge. We have to connect with those people and make them feel that we’re a party that represents their values and that they can identify with and then support. I think that requires us to be much clearer about what we stand for.
During the election campaign we were all told we’ve got to repeat the mantra, we’ll cut less than the Conservatives and borrow less than Labour, which means we’re defined in relation to other people. It says nothing about what we are ourselves, what motivates us.
Ultimately, what am I doing this job for? Why do I go through all the pain and the trauma and the stress and everything? It is to try to make a difference to people’s lives, to enable people to be happier.
That is what should motivate all of us, based on the values that you hold, so I think there’s an overwhelming need for a Liberal voice in our country, but I liken us to a business start-up that has a massive potential market out there, but you’ve got to go out and connect with them, and find new ways of doing that because we’ve rather failed to articulate what we’re about.”
Do you think the campaign was quite presumptuous during elections? Saying we’ll give a brain to Labour and a heart to Tories. Many people who supported the Lib Dems previously ended up voting Conservative, because they didn’t like the idea of you going into bed with the SNP.
I think people are driven by emotion when they vote and, sometimes, that emotion is predominantly one of fear. Sometimes, it can be one of hope.
We’ve got to make sure that we try and make sure the hope triumphs over fear, but, this time around, there’s a lot of fear out there. How rational it was didn’t really matter, the fear is very real. There was a fear of Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon
The Tories exploited this brilliantly. It was pretty brutal and ruthless, but they played to people’s fears about that consequence, and the fears are very real. I came across it constantly on the doorstep. Decent ordinary people who were naturally my supporter, who just were very worried about that consequence and the natural thing for them to do was go vote Tory, even if they have no real faith in the Tory party at all.
Even if they liked the coalition, which many of them did, you vote for the dominant party in that coalition, if you think you’re voting for continuity because it’s less risky.
I think you’re right – I think it’s actually a bit insulting to tell the people that your main party doesn’t have a brain or doesn’t have a heart. That is like an insult to you, isn’t it?
I would prefer to get back to telling people what we’re about, what motivates us, what drives us through those darkest November, wet, rainy nights, when we’re still delivering leaflets and knocking on doors or whatever it might be. Are we either slightly deranged or is the purpose something that we really believe in, that’s worth fighting for? And that’s what I think we could get across.
Nick Clegg cited same-sex marriage, and called it one of his proudest achievements in government and, as Lib Dem leader he championed LGBT rights. How do you follow that?
Well, in part, by maintaining that consistency. And I remember Matthew d’Ancona actually writing something like, ‘If it increases the sum of human happiness, then it should be supported.’
Fundamentally, the heart of my liberalism is about treating every person equally and for there to be no sort of discrimination against an individual or inferior treatment because of who they happen to be. Whether it’s because of their race, their gender, who they happen to love, these are not reasons to treat people in an inferior way.
It’s not sort of a calculating stance, it’s what I’m about. It’s what I believe in, So, that’s what I will promote.
There are still ways in which people don’t experience equal treatment – when you’re growing up, if all of the forces out there still presume that the normal thing is the male-female relationship, then, as a teenager, for example, it puts you under enormous pressure and strain.
I’m acutely aware through my work on mental health that the suicide rate is higher, that people suffer from mental ill health related to the pressure and strain they’re under because of their sexuality.
That’s not a situation that we can tolerate. So, I think we celebrate the massive advances we’ve made, but we recognize that there’s still a long way to go.
Ireland is currently in the process of drafting its gender recognition law, and it’s looking like it’ll end up being far more progressive than the UK’s Gender Recognition Act. The current draft separates the process of gaining a gender recognition certificate from state medical process entirely.
There’s also proposals to introduce interim-GRCs for transgender children, who don’t have legal recognition in the UK.
Our legislation’s nearly a decade old, it’s not keeping pace with international best practice, and our neighbours in Ireland seem to be doing a better job. Do we need to look again?
Well, it’s fascinating – there’s a bit of a revolution going on in Ireland recently, with the referendum result that was an amazing, exciting development for a country that one always imagined would be socially conservative.
