From Pride with Pride

Just back from the Pride march – what an amazing event – what a wonderful day! 

There is something so empowering, so overwhelming – about marching, expressing – having a demonstrative voice. So much of the time there appears a passivity – as if nothing can be done, nothing can change. But from the Stonewall riots 40 years to today’s Pride march in the London sunshine – every gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans individual that has had the courage to stand up against  prejudice and fight discrimination – has shown the courage and determination that can change and has changed the world.

I spent the first half of the march at the front with Boris Johnson and Nick Herbert – the policing Minister. Then I walked back through the march to find the Liberal Democrat contingent. They had produced fabulous placards for all of us which said ‘Liberal Democrats – Proud to represent you in Haringey, or Hackney or Richmond or Government or London.

And in the LibDem contingent were lots and lots of LibDems from various boroughs – and then there was Brian Paddick (stood for LibDem mayor of London); Caroline Pidgeon (Leader of the LibDem group on the London Assembly); Ros Scott, (LibDem President); Sarah Ludford (LibDem MEP for London). Ed Fordham (LibDem candidate for Hampstead & Highgate); Ed Butcher, (Councillor in Haringey) and many, many, many more – including Steve Gilbert (MP for St Austell  & Newquay).

Then towards 3pm I had to make my way to the stage area in Trafalgar Square where Nick Herbert and I were going to give short speeches.  Dr Christian from ’embarassing bodies’ introduced us.

We had decided to go on together – as a double act – so to speak. Nick spoke first and told of his selection and election – and how the selection committee, when he told them he was gay, had said no probs! Nick got a huge cheer when he opened by saying that he was gay. I couldn’t match that – but nevertheless – also got a good reception when I spoke about ending the ridiculous situation where a man who had consensual sex with another male (over 16) 30 years ago would still have that come up on a criminal record check. It goes. And how it wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair that LGB&T people still felt too frightened to report hate crime – three out of four hate crimes still go unreported and what we are going to do to put in the support to encourage reporting. And how it wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair that children, six out of ten children, experience homophobic bullying at school and how we are going to support teachers in tackling this terrible experience which can scar a child for life.

It was a really beautiful day – and I have come home filled with Pride.

PS Huge thanks to the organisers – fantastically well done!

Featherstone and Schmitz candidates in most important ever election in Haringey

“It’s a privilege and a joy to serve this community”. Those were the words of thanks from sitting MP Lynne Featherstone, who was formally adopted this week as the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for the Hornsey & Wood Green constituency.

Sarah Ludford MEP and Brian Paddick, former Lib Dem candidate for London Mayor, were guest speakers at the packed event in Hornsey Bowling Club, which also adopted local campaigner David Schmitz as the party’s candidate for Tottenham.

The elections in Haringey are predicted to be a very close contest between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with local Tories out of the race. Ms Featherstone is defending a 2,395 vote majority over Labour, and elections for Haringey Council are on a knife edge between the two parties. The Conservatives have no elected councillors and finished a poor third in both the Parliamentary seats last time.

Ms Ludford described Lynne as, “a local treasure for Haringey and a national treasure for the party,” reminding the audience that she had been labelled a ‘Saint’ by the Daily Telegraph for her exemplary record over election expenses.

Brian Paddick, a former senior Met Police officer, welcomed the party’s policies to boost policing in Haringey, with plans for more out-of-hours police cover. Welcoming the adoption of David Schmitz as candidate for Tottenham, Mr Paddick stressed the need for a second Lib Dem MP in the borough.

Commenting after the meeting, Lynne Featherstone said:

“I want to thank everyone who has supported me over the last five years, and I am looking forward to the campaign. I will continue to fight for local people and for services in Hornsey and Wood Green, working for local residents, fighting for fair funding for our schools and putting a stop to threats to our local health services. And in David Schmitz, Tottenham can also have a Parliamentary champion who will fight hard for residents.”


We had our formal process of ‘adoption’ this week – when LibDems gather to nominate and second the proposals for Parliamentary Candidates for both Hornsey & Wood Green and Tottenham.

Sarah Ludford, MEP and Brian Paddick (ex Deputy Commissioner in the Met and our London Mayoral candidate last time out) came and said wonderful things about me (modesty prevents me repeating them here) and about David Schmitz – our candidate in Tottenham.

It was good fun – and David made the wittiest and funniest speech I heard in a long time. Sarah and Brian were obviously very complementary – and I rounded off the evening with a rallying type exhortation to action.

The ‘buzz’ in the room was really good – and everyone is excited at the prospect of the election ahead.

I ran a campaign a couple of years ago – called ‘make mine a double’ with a picture postcard on which I am pointing at two green boxes for recycling. Before my campaign – Labour Haringey would only ‘allow’ one per household. Obviously we succeeded – and now we can all have two or more!

But the point of mentioning this now is that with both a General Election and Council elections on May 6 – we’re all aiming to make the elections a double too – by winning both! Make mine a double!

What have I been doing?

It’s gong to be a bit of a bitty blog for the next few weeks as went back to hospital for X-ray on Friday – only to be told that bone in hand is broken. So am now plastered – so to speak – which makes typing a pain. Am hoping to find someone to take dictation… Anyway – highlights:

– the Government on Friday talked out the Bill that my colleague Evan Harris introduced on the royals being able to marry Catholics and women not being shunted out of line to the throne by boy children. Government says it agrees – but once again I suspect action won’t follow. Wimps. They should have a look at the polling on the subject – overwhelming support for these changes!

