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The Case for abolishing Bristol’s Mayor

March 15, 2021

Bristol’s directly elected mayor is no longer needed.  The people of Bristol should be offered the chance to abolish it, via a referendum. 

The eight year innovation in city governance has side-lined and undermined seventy elected city councillors.  While the office of mayor has improved the visibility of the city’s local leader it has not really improved accountability for big decisions. It is too easy for the mayor to avoid scrutiny and dismiss questions and criticism.  The mayor is responsible for a large range of city services, from social care to museums, from recycling to swimming pools.  This is too much to put in the hands of one individual if the mayor is not minded to share and delegate power to councillors.  The mayor is not needed as an ambassador for the city and the region as that role is now held by the regional mayor of the West of England.

A confession – I have changed my mind on this issue.  Back in 2012 I was marginally in favour of a switch from Council Leader (elected by the councillors) to a Mayor elected directly by the public.  The Coalition offered a referendum to each of the main English “core” cities, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, etc,  Leicester and Liverpool councillors decided to change their governance without a referendum.   The government promised to set up a “cabinet of mayors” that would provide a strong voice for England’s regional capitals in Westminster.  It was this issue that swung me behind the change.  As one of Bristol’s MPs and a previous councillor I was frustrated that the greater Bristol and Bath area (the county that used to be Avon) constantly lost out on investment, particularly on transport.  The cabinet of mayors would give regional capitals a way of influencing ministers.  But in the end, only Bristol voted for change and the cabinet of mayors never happened.

Then in 2016 the by now Conservative government decided to set up a network of regional “metro” mayors, on a par with the Mayor of London.  Since May 2017 Bristol has been part of the West of England region (a not very clear name) with its own regional mayor.  At a stroke, Bristol’s city mayor was eclipsed as the most prominent and powerful local politician.  It is the job of the regional mayor to win government investment in major infrastructure projects.  It is also the role of the regional mayor to work with UK Trade and Investment on winning commercial inward investment and growing the region’s exports.   The current city mayor does appear to enjoy flying around the world, burnishing his cherished global leader credentials.  But they are flights of fancy, without a legitimate purpose.

So my main reason for changing my mind on the need for a city mayor is the creation of the regional mayor.  As Keynes said, “when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do?”  But I’ve also changed my mind as a result of witnessing how the city mayor has failed to improve city services and the quality of life in general, particularly in the (Covid extended) five year term of the current mayor. Successful leaders don’t just send out strong signals. They also listen to colleagues and draw strength from their experience and skills.  The current city mayor has presided over a game of musical chairs in his cabinet councillor team.  The stability of a (normally) four year term of the mayor has been undermined by constant changes in the personnel of his cabinet.  The mayor has also shunned scrutiny by “backbench” councillors, despite many of them having long experience in the running of the city.

Running a major city requires not just a strong and accountable leader but a team of talented councillors around that leader.  The range of public services is too great for any one individual to have direct oversight.  The experience of councillors from all four parties should be drawn upon to head up services or to provide scrutiny and challenge to those who are exercising power.  A directly elected mayor can choose to ignore the wisdom of others, leaving councillors effectively impotent.  A council leader accountable to all councillors has to work with their peers, involving more people in the making of decisions. Changing the system is no guarantee of high quality leadership, I was a young councillor in the 1990s when there were several dreadful council leaders. But the council leader system does at least mean an administration of some of the talents, rather than an administration operating on the whim of one mayor.

My Liberal Democrat colleagues on the council are trying to secure a referendum on the future of the city mayor.  The current city council could resolve to hold a referendum in May 2022.  In this year’s local election every Lib Dem candidate is standing on a platform of offering that referendum. If a majority of councillors don’t vote for the possibility of change then we have the option of securing the signatures of five per cent of the electorate, which would trigger a referendum.

I am fairly sure that Bristol will hold a referendum on whether to continue with the city mayoral model.  In 2012 I voted for change and when I next get the opportunity I will vote for change again, hopefully with the outcome of abolishing the post of city mayor.

Statues, plaques and painful history

August 18, 2020

Statues have been moved and removed, defaced and smashed since ancient times.  As ruling dynasties are supplanted and once powerful states are vanquished their replacements were often keen to sweep away the physical memories of their predecessors.  During the last two centuries archaeologists the world over have found in rubbish heaps or river beds the busts or decapitated statue heads of former kings and emperors.

So while I was initially shocked that some protestors in my home city of Bristol toppled the statue of Edward Colston and dunked it in the harbour, when I reflected on it I thought it was an appropriate action.  While it was the police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota that triggered the Black Lives Matter demonstration, the Bristol context was years of civic foot dragging and burying heads in the historical sands of the city’s involvement in African slavery.

Since the toppling of Colston we’ve seen the defacing of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, the toppling of Columbus in Baltimore, the decision of Oxford University to remove a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes and Liverpool University caving in to pressure to remove Gladstone as the name of a hall of residence.

Colston was a wealthy man from the time of Queen Anne, who made much of his fortune from lending money to slave traders.  He was also an official of the Royal African Company. His link to slavery and its 21st century descendant of racism is pretty clear.  The case against explorers is quite weak, they didn’t decide the colonial policies that came later.  The case against Rhodes seems to rest on a belief that imperialism was entirely bad, rather than him being the British equivalent of the Belgian monster Leopold II.

But the case against Gladstone is at the opposite end of the spectrum of 2020 judgement to Colston, it seems to me to be more to do with a left wing score settling against anyone (especially current Liberals) who doesn’t embrace the entirety of their world view.  In their world, there is no room for balance or nuance. A historical life should be viewed in its entirety.  Gladstone was clearly what we would now call a man on a journey.  In his early years he was indeed the “rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories” but by the mid-point of his extraordinary political life he was the “People’s William.”  In his career he achieved far more to improve Britain than the people’s Jeremy.

Statues and place names are physical reminders of particular points in our past.  They are not in themselves history and by moving or changing them we are not erasing the past.  If that past is uncomfortable for contemporary society then liberals have a duty to find a way to reconcile the need to understand history with a desire for a cohesive and inclusive society.  Sometimes the balance will tip in favour of removal of the painful reminder – what could be more of an insult to a 21st century Bristolian of Afro-Caribbean origin than the statue of a slave trader in the centre of the city?  It’s right that Colston will now go to the city museum, as part of the displays on the history of Bristol and slavery.

I’m reminded of a similar situation in Estonia, which I visited on a Liberal Democrat delegation in 2007.  The liberal government had moved a statue of a Soviet soldier from the centre of Tallinn to a cemetery that contained war graves. The Estonians saw the Russians as occupiers and oppressors, not liberators.  This caused consternation in Moscow and Putin responded with a cyber-attack on the Estonian economy.  Most central and east European capital cities have statue parks of communist era politicians.  Statues are indeed powerful symbols from the past.  While on another delegation, to Australia, I saw Dublin’s statue of Queen Victoria which had been shipped off to a Sydney shopping centre, probably the world’s longest journey by a statue.

In most circumstances I believe the balance tips in favour of keeping the statue or place name but with an accompanying plaque or information panel telling the full warts and all story of the person who is commemorated.  As liberals we believe in rational debate, a sifting of the evidence leading to an understanding of a situation, from which we can decide whether and how to change that situation or be content with how things stand.

