Saturday, May 07, 2005

Oh, Those Gay Tories!

Matthew Parris, who was once a Conservative Member of Parliament before he took on the task of being a political commentator and columnist for the Times of London, has an interesting take on the non-chalance with which British voters view openly-gay Conservative candidates these days. His column appeared a few days before the election.

Parris (whom I met a few times when I lived in London) writes, throwing in a touch of local colo(u)r:

George Orwell once remarked that, in much of the South of England, it was impossible to throw a brick without hitting the niece of a bishop. Today there are great swaths of the Home Counties where it is impossible to throw a brick without hitting a gay Tory parliamentary candidate. Nicholas Boles and his crew met me at Hove station wearing jeans and jay-blue T-shirts, in a jay-blue Hyundai driven by Dawn. Within minutes we were met by more blue T-shirts and more vehicles, though Francis Maude, the former Cabinet Minister, had drawn the line at the T-shirt. There was even a young man in pink corduroy trousers, but he turned out to be heterosexual. Don’t they dress outrageously?

The area Mr Boles was to canvass was suburban; hardly the preserve of the exotics or the young-professional set who have moved in along the Hove seafront. Holmes Avenue and Elm Drive are a mix of smart 1930s semis, flowering dwarf cherries, mock-Tudor former council-house terraces, door knockers in the shape of brass rabbits and rather too many hyacinths. The inhabitants, who dine at seven, park their modest cars on crazy-paving in front of the house and do not wear shoes indoors, are nurses and teachers, pensioners and self-employed landscape gardeners. Nice people. Middle-middle-class English.

And they are totally unfazed by the fact that a parliamentary candidate might be gay. "Who cares about his gender?" said Kath Ross, endearingly, at Number 139.

"I’ve only had one person who was bothered," said Dawn (Mr Boles’s agent). “The girls all think he’s an absolute dreamboat."


Of the two candidates he discusses, one lost his bid and the other won. Here are the results from their respective constituencies:

Name Party Votes % +/- %
Celia Barlow Labour 16,786 37.5 -8.4
Nicholas Boles Conservative 16,366 36.5 -1.8
Paul Elgood Liberal Democrat 8,002 17.9 +8.8
Anthea Ballam Green 2,575 5.7 +2.4
Stuart Bower UK Independence Party 575 1.3 +0.4
Paddy O'Keeffe Respect-Unity Coalition 268 0.6 +0.6
Bob Dobbs Independent 95 0.2 +0.2
Richard Franklin Silent Majority Party 78 0.2 +0.2
Brian Ralfe Independent 51 0.1 +0.1
Majority 420 0.9
Turnout 44,796 64.1 +5.2


and


Nick Herbert Conservative 24,752 49.8 -2.4
Derek Deedman Liberal Democrat 13,443 27.1 +4.7
Sharon Whitlam Labour 8,482 17.1 -3.6
Andrew Moffat UK Independence Party 2,700 5.4 +0.7
Mark Stack Protest Vote Party 313 0.6 +0.6
Majority 11,309 22.8
Turnout 49,690 68.5 +3.8

Note that Herbert won with a huge majority and Boles lost by a sliver -- just 420 votes. That's encouraging by any estimation.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I lived in London during the May 1987 general election. I neglected to mention that my MP was Chris Smith, at the time the only openly-gay Labour MP. A profile of Smith in The Observer earlier this year noted:
When New Labour won its first election landslide in 1997, Smith became the first gay cabinet minister in political history when Tony Blair made him National Heritage Secretary, although the so-called 'Ministry of Fun' was renamed the Department of Culture, Media and Sport weeks later.

He was an inadvertent trailblazer. There have been other gay members of the Cabinet since, such as Peter Mandelson and Nick Brown, and his coming out of the closet in 1984 undoubtedly helped pave the way for the many other homosexual MPs to follow suit, including Labour's Ben Bradshaw and Chris Bryant and the Conservative Alan Duncan, who is still the only Tory MP to have open declared his sexuality.
Despite Smith's being gay, I did not support him for re-election in 1987, instead doing what little I could (very, very little) in support of the Alliance, the precursor to today's LibDems. (Islington South & Finsbury would be as hopeless a target for the Tories as Cambridge or Charlottesville would be for the GOP.) As explained by Brian Walden on the BBC:
Between the general elections of 1983 and 1987 the Social Democrat/Liberal Alliance was led jointly by the two Davids, David Owen of the Social Democrats and David Steel of the Liberals. The Alliance claimed to represent a new kind of politics, based on sensible co-operation rather than partisan confrontation. The personal relationship between the two leaders was meant to encapsulate the new values.

I remember attending a crowded election-campaign rally at Finsbury Town Hall at which David Owen spoke. The electricity in the air and the enthusiasm of the gathering led me to believe that the Alliance actually stood a chance in that Labour stronghold. On election night, of course, I was proved wrong, and Smith prevailed.

Openly gay politicians are no longer the sole preserve of Labour, however. The above-mentioned Matthew Parris came out as openly gay in the late 1980s. There is a Conservative organization called Torche (Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality), which is a parallel to Log Cabin Republicans (though it does not seem to face the same sort of opprobrium among party faithful -- in both senses of that word). Is it only a matter of time that gay conservative candidates in the United States are viewed with the same ho-hum attitude that meets them in the United Kingdom?

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