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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:


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.

Time to stop the Brexit clock

January 31, 2019

In two months time, or 57 days to be precise, we are due to leave the European Union. Nobody, neither Theresa May, British businesses nor voters has any certainty as to the terms of our departure. The person primarily responsible for this fiasco is Mrs May.

She set out in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017 her vision of an ultra hard Brexit, with Britain outside both the Customs Union and the Single Market. She behaved then and in the two years since as if the 2016 referendum had been a landslide victory for Leave. She’s made no attempt to bring together the country around a compromise vision of a Brexit that would command majority support among MPs or voters. She’s essentially wasted the 952 days since the referendum on a futile attempt to hold together the fractious Conservative Party, the main reason for Cameron’s disastrous decision to call the referendum in the first place.

Brexit has paralysed the normal business of government. Parliament is treading water, waiting for Mrs May to return from Brussels with the news that the Irish border protection measures are there to stay, no matter what the fantasy “alternative arrangements” of her Brextremist colleagues. The highlight of the week for MPs next week is a general debate on sport!

Earlier this week MPs gave a weak signal (via the Spelman-Dromey amendment) that they didn’t much like the idea of crashing out of the EU on 29th March with no approved Withdrawal Agreement or definitive statement of our future trade deal. But they failed to support the efforts of Yvette Cooper and others to secure the time necessary to avert this disaster. The blame for this failure lies with the 14 Labour MPs who voted with the Tories and the DUP to scupper an extension of Article 50. They could do so safe in the knowledge that Jeremy Corbyn appears to want the Tories to “own” a Brexit mess and he has no intention of making the case for Brexit to be overturned via a “People’s Vote.”

Corbyn is as guilty as May of conducting his Brexit manoeuvres to maximise party advantage. Like her, he wants to run down the clock to 29th March.  In two weeks time MPs must wrest control of events from both their hapless leaders. It’s hard to think of a time in our nation’s modern history when the country has had such a weak Prime Minister or inept principal opposition leader, both not up to the challenge of extraordinary events. It’s clear that Mrs May is not about to alter the habits of a political lifetime in order to strike a bargain with Remainers or moderate Leavers. Corbyn doesn’t really want to snatch the ticking time bomb from her stubborn clench.

The only way forward now is for MPs to instruct the government to apply to the EU for a meaningful extension of Article 50. They will grant it if it is clear that the extension is to allow time for another referendum, between Mrs May’s vision of a hard Brexit and the status quo of remaining a full member state.

The vast majority of MPs know that a hard Brexit will damage the livelihoods and life chances of their constituents. Most of them think any sort of Brexit will cause avoidable harm. But they can’t vote down  Brexit with an outright revocation of Article 50. Even an ardent Remainer like me recognises that it would undermine democracy. I’ve had plenty of comments to me on the lines of “people like you will get bricks through your window if you steal our Brexit.”

The only way to avoid this breach of faith is refer the matter back to the people. After all, the people can’t “steal” something from themselves. We now know more or less as much as to what Brexit means as to what Remain means. A second vote will enable informed consent for our national way forward.

A century of women MPs – the Liberal roll of honour

December 15, 2018

[This article was edited in June, August and September 2019 to include newly elected and defecting parliamentarians and again in March 2020 to add MPs elected in the 2019 general election]

December 2018 marks the centenary of women being able to stand for election to Parliament.  The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed just a few weeks before the general election held on 14th December 1918 so only sixteen women candidates stood. Three years later the first Liberal woman MP was elected.  Margaret Wintringham was elected in a by election in September 1921, succeeding her deceased husband in the Louth constituency of Lincolnshire. She followed the Tory Nancy Astor as the second woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. Wintringham had served as a magistrate and school board member. Her local government and community activity later became a familiar path for many Liberal and Liberal Democrat MPs.

Wintringham held her seat in the 1923 general election at which Vera Woodhouse, Lady Terrington, was also elected.  Terrington defeated the sitting Tory MP for Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.  Both Wintringham and Terrington were swept away in the Liberal meltdown at the 1924 general election.