A totally illiberal way to respond to our past is to demand a complete rearrangement of the facts of history so that they can be judged by or made to conform to contemporary values or opinions.  I recently gave a brief talk to the Friends of a local library on the political language of George Orwell.  We don’t live in an Orwellian society but much of his language and the tactics of the characters of 1984 has seeped into our current politics.  I’m thinking in the context of this article about Winston Smith’s explanation of the work of the Ministry of Truth, “Do you realise that the past, starting from yesterday, has actually been abolished?…Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered….History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”  Some of the more extreme demands to sweep away all the statues and place names that commemorate dead white men come straight out of this Orwellian attitude, perhaps unwittingly.  Yes there is an imbalance of representation in our public art. The answer is not to remove what we have but to put up more statues, busts, murals and paintings to women, people of colour and gay people.  My nomination for the empty plinth vacated by Colston is Hannah More, a Bristolian author, educationalist and campaigner with Wilberforce for the ending of slavery.

To build a modern society that is cohesive and where everyone is valued and enabled to make a contribution, one of things we must do is understand why society is in its current state.  That is the role of history and the job of historians is to give us all the complete and unvarnished facts about our journey from whatever point in the past to our present situation.  That history must be inclusive, not because liberals want a current society that is inclusive but because if the story isn’t inclusive then it isn’t complete.

I’m a Welshman from a working class family.  My favourite subject at school was history and I now live on the English side of the Severn as I studied history at the University of Bristol. I’m also gay, regard myself as a feminist and have campaigned against racism. While I don’t judge a book by its cover I do judge a history book by its contents.  Churchill is supposed to have said that “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” He did, won a Nobel Prize for his efforts and history has indeed been overly kind to him.

Until quite recently most of the history books studied at school or found in bookshops to enjoy for your own learning were written by white, male, straight, English, public school, Oxbridge (or Sandhurst) types.  The stories they told were about men like them.  All things good and indeed bad were done by people like them.  Women were ancillary characters, with a few queenly exceptions.  Poor people and slaves were mentioned in the context of the rights taken away or given to them by the ruling elite.  The homosexuality of some of the ruling elite was swept under the carpet.  One of the most popular articles on my blog is about the historic sites in Britain and their LGBT associations that almost always go unmentioned in their guide books.

Fortunately, schools policy in Wales is now in the hands of a female working class Liberal Democrat Minister.  Kirsty Williams has just launched the first post devolution reform of the curriculum.  I was delighted to see her say that history in Welsh schools will be “taught in a pluralistic way, which challenges both the amazing contributions of Welsh people in our own nation and across the world and sometimes things that should make us feel a bit uncomfortable.”

The young beneficiaries of Kirsty’s new curriculum will be shaping Welsh and maybe British society in the middle decades of this century.  Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on our own school years to make us better informed. History isn’t nuclear physics, aspects of it can be learned throughout life by people of all abilities.  Those of us who are campaigning to change society in a more liberal direction have a duty to study our past and act to make sure that our contemporary fellow citizens are able to live their lives without being trapped by their past and to look about them and feel that people like them are valued and celebrated in our public space.


This article was written in June 2020 for publication in Liberator Magazine’s July edition

How to solve our mayoral problem in Bristol and the West of England

August 12, 2020

Since May 2019 I’ve had the pleasure of being one of the Consorts of the Lord Mayor of Bristol.  Prior to the Covid lockdown I attended dozens of events with my friend Cllr Jos Clark.  At most of them at least one person would ask us what was the difference between the Lord Mayor and the Mayor of Bristol?  Perhaps the best answer was given eight years ago by a previous Liberal Democrat Lord Mayor, Peter Main, right at the start of the first term of the first directly mayor George Ferguson, “he’s the power and I’m the glory!”  It’s true that Jos does look rather glorious when wearing the full regalia of her ceremonial office.  It’s also true that Marvin Rees has the political power in Bristol, too much of it in the hands of one person, in my opinion.

But what about the Regional Mayor, I hear some of you ask.  Well he also has lots of power but is timid in his use of it and is almost unknown, even among well-networked movers and shakers.  For better or worse, most people have heard of City Mayor Marvin Rees but few could name Regional Mayor Tim Bowles.

Visible leadership is supposed to be one of the advantages of having a directly elected mayor.  People like to know who’s making the decisions.  But they also say they expect accountability for those decisions.  Sadly, across the West of England we have an invisible mayor who over the last three years has declined to expose himself to any scrutiny from councillors drawn from Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire.  While the Mayor of Bristol is more visible, he is similarly disdainful of scrutiny and makes decisions that ride roughshod over majority opinion in the city.  He’s cancelled plans for a city centre arena and poured millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into a failing energy company.

I should confess that back in 2012 I was a lukewarm supporter of the switch to an elected mayor in Bristol and all of England’s other major cities.  I thought a network of civic leaders with popular mandates would rebalance government away from all powerful Westminster, where I sat at the time as an MP.  But only Bristol chose the model and since 2017 we’ve had the network of regional mayors, covering most of the metropolitan city regions of England.  The Mayor of Bristol is now a spare mayor and I and my Lib Dem colleagues in the city want to see the post abolished.

Complex public services in the city such as social care and special educational needs (both arguably rather neglected by Mayor Rees) and other responsibilities such as parks and libraries would stand a chance of being run better if we draw on the talents of all the 70 city councillors.  But we want to go much further than just turning the clock back to 2012.  We want to offer Bristol’s citizens the chance to have decisions made in their own localities with a network of Neighbourhood Councils.  These would be like the town and parish councils that are normal in the rest of the West of England, everywhere from Bradley Stoke to Radstock.  People in places such as Brislington or Clifton & Hotwells would elect community councillors, who would have the power to raise money to spend on local priorities.  There could also be Neighbourhood Plans, backed by a local referendum.

When I was Minister for Communities and Local Government I streamlined the procedures for setting up new councils and Queens Park (of QPR football club fame) was the first new urban community council to be set up in London.  If I am elected as Mayor of the West of England next year I will make myself accountable not only to the 190 councillors across the region’s three councils but will also have public question times everywhere from Southmead to Nempnett Thrubwell.  Visibility matters in politics but government leaders are more effective if they are transparent and accountable.


The above was originally published as an opinion piece in Bristol 24/7

Bristol and slavery – a flashback to the bicentenary debate in 2007

June 11, 2020

Bristol has made the news around the world with the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston and its dunking in the harbour.  Early this morning it was fished out of the waters and after a clean up will be on its way to MShed, the museum of Bristol’s own history.  I hope the statue goes there in its newly battered, holed and tarnished form as the events of last Sunday are now part of the story of how Bristol has dealt with this troublesome issue of its history.  It is a shame that the statue wasn’t moved there some time ago, which is something I first advocated in 2017 after years of frustrating debate about whether to put an interpretative plaque on the plinth and also whether the name should be changed of the nearby Colston Hall.

Bristol has at times debated, agonised and wrung its hands about what to do about the painful legacy of the city’s role in the slave trade and the wealth that the ownership of slave plantations brought to some Bristol families.  Thirteen years ago those discussions were at their peak when the city and country marked the bicentenary of the ending of the slave trade in 1807.  There were a large number of events in the “Abolition 200” programme and as the then MP for Bristol West I attended and spoke at many of them.  These included the huge rally at the Temple Meads engine shed (then next to the Empire and Commonwealth Museum) when it was a great honour to introduce Jesse Jackson to speak.