It’s a bit alarming that they’re moving ahead of us in these ways. So, we ought to be prepared to revisit these issues and ensure that our laws are based on evidence and ensure that people are treated equally and not disadvantaged if they’re trans, if they’re lesbian or gay, whatever.
Treat it equally. That’s the central principle. If the law needs to catch up, then we need to be prepared to put pressure on the government to do that.
Nick Clegg recently backed the introduction of Gender X Passports – what’s your view?
I supported that, absolutely.
In a way, because that individual in that circumstance should be recognized and valued for who they are and should not be forced into a strait-jacket.
If it’s important to those people, as it rightly is, that should be recognised. We should just get over it. Why not? What on Earth is the reason not to?”
There are practical difficulties, and they are important practical difficulties, but deny them their right to be who they are. That’s the critical point.
Writing on PinkNews recently, you raised the lack of visible LGBT people on children’s television. How is the best way to tackle that? Do you support broadcast regulation or diversity quotas?
Well, I started off by challenging the TV companies to just think about it and to address it because it ends up with the legislation that we passed being a bit meaningless if we don’t follow through in the way we behave in our institutions and in our media.
We have to be true to the legislation we’ve passed. The legislation very clearly says that a loving relationship between two people of the same sex is of equal value, so in everything that we then do, as a society, we need to reinforce that, not deny it.
So for example, should they should have gay characters in Peppa Pig, or is there a limit?
If you impose arbitrary limits, you’re saying that actually at heart, it’s not equatable. It should absolutely not be out of bounds, which it appears to be at the moment.
It is inconsistent with the philosophy that has led to the legislation. That’s the principle point. So, we have to be clear and consistent.
If we’re not, it still tells that teenager, who is struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, that there is something not quite normal about how they feel. And that puts unfair strain on that individual which we should not be prepared to tolerate.
The Lib Dems are in support of LGBT-inclusive sex education in all schools. Should that apply to religious schools?
It should apply to them. Children, wherever they are, should have the same access to guidance and support and structure, learning- as anyone else.
Because your parent happens to be a devout Catholic or a Jew, whatever it might be, should not deny you the chance to understand yourself and who you might be and to encourage you to believe that there’s nothing wrong with you.
It ends up with people being tortured, as they go there because of a pressure to conform to the faith that they’ve been brought up with and people have to be able to be themselves.
Is there a danger in conflict with faith groups who are opposed to teaching about LGBT rights?
To win arguments, you sometimes have to confront the issues and, whether you’re talking about the access to goods and services or whether it’s the ‘cake’ case, whatever it might be, battles have to be fought to establish new principles.
If the principle is a strong one and one based on the principle of everyone being treated equally, you can’t actually relent on that. You have to be consistent to your principles.
On reparative therapy – would you support legislation to ban it entirely?
We had very interesting discussions over this. I proposed for the first time this Memorandum of Understanding. I think it was met with a lot of support, when we actually secured it because it established clear principles that everybody agreed to.
The interesting debate we had then was, ‘how do you actually ban it?’ My starting point is, I don’t want this. This has no place in society at all.
It’s based on a totally false premise that it’s an illness. The worry some people put to me about banning it is it just emerges in another form, it is just described and defined as something else.
I want it banned. I don’t want this to take place in our society. I think it puts intolerable pressure on an individual because it’s reinforcing a fear that they might have that they are abnormal in some way. My only interest is in finding legislation that makes that work.
I’m totally open-minded to statutory regulation. If you have as a condition to regulation that anything that treats sexuality as an illness cannot be allowed as therapy.
We must make certain that someone who is anxious and distressed by their sexuality, can get help. We mustn’t end up with unintended consequences.
People who would be cheerleading these issues in Parliament a couple years ago, Lynne Featherstone, Stephen Williams, Stephen Gilbert, are gone from Parliament. How do you address the damage from losing those people?
Well, first of all, it’s a massive loss because those were very impressive and brave colleagues who, I think, advanced the cause significantly through the stand that they took.