The third woman to be elected as a Liberal MP was Hilda Runciman. She gained St Ives from the Tories in a by-election in March 1928. Her tenure was from the start intended to be short lived as her husband, the former cabinet minister Walter Runciman, MP for Swansea West, had already been lined up to switch to St Ives at the next general election. Walter held St Ives in the 1929 election but Hilda was narrowly defeated at Tavistock.  It was at the 1929 election that arguably the most famous female Liberal MP was elected.  Megan Lloyd George was the youngest child of David Lloyd George. She won the usually safe Liberal constituency of Anglesey, across the Menai Straits from her father’s seat. She held the constituency for the next four general elections before losing to Labour in 1951. She returned to the House in 1957, this time as a Labour MP, sitting until her death in 1966.

It was to be another thirty years before another woman was elected in the liberal tradition. Shirley Williams vies with Megan Lloyd George for the title of most famous liberal woman.  Her career was the mirror of Megan’s, starting as a Labour MP in 1964 (and thus a Commons colleague of Megan) before becoming one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party in 1981.  She was the first person to be elected as an SDP MP, winning the Crosby by election in November 1981.  The constituency was greatly altered by boundary changes and she lost in 1983. She became a Liberal Democrat Peer in 1993 and led the party in the House of Lords from 2001 to 2004.

The SDP-Liberal Alliance won a further two seats at by elections with women candidates. Elizabeth Shields won Ryedale for the Liberals and Rosie Barnes won Greenwich for the SDP, a by election in which I helped for a day. Shields lost her seat at the 1987 general election. Barnes held Greenwich but stayed with David Owen in the rump of the SDP when the parties merged in 1988.  She lost as an independent SDP candidate in 1992, when the Lib Dems gave her a free run.

The Liberal Democrats from 1988 have elected 21 women MPs but representation has always been a small proportion of the parliamentary party.  The highest number was 10 out of the 62 elected in the 2005 general election.  Representation shrunk from that high point, more as a result of the party losing seats than unrepresentative selections as women candidates were selected in many target seats (several where a male MP was retiring) in both the 2010 and 2015 general elections. The 2015 election saw an all-male parliamentary party of just eight but it was joined by Sarah Olney, victor of the November 2016 Richmond Park by election.  In the snap election of June 2017 Olney lost by just 45 votes but three seats were gained by new women candidates and Jo Swinson regained the seat she had lost in 2015, becoming the party’s Deputy Leader.  The current parliamentary party of 12 is thus one third female, the highest ever proportion.

The British legislature with the best record for electing women of all parties, including the Liberal Democrats, is the National Assembly for Wales.  The first election in 1999 saw three Liberal Democrat women elected, half of the party’s group. The Scottish Parliament has been less fertile ground for Lib Dem women, with just three elected since 1999, none in the most recent elections.  Lloyd George’s partition of Ireland had created the Northern Ireland House of Commons, housed in the grand new buildings at Stormont. The NI Liberal Party only managed one victory in the 50 years of devolved rule, when Sheelagh Murnaghan won a by election in 1961 to represent Queens University, Belfast. The graduate franchise was abolished in 1969. The Alliance Party is now the liberal sister party in Northern Ireland.  Six women have been elected since devolved rule was restored in 1998.  One of them is Naomi Long, who was also elected as the Westminster MP for Belfast East in 2010. Long chose to sit on the opposition benches rather than support the Lib Dems in the coalition government but remained on good terms with the party.

Finally, the Liberal Democrats have been able to elect 8 women to the European Parliament. The party list system of PR meant that the party was able to “zip” its candidate lists for the first elections under PR in 1999.  This led to the successful election of five women, half of the seats won.  At the 2014 election the party was left with just one MEP, Catherine Bearder in the south east region of England. At the time of writing she will be the last Lib Dem MEP…

Below I list all the women elected in the liberal tradition since 1918:


House of Commons

1 Margaret Wintringham              Louth                  1921 – 1924         Liberal

2 Lady Vera Terrington                  Wycombe           1923 – 1924         Liberal

3 Hilda Runciman                          St Ives                 1928 – 1929         Liberal

4 Lady Megan Lloyd George        Anglesey             1929 – 1951         Liberal

5 Shirley Williams             #          Crosby                 1981 – 1983         SDP

6 Elizabeth Shields                        Ryedale               1986 – 1987         Liberal

7 Rosie Barnes                              Greenwich             1987 – 1992       SDP, from 1988 Ind SDP

8 Ray Michie                                 Argyll & Bute        1987 – 2001        Liberal then LD

9 Elizabeth Lynne                          Rochdale              1992 – 1997        LD

10 Diana Maddock           #          Christchurch          1993 – 1997       LD

11 Jackie Ballard                            Taunton                1997 – 2001        LD

12 Jenny Tonge                 #          Richmond Park      1997 – 2005         LD

13 Sandra Gidley                           Romsey                  2000 – 2010         LD

14 Annette Brooke                        Mid Dorset             2001 – 2015         LD                                                                                                                            and North Poole

15 Sue Doughty                            Guildford                2001 – 2005         LD

16 Patsy Calton                              Cheadle                  2001 – 2005         LD           Died after re-election in 2005

17 Sarah Teather                            Brent East               2003 – 2015         LD           Brent Central from 2010

18 Lorely Burt                    #           Solihull                   2005 – 2015         LD

19 Julia Goldsworthy                      Falmouth                2005 – 2010         LD                                                                                                                          and Camborne

20 Lynne Featherstone #              Hornsey and             2005 – 2015         LD                                                                                                                          Wood Green

21 Jenny Willott                           Cardiff Central         2005 – 2015            LD

22 Jo Swinson                              East Dumbarton       2005 – 2015           LD                                                                                                                                                         2017 –  2019

23 Susan Kramer              #         Richmond Park        2005 – 2010            LD

24 Tessa Munt                             Wells                        2010 – 2015            LD

24a Naomi Long                          Belfast East              2010 – 2015            Alliance Party of Northern Ireland

25 Sarah Olney                             Richmond Park       2016 – 2017            LD

2019 –

26 Wera Hobhouse                      Bath                         2017 –                    LD

27 Layla Moran                             Oxford West            2017 –                   LD                                                                                                                             and Abingdon

28 Christine Jardine                      Edinburgh West       2017 –                  LD

29 Jane Dodds                              Brecon & Radnor     2019 – 2019         LD

30 Daisy Cooper                           St Albans                   2019 –                  LD

31 Wendy Chamberlain                Fife North East           2019 –                 LD

32 Munira Wilson                          Twickenham              2019 –                 LD

Senedd (National Assembly for Wales)


1 Jenny Randerson          #             Cardiff Central       1999 – 2011         LD

2 Kirsty Williams                             Brecon & Radnor  1999 –                   LD

3 Christine Humphreys  #              North Wales           1999 – 2001         LD           resigned list seat

4 Eleanor Burnham                        North Wales            2001 – 2011         LD           succeeded Humphreys

5 Veronica German                        SE Wales                  2010 – 2011         LD

6 Eluned Parrott                             S Wales Central       2011 – 2016         LD


Scottish Parliament


1 Nora Radcliffe                               Gordon               1999 – 2007         LD

2 Margaret Smith                             Edinburgh W      1999 – 2011         LD

3 Alison McInnes                              NE Scotland        2007 – 2016`       LD

4 Beatrice Wishart                            Shetland              2019 –                 LD


Northern Ireland House of Commons (1921-1971) and Assembly (1998 – )


1 Sheelagh Murnaghan                 QUB                   1961 – 1969           Liberal

2 Eileen Bell                                    North Down       1998 – 2007         Alliance

3 Naomi Long                                Belfast East         1998 – 2010         Alliance                                                                                                                                                    2016 –