Parliament also had an exhibition and several Bristol schools and organisations came to visit.  There was a special debate in the House of Commons, in which I spoke.  Thirteen years ago is a different era in political communications – I wasn’t a blogger then, Facebook was in its infancy and Twitter didn’t exist.  So this speech has probably never been aired before, unless you’re an avid researcher of Hansard.  I’ve just read it for the first time in over a decade and I think all of the words are still valid, so here it is, for the record.  If you want to read the full debate, I’ve pasted the link at the end.  The opening speaker was John Prescott, the then Deputy Prime Minister and MP for Hull, the home of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce.

Extract from the debate on 20th March 2007

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), who was quite parochial in his remarks about various personalities from his constituency who played their part in historic events years ago. I will be similarly parochial about the role that the city of Bristol, which I represent in Parliament, played in events 200 years ago. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one of my predecessors, Edmund Burke, who bravely spoke against slavery while being the Member for Bristol, which was one of the reasons why he had to flee the city in 1780 and not contest an election again in that particular seat.

The question of slavery is undoubtedly an emotive issue for present-day Bristolians, and its legacy has been much discussed in the city. Bristol was one of the country’s three principal slaving ports. Once the royal monopoly on slavery that restricted the slave trade to London was lifted in 1698, Bristol merchants entered into the slave trade with some enthusiasm, I have to acknowledge, although by the middle of the 18th century the city was overtaken by Liverpool as one of the principal slaving ports in the country. As well as the slave trade itself—in economic terms, it is a moot point as to how much prosperity the slave trade brought to the city, because many slaving voyages ended in a net loss—the city prospered from the trades associated with it, such as sugar, tobacco and brass.
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Many of the slave plantation owners in the West Indies had a direct link to Bristol and contributed much to the city’s wealth. Ironically, the compensation that they received once full emancipation took effect in 1838 contributed further to the city’s prosperity.

Contrary to what many people believe, very few slaves passed through the city of Bristol, although many became servants there. In north Bristol, in Henbury churchyard, there is the grave of Scipio Africanus, who is buried there. In the city centre, we commemorate one of the few known slaves apart from Scipio Africanus, who was known as Pero and was the slave of a West Indies plantation owner who lived in the Georgian House in the centre of my constituency.

St. Paul’s, in my constituency, has the one of the oldest communities of West Indian origin in the country. The legacy of slavery and the racism that is associated with it is a very hot topic in my constituency at the moment; indeed, it has been a big topic of discussion in the city for many decades. Some significant progress has been made. The hon. Member for Battersea said that the first black mayor was in his borough. Bristol can claim the first Afro-Caribbean lord mayor—Jim Williams, who was a Labour councillor and became lord mayor of Bristol in 1990. I was pleased to play my part in the election of the city’s first black Afro-Caribbean-origin lady councillor—Shirley Marshall—in my constituency in 2003.

The question of how to commemorate the events of 200 years ago has been the subject of much debate in the city. How do we balance a recognition of the shame of the city’s association with slavery, which is much referred to by people from outside the city, with a commemoration of the blow for civil rights and human dignity that this Parliament made in 1807? In fact, the city and people of Bristol played a role in both aspects.

In the mid-1990s, when I was a councillor for the city centre of Bristol, a couple of Labour councillors and I mounted a campaign to ensure that the city owned up to its rather shameful past as regards its association with the slave trade, because there was nothing to be seen in the city’s museums that reflected it. That led to an exhibition in the Georgian House, which has been open to the public for about a century and was owned by the Pinney family, who were big plantation owners in Nevis in the West Indies. That led to a larger exhibition in the Industrial museum, which will lead in turn to an exhibition later this year in the British Empire and Commonwealth museum next to Bristol Temple Meads station. The new city of Bristol museum, for which I have campaigned for about 15 years, will open in 2009, on the back of investment from the city council and the national lottery. It will have a permanent gallery showing the warts-and-all story of Bristol’s role in the slave trade.

Mr. Steen: Has the hon. Gentleman any idea of how much new slavery there is in Bristol? Has he any idea of how many women and children there are who have been trafficked? I am not in any way demeaning what he is saying, but slavery is not dead, and it is certainly pretty active in Bristol.

Stephen Williams: I am not sure whether slavery is pretty active in Bristol. I heard the hon. Gentleman’s speech and his earlier interventions on other Members,
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and I recognise his passionate commitment to raising the issue of human trafficking. He and other hon. Members have mentioned prostitution, and that is certainly an unfortunate feature of a major city such as the capital of the west of England. In my constituency, unfortunately, there are women of various nationalities who are there, either because of their drug dependency or no doubt because they have been trafficked into the area, to satisfy the quite awful needs of some men in the city of Bristol. That is a matter of shame for all of us, and a reminder of the lack of human dignity that some people have to face.

How Bristol should face up to the events of 200 years ago is a matter of great debate there. Some people wish to erase all memory of the city’s role in the slave trade by altering street names and the name of our concert hall, and by not allowing a shopping centre to make even a convoluted reference to merchants. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the role of Edward Colston in the city of Bristol, and that, too, is a topic for debate at the moment. I believe, however, that the way to deal with the past is not to erase it from our memory but to recognise it, debate it and interpret it wherever we find an association with the past that is linked to slavery, be it a statue, a hall or a shopping centre. Wherever we find a link, however tenuous, we should interpret it so that people can understand the issues of the past, deal with them and relate them to what is happening today.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) mentioned the apology that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had made on behalf of all of us in this regard. The question of an apology has also been a topic of debate in Bristol. I do not believe that the present generation of Bristolians or their elected representatives can apologise for the actions of people who were alive in the city 200 years ago. We cannot transfer guilt on to those people, particularly as only a minority of the citizens of that time participated in the slave trade or had a direct interest in the West Indies. Moreover, many ordinary Bristolians campaigned against the trade. It is better to recognise all facets of the trade and to understand our legacy. The city council has, none the less, debated the question of an apology and issued a statement of profound regret, which was in a tone similar to the one issued by the Prime Minister on behalf of the nation.

I want to talk briefly about the role of the city in the events of 200 years ago. As early as 1783, the Society of Friends in Bristol first mounted a campaign against the slave trade in which some Bristolians were engaged. On 27 June 1787, Thomas Clarkson first arrived in Bristol to gather the evidence that many hon. Members have referred to today. That evidence was subsequently used by Wilberforce in his parliamentary campaign. Clarkson’s 1808 two-volume account of his campaign was entitled “The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament”, which was rather a long title for a series of memoirs. In it, he noted that Bristolians were not at all proud of the trade that was taking place in the city. He said that

“every body seemed to execrate it, though no one thought of its abolition.”

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In Bristol, aided by Mr. Thompson, the landlord of the “Seven Stars” pub, which still exists in the city centre, Thomas Clarkson was escorted around the public houses where seamen were recruited to go on slaving voyages. That formed the basis of the evidence that he gathered to campaign against the slave trade in the country, and which he fed to Wilberforce for his campaign in Parliament. The evidence of maltreatment of the seamen aroused almost as much moral outrage at the time as that of the maltreatment of the captives. There were tales of floggings, burnings with hot pitch, branding with tongs and throwing people overboard.

