Language matters if you want LGBT politicians to succeed

LGBT candidates perform well at election time, but have to contend with dog whistle politics.

First publish on the Staggers

In the run-up to the 2010 general election, I presented a paper to the committee of the organisation LGBT Labour to set up a fund to help openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans candidates standing for parliament. While there were considerable barriers for LGBT people being selected, the message continually coming back from those who had tried to get selected was that members feared how an openly LGBT would be viewed by the electorate at large. We therefore decided to use the funds raised not to help with selections but to offer a financial dividend to the local party: if you select an openly LGBT candidate they will have additional resources to help put their argument forward. It was joking referred to as “Dorothy’s List” but when we realised it was raising considerable sums of money it was formally renamed the “Chris Smith List” This was in honour of the former cabinet minister who in 1985 made history when he told an assembled crowd in Rugby: “Good afternoon, I’m Chris Smith, I’m the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury and I’m gay.”

By the time Gordon Brown went to the palace to dissolve parliament, £14,000 had been raised and was dished out to the frontline fight to keep our government and its LGBT representation. From the outset it was decided that more money should go to new candidates and to address the gross underrepresentation of the community’s diversity, more money would go to women, BAME, disabled and trans candidates.

As Olivia Bailey in her latest report, The Ideal Candidate, identifies, this was not to be a huge drain on the Chris Smith List funds. She finds that: “While parliament is reportedly one of the queerest legislatures in the world, LGBT representatives are overwhelmingly male, white, non-disabled and cisgender.’ Evidence presented to Bailey suggests this feeds through the movement, ‘LGBT Labour suggests about nine out of 10 of the Labour LGBT councillors that they are aware of are men.” This must be addressed.

One former Labour headquarters staffers told a roundtable conducted for Bailey’s research that: “Even people who can be right on in terms of equality issues will still have this idea of an ideal candidate – and that includes a wife and two kids.” They are not wrong. Sadly. Over the years many have situated themselves as the ‘family candidate’ when standing against an LGBT opponent. We still have a weird tradition of putting family portraits on election leaflets, something often more challenging for LGBT candidate – not because they do not have partners and kids – but because this profiling of their family does risk a backlash. While it is something all parties do, Labour candidates should lead the way in the not using family portraits when up against openly LGBT incumbents. We should call on LGBTory to secure the same reassurance from the Tory hierarchy.

During the last parliament one candidate in the east Midlands had two members dog his campaign with questions about schools and childcare policy, heavily implying that his sexuality meant he could not have kids and was therefore not suitable to be the town’s member of parliament. Tory leadership contender Andrea Leadsom made front-page news when trying to challenge the would-be prime minister’s suitability for the role because of her lack of children. This has been happening in all parties, included the Labour party, for years. Worse still, there have been examples in safe Labour seats where women without children and partners are rumoured to be lesbians – which should not be an insult, but this untrue notion is not circulated as a compliment. If Australia’s first woman prime minister Julia Gillard can get it you can be damn sure others are on the receiving end of such appalling behaviour.

When faced with this situation, the candidate seeking selection has no advantage in making a complaint to the party and risking yet greater publicity for a particular point of difference. Labour needs to think this through in more detail. A red/yellow card system should be considered where people are given warning before sanction. Considering how LGBT aspirants are reluctant to give these allegations more publicity while ballots are out, a post-selection process should be developed.

“Language matters” is an important lesson from this Fabian Society report. All of politics has a problem “with the dog whistle” but it is worst when found in Labour because we tell each other, and the wider world, that we are better. “The party of equality,” we say. That rings pretty hollow when only men can win one member one vote ballots in the Labour party and the Tories are on their second woman prime minister before Labour has even offered the voters a woman contender for the highest office in the land. This report – not all doom and gloom – highlights more areas where the party just cannot be complacent.

The next leap forward needed is on trans representation. Labour has two “out” trans councillors. Bailey calls on Labour to have, “At least one trans MP [after] the next election.” Here leadership matters. The party leader should say publicly that they want not just a move diverse slate of candidate but be specific. They must mention trans. Such a statement gives massive cover if a trans candidate where to come forward. Their candidacy can be viewed as a positive: they are part of delivering the leader’s vision, not just for their own ambitions. It is a small but important correction in the process the top of the party and quickly, and easily provided.

Bailey rightly points out that there is “no evidence that LGBT candidates perform less well at election time”. In fact, at the last election might prove that the opposite is true. In May 2015 Labour won just 10 seats from the Tories, three of whose candidates were recipients of the Chris Smith List: Cat Smith, Peter Kyle and Wes Streeting, the last two having the two biggest swings against the Tories in the whole country. Their sexuality might not be the reason why but it does suggest that things can get better.

Richard Angell is a former secretary of LGBT Labour

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