4 Anna Lo                                       Belfast South      2007 – 2016         Alliance

5 Judith Cochrane                          Belfast East         2011 – 2016         Alliance

6 Kellie Armstrong                         Strangford          2016 –                   Alliance

7 Paula Bradshaw                          Belfast South       2016 –                  Alliance

European Parliament

1 Elspeth Attwool                            Scotland              1999 – 2009         LD

2 Sarah Ludford                #             London                1999 – 2014        LD

3 Elizabeth Lynne                             West Midlands    1999 – 2012         LD           resigned

4 Emma Nicholson**      #               SE England          1999 – 2009         LD

5 Diana Wallis                                  Yorkshire             1999 – 2012         LD           resigned

6 Sharon Bowles               #             SE England          2005 – 2014         LD

7 Catherine Bearder                         SE England          2009 –                  LD

8 Rebecca Taylor                              Yorkshire             2012 – 2014         LD           succeeded Wallis

9 Barbara Gibson                             East England       2019 –  2020        LD

10 Lucy Nethsingha                         East England       2019 –  2020        LD

11 Irina Von Wiese                          London                2019 –  2020        LD

12 Luisa Porritt                                London                2019 –  2020       LD

13 Jane Brophy                                NW England       2019 –   2020       LD

14 Sheila Ritchie                              Scotland              2019 –  2020       LD

15 Judith Bunting                            SE England          2019 –  2020        LD

16 Caroline Voaden                         SW England        2019 –  2020        LD

# – became a member of the House of Lords

**Note on defectors

Emma Nicolson was elected as the Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon in 1987. She defected to the Liberal Democrats during the Christmas recess in 1995 but did not defend her seat at the 1997 election, which was won by the Lib Dem John Burnett.  She was made a Lib Dem Peer in November 1997. She was elected as MEP for the South East of England in 1999, standing down in 2009 and returning to the Lords.  In 2016 she somewhat bizarrely defected back to the Conservatives, despite the party’s slide into ever more strident Euro-scepticism.

Sarah Wollaston was elected as the Conservative MP for Totnes in the 2010 general election, having been selected as the candidate in an open primary. She left the Conservatives in February 2019 and was one of the founders of the short lived Change UK. On 14th August 2019 she announced her defection to the Liberal Democrats, now led by Jo Swinson.  On 5th September 2019 Luciana Berger joined the Liberal Democrats.  She was elected Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree in 2010.  Like Wollaston, she left her party in February 2019 for Change UK.  On 7th October 2019 Heidi Allen (SE Cambridgeshire) joined the Lib Dem parliamentary party having previously left the Conservatives for Change UK, of which she was briefly party leader.  At the December 2019 general election Allen did not stand, Wollaston was defeated in Totnes and Berger was defeated in Finchley and Golders Green.

Corbyn’s disastrous PMQs

December 5, 2018

Since my defenestration in 2015 I’ve watched Prime Minister’s Questions just a handful of times. I hated the weekly pantomime when I was an MP too. But I thought today would be an occasion worth watching.

Have a think about three Labour leaders – John Smith, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn. They’ve all faced Tory governments that were divided on Europe and led by a Prime Minister in severe difficulties. Yesterday Theresa May lost 3 critical votes. In one day she suffered more set backs than any Prime Minister of the last 4 decades received in the whole of their terms. Today one of those reversals meant the publication of the Attorney General’s legal advice, confirming that we could be tied to EU rules for much longer than May wanted to admit, with Northern Ireland treated differently to Great Britain. Next Tuesday MPs will vote on May’s Withdrawal Aggreement.

So today’s PMQs was an opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn to mangle Theresa May and push her closer to the trap door moment of her Premiership. He flunked it, spectacularly so. Imagine May’s relief when he used all 6 of his questions to ask about welfare reform. Imagine the consternation among Labour MPs outside the loyal cultists, watching their leader shoot over the bar of an open goal, six times. John Smith and Tony Blair regularly demolished John Major between 1992 and 1997. Neither of them thought Corbyn was worthy of being trusted with the most junior of posts. How right they were.

The parliamentary arithmetic means that May’s deal should be defeated and Brexit could be avoided with a second referendum. Only the leader of the largest opposition party can marshall all the opponents of Brexit across all parties. Surely after today’s lamentable performance it must now be clear to everyone outside the Corbyn cult that not only is he not up to the job, he doesn’t actually want to stop Brexit.