In 1787, a local committee was established in Bristol for the abolition of the slave trade, bringing together Quakers, Anglicans and dissenters, as well as leading public figures in the city. Clarkson then left to gather further evidence in Liverpool. In Bristol, the debate raged for the next 20 years between the abolitionists and the West Indian interests that wished to perpetuate the slave trade. I have to say that my parliamentary predecessors did not play a particularly distinguished role in 1807 in the passing of the Act that we are commemorating tonight. The 1830 election, however, was fought directly on the issue of the continuance of slavery, and competing Whig candidates—one for emancipation and one against—stood. Sadly, the forces of emancipation were defeated—though certainly not disgraced—by 3,378 votes to 2,843. Of course, that was on a very limited pre-1832 franchise. The Act to emancipate slaves became one of the first passed by the reformed House after 1832.

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 is arguably the first blow for human rights by any national Parliament on behalf of the peoples of other countries. In opening the debate, the Deputy Prime Minister referred to the teaching of history in our schools, as did other Members. I have spoken on black history month a couple of times since being elected a Member of Parliament, and I share with the hon. Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler), who is not currently in her place, the hope that black history issues will be integral to the new history curriculum, and I am assured that that has been the case in Bristol schools for many years. I shall invite all the schools in my constituency to come and see the exhibition in Westminster Hall. Cabot school in St. Paul’s in my constituency has already had an exhibition and commemoration of present-day and historical black heroes.

There is much cynicism about politics, but 2007 provides an opportunity for us to remind people of the good that politics and Parliament can do, as well as to remind them of how much good can be achieved by those who campaign outside Parliament. When I studied history in school, I learned of the success of the Anti-Corn Law League compared with the failure of Chartism. I was not taught at the time of the success in 1807 of the campaign from outside Parliament to end the slave trade. On Sunday, in Bristol, as in Hull and Liverpool, there will be a service in the cathedral to commemorate the events of 200 years ago. Across the city, the bells will be rung, by contrast with when they were rung on the many occasions that Wilberforce’s attempts to abolish the slave trade were defeated. When those bells fall silent, all of us in Bristol will have an opportunity to have a period of quiet contemplation
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and reflection on the events that have taken place in the city’s past, and on how we face up to the legacy of slavery in today’s society.


You can read all the other speeches and interventions from MPs here, including my correction of a Labour backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, who refused to accept that Whiteladies Road and Blackboy Hill were not connected to slavery –

Bristol Energy – what are they hiding?

June 10, 2020

Bristol’s taxpayers have sunk about £40million into trying to make a success of Bristol Energy Limited.  I say taxpayers because the money spent by Bristol City Council all comes from households or businesses, one way or another.  But we taxpayers were never really asked whether we wanted to take such a large punt in the volatile energy market.  We don’t know how our money’s been spent, despite repeated attempts to find out by opposition party councillors. Mayor Marvin Rees is determined to keep it that way, presiding over an energy company where we are all kept in the dark. He and his Labour colleagues voted down a joint Liberal Democrat and Conservative motion that called for an independent inquiry into the company’s finances.

I wonder why the Mayor is being so secretive.  What is he trying to stop us seeing? Nobody should reasonably expect him to be an expert in the complexities of the energy market.  But we are entitled to expect our political leaders to have a care for the stewardship of our money in their hands. It’s been a concern of many people for a long time that Bristol Energy was haemorrhaging cash.  Rather than a return on its investment, the city was propping up an ailing and maybe ultimately failing company.  When did Mayor Rees become aware of this fact? Did he understand the scale of the problem? Did he pay due attention to briefings and warnings?  Or was he distracted by more interesting stuff in his in-box?

Mayor Rees and I are both keen watchers of American politics, so I know he will be aware of this quote – “You campaign in poetry but govern in prose.”  It was said by the former (and father of the current one) Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo.  The speech was a warning Cuomo gave his fellow Democrats that you can have all the highfalutin language and soaring phrases you like but the people expect politicians to work hard, study the detail and act to make a difference.  Many of us have sat through a speech from Rees and wondered what it all meant.  Anyone watching Rees at Mayor’s question time in City Hall will have cringed at the disdainful way he responds to both councillors and the public.  This is a mayor who does not react well when challenged and appears to fear scrutiny.

Another well-known aspect of Rees’s behaviour is his taste for foreign travel.  We have a city mayor who clearly enjoys globetrotting and one suspects has desires to be seen as a global figure.  I’m not opposed to politicians travelling, I did some myself when in office.  But the travel must have some purpose, to win investment for the city (which is actually the West of England Mayor’s job) or to learn some policy lessons to transform services in Bristol.   Rees is actually in charge of several essential services in Bristol.  The biggest, social care, is critical during the COVID crisis.  But I suspect that Rees finds all this prosaic stuff about budgets and services rather dull.  Much more fun to attend a global parliament of mayors.

Perhaps this is what the Mayor wants to keep from our eyes.  That he was so busy travelling around the world and talking about illusory billions for an Underground that will never be built that he failed to act soon enough to stop the wasting of tens of millions at Bristol Energy.  He managed to stop the true scale of the horror from emerging before the elections that were scheduled for May this year.  Now the peoples’ verdict on his term of office has to wait till next year and by then we will surely know the full scale of the mess and what it’s cost us all.  The outcome for Rees could be dire and maybe more people will conclude that it’s time to switch off the post of elected mayor too.


This article was originally published by Bristol 24/7 –

How to stop a Tory landslide

November 12, 2019

Boris Johnson looks set to achieve a landslide victory in the general election.  With just four weeks to go the Tories are on 35% or more in the most recent opinion polls, enough in our fraudulent first past the post electoral system to secure a Commons majority for both Tony Blair in 2005 and David Cameron in 2015.

Our politics has become more fragmented in the last four years, with more parties attracting significant levels of minority support. There are also big differences between the nations and regions of Britain. The Brexit divide between Remainers and Leavers will shake up the normal pattern of voting in individual constituencies. Traditional party allegiances are being abandoned and some well-known figures from both the Conservative and Labour parties are standing as independents, or for the Liberal Democrats or are quitting the field in despair at the state of their former parties.

This fragmented and unstable backdrop could see candidates winning constituencies with less than 30% support from the voters.  Such results used to be an occasional fluke, look up Norwich South in 2010 or Inverness in 1992. There will be many more in general election 2019 and there will be an electoral premium for the party with the largest concentration of minority support.  That party is currently the Conservatives and it’s unlikely to change as I can’t see any signs of the 2017 Corbyn surge being repeated.

Left to its own devices, our electoral system will deliver a Tory landslide.  It will take an unprecedented level of cooperation between the opposition parties to prevent such an outcome.  It won’t be enough for the smaller opposition parties to cooperate.  Labour are by far the biggest players in England and Wales and the SNP loom large in Scotland.  Without their participation, any pact designed to stop a hard Brexit Tory government is doomed to fail or at best to make only a marginal impact.

Three electoral pacts and arrangements have happened in the last week.  First, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and assorted independents formed a non-aggression pact in 49 seats in England and 11 in Wales, under the umbrella of Unite to Remain. Then Nigel Farage announced that his Brexit Party would not stand in the 317 seats won by the Tories in 2017.  These announcements were ostensibly meant to boost or diminish the chances of Remain candidates. But they also had a whiff of self-interest about them, with both the Greens and Farage not having the cash to fight every seat.