It falls on the rest of us to make sure we remain true to their legacy and that we protect that legacy, and that we’re prepared to work with other people beyond the party to achieve what, for me, are core liberal advances.”
HPV vaccines are currently administered to women only because of the herd immunity principle – based on the idea that men will be protected because they have sex with women.
However, it excludes men who have sex with men, who are put at risk by current policy. Would you support introducing HPV vaccines for MSM?
Yes, I would. Again, it’s treating people equally.
There’s public health case for this. If the purpose of it is to prevent illness, life-threatening illness… then, why would you exclude one group of people? Again, the fear is that it’s based on assumption that one sort of activity is less ‘right’ than another.
The rates of STIs have increased annually over the past few years. While the testings increased, easy-access to STI screening remains poor. Most GP practices, for example, don’t offer any STI screening at all.
What should be done to increase the availability of STI testing, beyond just saying people should just go to a sexual health clinic, which many people don’t want to do?
Fundamentally, this is a failure of policy because, you end up not preventing the conditions that could be prevented or stopping them in their tracks.
We have to make sure that we improve access, and the reason I fought to introduce standards of access in mental health was to ensure that people were treated equally, whatever their particular condition happened to be. The same sort of principle should apply here as well.
I’m open-minded about settings where you can provide support and I completely understand why people don’t want to go to a sort of stigmatised clinic, so we need to be open-minded about other settings that may work to make it easy for people to access support.
The principle must be that we need to improve access from a good public health point of view, quite apart from the fact that people should again be treated equally.
Health Minister Jane Ellison recently gave an answer to Tory MP Michael Fabricant on the blood donation ban for men who have sex with men. In it she admitted that Public Health England does not collect data that could review the policy. What’s your view on the ban?
It’s based on prejudice, ultimately. We should always be driven by science here and the evidence.
As a Liberal, I’m very keen on the idea of – with freedom, comes responsibility. If the state behaves in a way that discourages people taking responsibility and doing the right thing, that’s a pretty disturbing position to get ourselves into.
I think we should be enabling people and not putting blockages in the way of people contributing to society, as well as taking from society.
Speaking to PinkNews before the election, Nick Clegg told PinkNews he would consider the case for commercial surrogacy. Currently, surrogacy is legal in the UK, but you’re not allowed any sort of formal, commercial agreement around it. Would you consider a case where introducing systems like they have in California?
Yes, I would, absolutely.
It’s not an issue that I’ve particularly looked at, so I’d be fascinated to look at the evidence from California.
But, if it’s enabled people to have a family life, then it must be something that’s attractive. I would inevitably be open-minded about it.
It’s illegal to discriminate based on sexuality in the UK, but, at this moment, a hospital chaplain is fighting a battle with church leaders within the Church of England because he was blocked from a promotion because he married a same-sex partner. They’ve decided, within the Church of England, to punish him for that and that’s legal. Why do we allow the Church of England to discriminate?
Well, we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t.
The Church of England should not be behaving in that way, and it raises the questions you rightly do about the need for laws that ensure that organizations don’t discriminate in that way.
There are so many gay and lesbian people in the church who want to play a part, who want to give of themselves. It’s an outrage, the idea that someone should be blocked from progress because they’ve done something which is now totally normal and celebrated.
Someone who is a priest in the Church of England, who loves someone of their own sex, where the state has said that this should be accepted as normal… the idea that the church prevents that person from being who they are is just a total anachronism.
It comes back to this fact that the church is saying that something is a sin and, as a society, we’ve got over that. There are very many people in the church who now accept this completely.
It’s just the impact on that individual, who wants to give of themselves, wants to play a responsible role in society and is actually held back from having a happy life because they can’t be who they are.
Would that apply to other religious groups?
My liberalism doesn’t understand boundaries. It must be a universal principle, but people should be able to lead their lives as they choose to lead them.
Tim Farron in his PinkNews interview said that the Church of England should be disestablished. Is this something you would support?
