Maureen Colquhoun died this week aged 92. She was the first openly gay MP in the modern era. This might come as a surprise to a lot of people who believed that the first MPs to come out were Chris Smith for Labour and Matthew Parris for the Conservatives, in the 1980s.
Maureen Colquhhoun was elected as Labour MP for Northampton North in 1974, at the time she was married to Sunday Times journalist Keith Colquhoun. She was an outspoken feminist who introduced legislation protecting prostitutes and promoting gender equality. She was also the first MP to be referred to as Ms not Miss or Mrs.
In 1975 she came out as a lesbian and revealed she was living with her partner Babs Todd, the publisher of Sappho magazine.
Her constituency Labour party voted to deselect her on grounds of her sexuality and her outspoken feminism. The Labour National Executive Council over-turned her deselection and tried to support her but her CLP were implacably hostile. They refused to campaign for her or support her, and she lost her seat at the 1979 election.
It would be nearly 10 years before another MP came out.
There were tributes to Maureen this week by the Labour leadership, but she has been almost entirely written out of left wing history. Labour today present themselves as a a progressive party committed to social liberalism, but this wasn’t the case for most of the movement’s history. Many CLPs and Union branches saw the role of the Labour movement as fighting to maintain employment opportunities and pay premiums for white men doing manual jobs that were difficult, dirty and dangerous. That legacy lives on, not just in “Blue Labour”, but also in parts of the hard left. Closed shop meant straight white men only. Pay differential meant paying straight white men more. There were Labour run local authorities across the North that operated a race and gender bar in Council employment well into the 21st Century.
The Wilson Labour Government decriminalised homosexuality in the late 60s, despite a large majority of the population opposing such a move; it would take 30 years before majority public opinion caught up. It was a brave move by Wilson, totally out of step with the populist politics of our time. The opposition towards decriminalisation, and many other socially liberal reforms came not just from the right, but from the left. When I was first involved in left wing politics people on the far left spoke to Wilson with the same contempt they now reserve for Blair – this hostility was rooted in his promotion of socially liberal policies aimed at Women and Minorities rather than promoting the economic interests of straight white men.
People like me who grew up in the 80s think of homophobia as something prevalent in the Conservative Party, largely du to Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. But while the Parliamentary Labour Party was progressive many Constituency Labour Parties were not, particularly those dominated by the “hard” left.
In the 70s and 80s Labour voters were more likely to be opposed to same sex relationships than Conservative voters – Liberals were, unsurprisingly, the most liberal.
There is a widespread campaign on the right against “woke”; “woke” being a collection of progressive social attitudes that are presented as ridiculous or in opposition to some nebulous set of traditional values. In reality this is just the right waging a culture war, with some help from the reactionary old left like Paul Embury of the Fire Brigades Union, and Brendan O’Neill of Spiked and formerly the Revolutionary Communist Party.
Maureen Colquhoun is a reminder of the world before woke, the world that people want to turn the clock back to. The victims of this culture war will be anyone who isn’t a straight white man with conservative values in a world that is increasingly diverse. A return to a world where being a straight white man gives you the right to stand at a bar, make racist and homophobic jokes and grope the bar maid. And drive home drunk afterwards.
The war in woke will fail to turn the clock back, but it will create victims along the way. Britain will be poorer for it.
After publishing this a friend drew my attention to articles Boris Johnson wrote in 2000 about the problems that the Blair Government had passing the repeal of Section 28 through the House of Lords:
“We don’t want our children being taught some rubbish about homosexual marriage being the same as normal marriage.”
“It is still more compassionate to give pensioners more of their own money, by cutting their taxes, rather than bribing them with cheap television licences; and it is more sensitive to spare parents’ anxieties, than to allow Left-wing local authorities to waste taxpayers’ money on idiotic and irrelevant homosexual instruction.”
“If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men, or indeed three men and a dog.”
“Friends, Voters, Countrymen” 2001