The most remarkable electoral pact is in Northern Ireland where parties have put aside their bitter rivalries to thwart the DUP.  Sinn Fein have stood aside in both east and south Belfast to enhance the chances of the liberal Alliance party regaining Belfast and the SDLP regaining Belfast South.  If Sinn Fein can work collaboratively, why shouldn’t Labour and the SNP participate in Unite to Remain?

There’s just a matter of days before the deadline for candidates to submit their nomination papers and hand over the £500 deposit. There’s a little longer for candidates to submit an official withdrawal notice so Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats could easily put together a deal, if they had the will to do so.

To help them out, I’ve compiled my own list of constituencies where one of the parties should stand down as it’s beyond reasonable dispute that another party has a far better stance of stopping a Tory win.  My starting point is the 2017 general election.  But that threw up some extraordinary results, outside the norm in many seats.  The local and Euro elections have also overturned some 2017 results, usually to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats.  But I’ve set aside all those seats where both the Lib Dems and Labour might fancy their chances, such as Cities of London and Westminster or seats that have traditionally been a Tory – Lib Dem battle but Labour won in 2017, most notably Nick Clegg’s former seat of Sheffield Hallam. There are some others where local rivalries might get in the way of a harmonious deal, so I’ve left them out too.  So the following ought to be non-controversial and an honest attempt to identify the party best placed to defeat the Conservative candidate.  In some cases the seats are already covered by Unite to Remain arrangements but bringing Labour or the SNP on board would all but guarantee a Tory defeat.


Liberal Democrats to stand aside in 25 seats for Labour:

Dudley North, Newcastle Under Lyme, Southampton Itchen, Crewe and Nantwich, Canterbury, Barrow and Furness, Keighley, Pudsey, Hastings & Rye, Chapping Barnet, Thurrock, Calder Valley, Stroud (Lib Dems already standing aside), Norwich North, Bishop Aukland, Peterborough, Colne Valley, Stoke on Trent South, Telford, Ipswich, Stockton South, Bolton West, Northampton North, Warwick and Leamington and finally Hendon.

Labour to stand aside in 25 seats for the Liberal Democrats:

Richmond Park, St Ives, Oxford West and Abingdon, Westmoreland and Lonsdale, Carshalton and Wallington, Cheltenham, Devon North, Cheadle, Lewes, St Albans, Wells, Hazel Grove, Cornwall North, Winchester, Thornbury and Yate, Sutton and Cheam, Torbay, Norfolk North, Guildford, Berwick upon Tweed, Harrogate and Knaresborough, Dorset West, Dorset Mid and Poole North and finally two seats where Tory defectors are standing – Totnes and Wokingham.


Liberal Democrats to stand aside in two seats for Labour:

Preseli Pembrokeshire and Clwyd West

Labour to stand down in two seats for the Liberal Democrats:

Brecon and Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire.


In the 2017 general election the Conservatives won several seats that for most of their recent history had been held by either the SNP or the Liberal Democrats.  The split between unionism and Scottish nationalism is an obvious stumbling block.  The question is, do the SNP want to maximise the chances of staying in the European Union, or do they think the prospect of a Johnson majority government enhances their own main objective of ending the British Union? If they genuinely want to obstruct the Tory path to Brexit then they will come to the table and do a limited deal on the following lines.

In Grampian there are two Tory seats that in most elections in the last twenty years were won by the SNP and two that were won by the Liberal Democrats.  In the Borders there is a seat that has been liberal for fifty of the last fifty four years and one that has leaned more nationalist. Remarkably, given the party’s former hegemony in Scotland, there are no marginal seats where Labour is best placed to defeat the Tories.

Liberal Democrats to stand aside in three seats for the SNP:

Angus, Moray plus Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

Scottish National Party to stand aside in favour of the Liberal Democrats:

Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine, Gordon plus Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.


The above is a list of 60 seats either won by the Conservatives in 2017 or at risk of being lost to them in 2019 as part of their path to a majority in the Commons.  If the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National parties stood down in favour of the party most likely to beat the Tories then Johnson could be deprived of his longed for majority.  The deals already in place may help the Liberal Democrats to win a handful of extra seats but without the participation of Labour and the SNP the Unite to Remain initiative is doomed to failure.  Voters would otherwise have to second guess a complicated electoral landscape and vote tactically.  In 1997 that worked but politics was so much simpler at that election.

If a true Unite to Remain coalition can be put together then Johnson can be stopped.  No party will have a majority of MPs and a unity government would have to be formed to legislate for a referendum on Britain’s future place in Europe.  Just maybe Labour would also come to its senses on the need for electoral reform.  Then we can consign electoral pacts and tactical voting to the dustbin, allowing people the pluralism in politics that they expect in all other choices in modern life.

Labour are a Brexit party

April 30, 2019

Labour have let down Remainers again. Their national executive committee backed lifelong Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn by giving only qualified support to another referendum. Instead of giving full support for a public vote on the government’s deal versus Remain they offer only a vote to stop “a bad Tory Brexit” as one of the “options on the table” if they can’t trigger a general election. They are serving up the same fudge that was cooked at Labour’s conference last year.

Remainers have been giving Labour the benefit of the doubt for the last three years since the referendum. This is despite Corbyn refusing to join cross party campaigning in that referendum, being “present but not involved” in making the case for Remain, to use one of his own phrases.

In the 2017 general election Labour racked up massive majorities in urban Remain constituencies, including the one I used to represent. Tens of thousands of Liberal Democrat and Green Party supporters lent their votes to Labour, assuming that Labour would work to stop Brexit. I was surprised by this assumption at the time, given that Labour’s manifesto made no pledge to overturn Brexit and the party was led by a man who had spent decades opposing Britain’s integration with the rest of Europe.

In the intervening two years that benefit of the doubt has often seemed to me to be more blind faith that Labour would eventually do the right thing and come out for another referendum. When it looked as though people might have rumbled them or run out of patience, a few warm words from Keir Starmer or Tom Watson calmed them down. Even Tony Blair was reduced to encouraging Watson, the man he obliged to resign from his government for plotting against his leadership.

When eight Labour MPs jumped ship (though only partly over Europe) more encouraging noises eminated from the shadow cabinet to steady the nerves of those who might have been tempted to follow them. But surely now the game is up? It must now be obvious to everyone that Labour has no intention of giving full throttled support to a second referendum. Labour might want to stop a Tory Brexit but only so they can substitute their own softer version.

Labour must now be considered as Britain’s fourth Brexit party. They join the originals UKIP, the custodians Tories and the upstart defenders in Farage’s new outfit.

This leaves three strong Remain parties in England, plus the SNP and Plaid Cymru. The Liberal Democrats are the biggest, strongest and most consistent of the Remain parties. My party and its Liberal Party predecessor has supported Britain’s place as a positive member of the EEC and the EU since before I was born. It’s support has never wavered, when all other parties have had periods of open hostility to Britain’s membership. The party has always been united on the issue, while the Tories, Labour and the Green Party have been divided.