Yes, that’s my view. I’m not someone of faith. I’m agnostic. I don’t know what I believe. I don’t have clear faith.
I don’t speak as someone of the Church of England or of another denomination, but I think that it would be in the interest of the Church of England not to be the established church.
We have same-sex marriage now in England, Wales, and Scotland, but it continues to be blocked in Northern Ireland. The current government says it’s a devolved matter, but if the Supreme Court in the US can make it legal across the whole of the US, how can we be a country where same-sex couples can marry in one part of the country, but not in another? That puts us in a very weird place in particular if you’re a Liberal.
It does, and, sometimes, there are conflicting principles.
Fundamental to my liberalism is powerful citizens, power being as close to people as possible and preferably helped by themselves, so they can lead their life as they want to lead it.
It also involves power being de-centralised from the centre. I strongly advocate devolving power across our country to Scotland, to Wales, but also to our counties around the country, so that they can control their own destiny.
If we had a sort of written constitution, which of course, is what the American Supreme Court bases its decisions on, then there can be universal rights.
We don’t have that; we have a messy, unwritten constitution, which makes things much more complicated.
I strongly support those who are campaigning for change in Northern Ireland and it’s wonderful to see there was a march there, gathering a lot of people together.
I’m very attracted by the idea of some sort of basic fundamental rights that should apply across the whole UK. I’m uncomfortable with discrimination being allowed in one part of the UK, but not in another.
Although there are conflicting principles here – if we’d had a recent constitution, we would surely have put within it the principle that everyone is treated equally.
Of course, we have the European Convention on Human Rights, so people in Northern Ireland will take their case to the European Court. Would you support people taking a case like that?
On that, the government’s been having very, very messy arguments in terms of the re-negotiation and of the British Bill of Rights. What’s your view about the importance of the European Convention? Specifically for LGBT rights, many advances that happened under the Labour government years were as a result of judgements in the European Court.
I support the retention of the Human Rights Act, The great irony is that Tories who want to get rid of it, some of them just want to get rid of it completely, and some of them want a situation where you actually end up relying more on the European institution.
We’ve given people power to exercise their rights and to enforce their rights in British courts, which surely should be something the Tory Right supports.
I don’t really understand where they’re at with this.
How on Earth can we maintain our moral authority in challenging Putin, for example, on him crushing the rights of gay and lesbian people in Russia, to live their lives as they wish to, if we have, along the way, abandoned our own Human Rights Act? It would be an extraordinary act of folly.
In the past, Nick Clegg and William Hague have pushed for the rainbow flag to fly over all government departments for pride, but that might not on as wide a scale this year. We also have the situation with embassies, where Mr Hague previously allowed discretion to fly it, which the new foreign secretary hasn’t allowed.
I don’t agree with the foreign secretary and his attitude. I think it would be great for the UK to be seen by leading the way by proudly expressing our solidarity.
It’s a good expression of solidarity and it’s government leading the argument. It’s setting the principle that here’s a group of people in our society who absolutely should be treated equally and here is government, expressing solidarity towards these people.
Finally, a hard-hitting question… you have been backed by Dappy from N-Dubz! How on earth did that happen?
Absolutely, I’m proud of it!
Our son Archie works with Dappy – he’s his manager basically, and I knew nothing about this. Some people might assume this is some great conspiracy and that I fixed this in some way. I knew nothing about it!
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I was coming out of a funeral, and I saw on my phone a message from our son, Archie, saying, ‘Dad, Dappy’s endorsed you! You need to respond, retweet it please now!’
Can you name a song by N-Dubz?
They did a song jointly with the artist that Archie and a friend broke, Tinchy Stryder. They left school at 17 when they were halfway through their A-levels to set up a record label, signed Tinchy Stryder, and, two years later, he had two number one hits… one of which is called, ‘Number 1,’ which is done jointly with Dappy.
I’m impressed! I’m not sure many MPs could answer that…
Editorial note: This interview was conducted before allegations of ‘push polling’ were levied against Mr Lamb’s campaign.