Remainers who trusted Labour in 2017 now need a new political home. The next few weeks give them two chances to show their disgust with Labour. In the local elections this Thursday the Liberal Democrats look set to continue their local government revival, with pundits predicting big gains. Three weeks later Remainers should unite behind the Liberal Demcrats to maximise the number of hard Remain candidates elected to the European Parliament. The Green Party and ChangeUK may also support Remain but they lack the strength on the ground to mount a significant challenge to the Brexit parties.

The Liberal Democrats have taken an electoral battering for mistakes, both perceived and real, during the coalition years. But Brexit is the defining issue of our times and the Liberal Democrats have stood firm on the right side. Hundreds of new councillors and a group of new MEPs will revive the party and give a voice to millions of people let down by Labour. They will also work hard to build strong local communities and a positive future for Britain in Europe.

Happy un-Brexit Day but what happens next?

March 29, 2019

Tonight was meant to be a time of deep national gloom for me and millions of people who wanted Britain to remain in the European Union. The second anniversary of Theresa May’s triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was set to be Brexit Day. But MPs have now rejected her Withdrawal Agreement for the third time, so maybe in future we will look back on today as a Remain Day. Today was the day when it became more likely that we will end up staying a full member state of the EU. I really hope so but we are not there yet.

Now that today’s auspicious date has passed a few more loom on the immediate horizon. On Monday MPs must seize the moment and give Theresa May the unequivocal instruction to ask the EU Council of Ministers on 10th April for a long extension (at least a year) to the Article 50 process. Parliament must also be clear that the time is to be used to prepare for and to hold another referendum, asking the people whether they support Mrs May’s Brexit (or some other softer version agreed by MPs) or whether they prefer to remain in the EU.

Parliament has made it crystal clear that a large majority of MPs reject leaving the EU with no deal. So the EU’s already extended deadline of 12th April should be redundant. The more important date is 22nd May. If we do not exit the EU by that date then we will be obliged to take part in the European Parliament elections the next day. On the assumption that Thersa May now follows the Westminster parliamentary logic (her record is not encouraging so far…) then it looks very likely that this condition will be triggered.

An election in 2019 for British MEPs would be unlike any previous Euro elections.  I’ve taken part in all of them since 1989 and the experience was rarely uplifting for Europhiles like me. Interest among the public was low. Parties fought them mainly on domestic issues and turnouts were low. The 2014 elections were soul destroying for the Liberal Democrats as we were reduced to just one MEP. But I believe an election in less than two months time would have far higher public interest and should be a salivating electoral prospect for the Liberal Democrats.

For the first time an election for MEPs would have European issues centre stage. Voters now have a much clearer idea of the trading, cultural and educational benefits of EU membership. The election is likely to take on the form of a quasi-referendum between Remain and Leave parties.  The Conservatives are now clearly the owners of Brexit. But they have been aided and abetted by the leadership of the Labour Party. This is a massive opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to speak for millions of people who voted Remain in 2016 and the many others who were too young to vote. There will also be regretful leavers, looking for a new political home.

A strong showing for the Lib Dems will give the party a boost ahead of electing a new leader. A large group of Lib Dem MEPs will provide leadership and credibility for the Remain campaign in the referendum that must surely come later this year. Bring it on!


First One Out – Britain’s Gay and Lesbian MPs

February 28, 2019

Another LGBT History Month has drawn to a close. At the various events I’ve spoken at or attended in Bristol people have been asking me about my experiences as an openly gay politician. I was the first and so far openly gay MP in Bristol. I was also the first openly gay Liberal Democrat MP and the first gay Lib Dem to hold government office. I’m using deliberately the word “openly” as there is clearly a difference between someone who is known to be gay or lesbian by the voters before an election and someone who outs themselves or is outed by others after their election.

Of course there have always been politicians who engaged in same sex relationships. But until 1967 (in England and Wales) their relationships would have led to a prosecution.  Gay MPs would have led clandestine sex lives, such as John Hervey and Stephen Fox, MPs in the early 18th century and the first MPs who can be identified with some certainty as to the gay or bisexual nature of their relationships.

Others, such as William Bankes, were exposed and their lives ruined and political careers terminated.  Some historical figures faced down revelations about their private lives, the most famous perhaps being the Liberal Leader Jeremy Thorpe. For most of the 20th century gay MPs walked a tightrope, their private lives being known to many people in high society but as long as they were discrete they avoided exposure and ruin. Many of these characters feature in the blog I wrote for last year’s LGBT History Month, featuring famous characters and the houses, museums and other places that can be visited, which are associated with them.

In the last decade of the 20th century and the first years of the current century it has gradually become easier for candidates to stand for office and be open about their sexuality. However, the first sitting MP to voluntarily reveal her sexuality exposed herself to prejudice and bigotry.  Maureen Colquhoun is a figure almost forgotten by political historians but she deserves to be better known and lauded for her bravery.  She was elected as the Labour MP for Northampton North in February 1974. After her decision in 1975 to leave her husband and live with her lover Barbara Todd (publisher of the lesbian magazine Sappho) her constituency party disowned her and she was defeated at the 1979 election.

The first out gay male MP had a happier coming out experience.  Chris Smith was elected as Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury in 1983. A year later he announced at a public meeting that he was gay. In 1997 Tony Blair appointed him as Culture Secretary, the first openly gay minister. It was also in 1997 that the first two openly gay MPs were elected.  Stephen Twigg’s victory in Enfield Southgate was for many people the defining moment of the 1997 election, ousting Michael Portillo. The journalist Brian Cathcart gave his book about the election the title, “Were you still up for Portillo?” Twigg’s victory was a major upset and it’s possible that not many electors knew about his homosexuality. But there was no doubt at all in Exeter where the Conservatives ran a nasty homophobic campaign against the Labour candidate Ben Bradshaw.  The electors of Exeter were not impressed and Bradshaw gained the seat with a majority of over 11,000 votes.

In 1997 I was a councillor in Bristol.  When I was first elected in 1993 I was pleased to be known as the youngest councillor (aged 26, doesn’t seem so young now!) in the region but was not known to be gay.  It was actually that year that I gradually started coming out to friends and party colleagues.  As the Lib Dem opposition leader I defended the council grant to Freedom Youth, a charity that worked with teenage gays and lesbians. In early 1999 I was selected as the Lib Dem candidate for my home seat of Bristol West.  Although my sexuality was known to most people in Bristol’s political circles I decided to get the issue properly out in the open via an interview in what was then Bristol’s news and entertainment magazine, Venue. In the same interview I also advocated the decriminalisation of cannabis.  The reaction was mostly positive, though some of my local members were angry about my loony views on drugs! But a small group were also furious about me talking about my sexuality and worked to undermine me as the candidate for several years. I’ve said to people many times that while the Liberal Democrats are undoubtedly Britain’s most liberal party that does not mean that the party is entirely liberal on all issues. The voting records of some of my later MP colleagues and the behaviour of a contemporary who became party leader show clearly this homophobic blind spot among liberals who had otherwise impeccable views on civil rights.

The local press didn’t help the situation by referring to me as the “gay Lib Dem candidate”, despite my remonstrations to them that I was a Liberal Democrat who happened to be gay.  When Charles Kennedy made his first visit to Bristol as party leader in the autumn of 1999 the BBC asked him about his gay candidate.  Charles handled it brilliantly but it wasn’t the news story I wanted. From 1999 through to the 2001 general election I received a steady stream of hate mail, some of it anonymous, some on headed note paper.  I was generally considered to be a vile piece of work, someone too dangerous to be allowed to visit schools and who would probably burn in hell. In the election campaign itself party workers were told by several people that they would not vote for me as “they had been told by another party” about my sexuality.

I lost the 2001 election but did take the party from third to second place.  Some members said to my face that if only I had kept my mouth shut about my sexuality then the result would have been better. Almost two decades on it all seems quite extraordinary.  But the pain of 2001 gave way to elation four years later when I won a comfortable victory over Labour.  I became the Liberal Democrats’ first openly gay MP and was only the fifth from any party, following Twigg and Bradshaw plus Adam Price and Chris Bryant who had been elected in 2001.

My main political interests that I wanted to pursue as an MP were education and health inequalities.  But I was mindful that my new role also gave me an opportunity to advance gay rights. In 2006 I persuaded my colleagues on the Education Select Committee to take evidence on bullying in schools. We questioned the Bristol based charity Education Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH) about the extent of homophobic bullying in schools.  We also took evidence on racism and bullying of children with SEN.  Our report recommended policies for all schools to adopt on all forms of identity related bullying.  I held events about the issue in Parliament and also proposed a motion to the Lib Dem conference. The Department of Children, Schools and Families adopted our proposals.  Over the last decade it has been a source of pride every time I visit a school when I see posters on the wall about homophobic bullying.  I hope my intervention has made schools safer places for all children to learn and flourish.

In 2009 I proposed to the government that the 2011 census should include questions on sexual orientation. I thought it was absurd that the census might show how many motorbikes or hot water taps were in existence but the number of gay, lesbian and bisexual people would not be counted.  The government refused and the Daily Express dubbed me a “loony liberal”, a badge of honour!  Ten years on I am pleased to see that sexual orientation is going to feature in the 2021 census.

In my second term the big issue was securing same sex marriage.  This was something I had supported for the previous five years, when speaking at events saying that civil partnerships should not be the end of the story in relationships equality. Labour and the LGB pressure group Stonewall did not agree.  At the 2010 general election I had been joined by the Lib Dems’ second openly gay MP, Stephen Gilbert, who had won Newquay and St Austell. Stephen proposed a motion to the Lib Dem Autumn conference in favour of equal marriage.  The Liberal Democrats became the first party to support same sex marriage.

Lynne Featherstone was the Lib Dem minister for women and equalities at the Home Office.  With the backing of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the then Home Secretary Theresa May, Lynne was able to lay the legislative foundations for same sex marriage. After a consultation in 2012 the measure was announced in the Queen’s Speech for the 2012/13 session of Parliament.  Lynne had in the meantime moved to the Department of International Development. The legislation would now be carried through the Commons by the Conservative DCMS and Equalities minister Hugh Robertson. I went to see Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem and Deputy Government Chief Whip.  I told him that it was important for the party to be closely involved with the Bill in all its stages and also that a gay MP should be seen to be playing a leading part.

Alistair agreed and I spent many months in 2013 meeting with Hugh and his officials about the details of the Bill and also considering other measures that might be tacked on to it. I also had conversations with Lib Dem parliamentary colleagues who had concerns about the legislation. Some, such as Gordon Birtwhistle (Burnley) just thought the whole thing was wrong and he could not be reasoned with.  Bob Russell (Colchester) had a poor voting record on gay rights issues in earlier sessions.  But he was a colleague with whom I got on very well and in the end he supported the Bill.  Catholic colleagues were divided.  Charles Kennedy and Dan Rogerson were very clear that equal marriage was a liberal measure.  But Sarah Teather (like Shirley Williams in the later House of Lords stages of the Bill) could not support it, despite the Bill being permissive for all religious denominations, other than the Established Church of England and, ludicrously in my opinion, the disestablished Church in Wales, where same sex marriage would be banned.

Other colleagues had particular concerns, mainly to secure protection for what they considered to be important religious freedoms for council registry office staff. Alan Beith and Simon Hughes were struggling with this issue.  I was supported in many of these conversations by LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, in particular Ed Fordham, who sent briefings to all my colleagues.  The most tortuous conversations were with Tim Farron, who was also party president.  Essentially he was having a three way struggle: his religious conscience versus his liberal beliefs and also his political ambitions. As party president he should surely vote for a measure that was party policy. Voting against would risk damaging his positive image among party members as a coalition sceptic. My own advice to him was to be true to his real convictions and come up with a liberal defence of his right to hold religious beliefs that occasionally were in conflict with his party.  Tim tried to please everyone, a position that came back to haunt him in the 2017 general election.

Once the Second Reading debate was out of the way we settled down to several weeks of Bill Committee sessions.  We started by taking evidence from witnesses for and against different provisions of the Bill, including several bishops. Then we moved on to the detailed line consideration of each clause of the Bill. I put down two amendments.  One was to open up the existing civil partnerships to opposite sex couples.  The other was to give legal recognition to humanist wedding ceremonies.  After a debate I withdrew the CPs amendment as in several conversations with colleagues in the DPM’s office it was clear that Cameron was implacably opposed and changes to the Bill would put its passage at risk.  I intended to do the same for my humanism amendment but the response from the second Tory minister on the Bill (Helen Grant, from the Ministry of Justice) was so rude that I pressed it to a vote.  The result was a draw so the committee chairman Gary Streeter used his casting vote to keep the Bill as it was drafted, as per convention.  The Bill left committee otherwise unscathed, despite the efforts of two Tory committee members (Tim Loughton and David Burrowes) and the sole DUP member.

Throughout the various stages there were groups of supporters demonstrating outside Parliament and I went out to speak to them to keep them up to date.  These gatherings continued right through to the summer and the final passage of the Bill through the House of Lords.

Looking back now on my ten years as an MP I am proud to have helped achieve two measures that have undoubtedly advanced gay rights.  Tackling homophobic bullying is now a mainstream activity for children’s charities and is a core policy in schools. Thousands of same sex marriages have taken place in the last four years.

In the 2017 Parliament there are now 45 openly gay, lesbian or bisexual MPs but sadly none are Liberal Democrats. Without an openly gay or lesbian MP (there are some fantastic peers such as Brian Paddick and Liz Barker) the party is at a severe disadvantage in trying to win over what should be our natural supporters in the LGBT community.  I hope this will be rectified whenever the next general election comes along. In the meantime, here is my own list of the lesbian, gay and bisexual parliamentary trailblazers.

House of Commons

First sitting MP to come out as lesbian:

  • Maureen Colquhoun (1975, Northampton North, Labour)

First sitting MP to come out as gay:

  • Chris Smith (1984, Islington South and Finsbury, Labour)

First sitting MP to identify as bisexual

  • Simon Hughes (2006, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Liberal Democrat)

First gay MPs (by party) to be out before being elected:

  • Stephen Twigg (1997, Enfield Southgate, Labour)
  • Ben Bradshaw (1997, Exeter, Labour)
  • Adam Price (2001, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Plaid Cymru)
  • Stephen Williams (2005, Bristol West, Liberal Democrat)
  • Nick Herbert (2005, Arundel and South Downs, Conservative)
  • Martin Docherty (2015, West Dunbartonshire, SNP)
  • Stewart McDonald (2015, Glasgow South, SNP)
  • Stuart McDonald (2015, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, SNP)
  • John Nicolson (2015, East Dunbartonshire, SNP)

First lesbian MPs to be out before being elected:

  • Margot James (2010, Stourbridge, Conservative)
  • Mhairi Black (2015, Paisley and Renfrewshire South, SNP)
  • Angela Crawley (2015, Lanark and Hamilton East, SNP)

First bisexual MP to be out before being elected:

  • Cat Smith (2015, Lancaster and Fleetwood, Labour)

National Assembly for Wales/Senedd

First bisexual AM

  • Ron Davies (1999, Caerphilly, Labour)

First lesbian AM

  • Hannah Blythwyn (2016, Delyn, Labour)

First gay AMs

  • Jeremy Miles (2016, Neath, Labour)
  • Adam Price (2016, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Plaid Cymru)

Scottish Parliament

First gay MSP

  • Iain Smith (1999, Fife North East, Liberal Democrat)

First lesbian MSP

  • Margaret Smith (1999, Edinburgh West, Liberal Democrat)

Northern Ireland Assembly

First gay MLA

  • John Blair (2018, South Antrim, Alliance) [nominated by the Alliance Party to replace David Ford MLA under the rules for replacing resigning MLAs]


My blog in 2012 in support of introducing same sex marriage:

My contemporaneous blogs in 2013 on the Same Sex Marriage Bill:

My blog on the 2018 Supreme Court ruling in favour of opposite sex civil partnerships:

My blog on heritage sites associated with LGBT history, including several MPs:

I have not included MEPs or list members of the devolved parliaments as they have not been elected as individual candidates.  However, Wikipedia does include them in a list of British politicians known or believed to be lesbian, gay or bisexual:


After the December 2019 general election Westminster is still the world’s gayest parliament.  There are still 45 out LGB MPs, though the party mix has changed since 2017.  There are now 20 Conservative, 15 Labour and 10 SNP out gay, lesbian or bi MPs.  The first out gay and Muslim MP was elected in Wakefield, Imran Ahmad Khan, Conservative. There are no transgender MPs. In January 2020 Layla Moran MP (Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon) announced that she was in a same sex relationship but identified as pansexual, the first MP to do so.

A crack in the mould of British politics

February 18, 2019

Roy Jenkins was a man of many metaphors. My favourite was to liken a delicate and perilous political task to “carrying a valuable Ming vase across a highly polished floor.” But his most famous was the description of the mission of the party of which he was the founder leader as to “break the mould of British politics.” Jenkins was one of the Gang of Four who broke from Labour in 1981 to found the Social Democratic Party.  The SDP won a string of by elections, hundreds of council seats and brought tens of thousands of people into political activism, including me.

Political commentators can’t agree whether the SDP did break the mould, with those that support Labour usually claiming that the break from Michael Foot’s Labour Party was a boost to Thatcher in the 1983 election.  Historians haven’t formed a definitive conclusion but I think it’s fair to say the SDP-Liberal Alliance actually held back the Conservatives in many seats.  The Alliance lives on as the Liberal Democrats and it is undoubtedly true that a strong liberal force in politics is bad for the Tories, while a weakened one helps them, as the 2015 election showed.  But at the moment the political successor to the SDP (led by former SDP member Vince Cable) is slowly getting back on its feet after being knocked over and left for dead by the voters in 2015.

Will the new ‘Independent Group’ launched today be a greater success than the SDP?  An obvious observation is that the 2019 Gang of Seven are political pygmies compared the 1981 Gang of Four.  Roy Jenkins is one of the few 20th century figures to be remembered as one of the “best Prime Ministers we never had” and his place at the head of the SDP gave it massive credibility with the journalists and opinion formers of the time.  Shirley Williams was possibly the third most famous political woman in Britain, after the Queen and Margaret Thatcher.  Chuka Umanna, the Independent Group’s likely leader, is no Roy Jenkins and none of his three women colleagues come close to the public appeal of Shirley Williams.  For the new group to gain traction it will need more prominent Labour figures to climb aboard.  Failing that they will need to be joined by dozens of fellow MPs and members of the Lords and devolved parliaments – quantity over quality.

But in other ways 2019 is much more fertile ground for a break-away group to thrive.  The voters are much more volatile. In the early 1980s the tribal grip of the Conservative-Labour duopoly was still very strong.  When I started canvassing in the mid 80s I would find that voters at home in the Cynon Valley voted Labour because they and their family always had and in my student home of Bristol West the tie to the Tories was just as strong.  Now, certainly in Bristol, it is more common to find people who have voted in the last decade for three different parties.  In Scotland the Labour party was the political giant until it was felled by the SNP in 2015.  It is now the third party north of the border. Labour cannot claim the ownership of a block vote of millions of English or Welsh party loyalists anymore.

Political campaigning tactics have also moved on enormously in the last 38 years.  After the blast of media publicity of the launch of the SDP it had to move on to the hard slog of building up a party. It was a trail blazer in terms of having a computerised database of members but apart from that building up support depended on door knocking and leaflet delivery by new activists on the ground, a process that was still developing years after the launch.  Any group can now pick up a band of followers who can be organised quickly and efficiently via social media. Within hours of its launch the Independent Group had over 50,000 Twitter followers and it’s not yet a fully formed political party.  Crowd funding campaigns is now a lot easier than waiting for cheques to arrive in the post. If a wave of new defectors gives the group some momentum (no pun) then thousands of volunteers could be marshalled to support a new party.

This leaves two questions – what does the new party actually stand for and what will be its relationship with the existing progressive parties outside Labour, most obviously the Liberal Democrats? The group have published a very brief statement of principles ( ) all of which could be said with conviction by Liberal Democrat candidates.  But there’s a glaring omission. While there’s a positive commitment to more devolution and strong local government there is no mention of a reformed voting system.  If there is one glaringly obvious historical lesson about the fate of the SDP and the struggles of the Liberal Democrats (and the Green Party and UKIP) it’s that first past the post can crush the growth of parties even if they get millions of votes.  A commitment to PR must surely be made if the new party is to have a chance of working with others on the centre-left.

Working with others is likely to be the key to success. In the short term I believe that should mean an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats and possibly the Green Party. It would be madness for the parties to fight each other, particularly in seats where the Conservatives are vulnerable or seats that are currently Labour but have a Lib Dem heritage (cough!) or voted heavily Remain in 2016. The Liberal Democrats are also in much better shape than the 1981 Liberal Party. They have a hundred thousand members and almost 2,000 councillors, providing a significant grass roots base.

Back in 2016 I wrote another blog in anticipation of this day, which has been longer coming than I thought at the time.  I advocated a joint platform, the Common Ground between progressive parties to which their candidates could jointly subscribe. But the top joint commitment must be a reformed voting system. Read more here  

I’ve said and written many times that Brexit is a meteorite that will shatter British politics.  The Liberal Democrats have climbed back into double figures in the opinion polls and are doing even better in weekly council by elections.  The Conservative Party is creaking at the seams and there may well be a breakaway of moderate pro EU MPs.  But today was the first major crater on the surface of our politics and the cracks that spread out from it may well break the mould after all.

UPDATE 20 February

The Independent Group now has 11 members, following the defection of Labour MP Joan Ryan and the Conservatives Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. If they were a formal party they would now have equal Commons strength to the Liberal Democrats and would be bigger than the DUP.