– Friday evening went to address Lib Dems in Hitchin and Harpenden. The very able and active PPC, Nigel Quinton, picked me up from station – and embarrassingly had to cut up my food for me! I think they have the potential to do what Lib Dems did in Hornsey & Wood Green if they put in the base work before the election – whenever that comes. After the General Election – if they are the obvious alternative to the Tories – they could reap the benefit.

– Saturday I went to the induction of the new Rabbi at Highgate Synagogue. Rabbi Liss and his wife Shully are just lovely and I have no doubt that the Jewish community in Highgate will blossom and be very very happy. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, was there as was his wife – so it was a big occasion. In responding to Rabbi Sach’s blessings, Rabbi Liss was very winsome and very human. The atmosphere in the synagogue was warm, friendly and very inspiring. Our Highgate Safer Neighbourhood team were there too and it is clear that Highgate synagogue is making real strides in being involved in the local community. I stayed about 2 1/2 hours but then had to leave (before the kiddush – drinks) to rush up to Westminster.

– there, I briefly joined the march for Jobs, Justice and Climate – but mainly because I got caught up in it whilst trying to get to my coders’ meet up for the new Lib Dem Technical Advisory Board. When I did arrive found room nearly full of men (have to give some thought as to why women are not coming forward as coders) but today this was the army whose skills and talents we are harvesting. Fantastic!

– Then met with Sarah Ludford MEP and a host of local Lib Dem activists to do some campaigning in Muswell Hill, followed by a speech in High Wycombe to possible future female MPs.

Parliamentary season kicks off again

Back to The Westminster Hour last night – and the gang is all there. They are kicking off for the new Parliamentary season with the three of us – me, Ed Vaizey and Emily Thornberry.

Before that it was a busy day campaigning for Nigel Scott in the Alexandra Ward by-election which takes place on Thursday (Yom Kippur). In fact, I have referred Haringey’s refusal to change to avoid the clash to the Equality and Human Rights Commission as religious Jews are actually forbidden to make a mark during their holy day. Of course – that doesn’t change the date but maybe it will help concentrate Haringey Council’s mind in the future – councils have a choice over which day to pick for by-elections, and that choice should be used with more care and thought.

Sarah Ludford (MEP) took a team in the morning delivering – in the pouring rain! Thanks Sarah.

Much of the political news is still dominated by Peter Mandelson’s return. The Conservatives’ line on it is that ‘Labour must be desperate’. Desperate they may be – but this was a political finesse I really didn’t think Gordon capable of. However – it now looks more and more as if Tony Blair ‘told’ him to go and help. Oh what an ironic twist that one old foe of Gordon’s told him to bring back another old foe to try to save his skin!

A secular society does not just protect those without faith – it protects those with faith too

Earlier this evening I spoke at a Stonewall / DELGA meeting, along with Chris Rennard, Sarah Ludford and Ben Summerskill on the theme – ‘A safer Britain for all’.

Today I would like to talk about what fairness mean to us as Liberal Democrats and more importantly how we can achieve it.

As liberals I think we have instinctive sense of what equality means. This doesn’t mean we have all the answers or always get it right, but equality is one of the main reasons we get out of bed and fight the political battles we fight we do.

As a country, I think we’ve come a long way from lesbians having to hurl themselves off the House of Lords gallery to get their point across.

I know Chris is going to touch on the Conservative Party’s dodgy attitude to gay people in his speech, but publicly even they claim to have realised the error of their ways and eschewed the bigotry of social conservatism.

Indeed, the political consensus appears for the most part heading in the right direction. The post–1997 Parliaments have piece by piece removed many of the anomalies that saw gay, lesbian and transgendered people treated unfairly in the eyes of the law. There are still some laws that need changing, but Labour majorities with the willing support of Liberal Democrat parliamentarians have brought British law into the 21st century.

But when it comes to fairness for the LGBT community, does this mean we can hang up our capes and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done? Of course this is not the case. Unfair treatment sadly still remains an everyday experience for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The discrimination they face is perhaps not as blatant as before, but the consequences can be just as harmful to those at the receiving end.

To illustrate the challenge for fairness that faces us I wanted to choose three examples. They are:

1. The teacher that ignores kids calling each other gay as an insult
2. The Islington registrar who refused perform civil partnerships because of her religious belief
3. The BP boss Lord Browne being forced to resign because of his long-term affair with a male prostitute

Firstly the teacher. In some respects, education is the very much the last bastion of the worst of how society perceives and treats the issue of sexual orientation with the ‘not in front of the children’ mentality persisting.

I am sure many of you could imagine several racial or religious insults that would rightly be severely punished if overheard in the playground. So why is the word gay as an insult not treated with the same severity in so many schools?

And it’s not just about the immediate hurt caused by bullying that is let pass as acceptable – it’s also the longer-term message to children, as they are forming their views of the world and of how people should behave, that it’s ok to view gay as something objectionable and that it’s ok to make casual insults based on sexuality. That’s not a happy society we’re creating.

I know Stonewall has been hot on the case in tackling homophobia in education and our very own Stephen Williams has been leading the charge in our own campaign.

Changing attitudes must start in the playground and the classroom. Homosexuality is not an unmentionable awkward topic – and to treat it as such compounds the prejudice that there is something wrong with being gay.

The second case I wanted to discuss involves a registrar from Islington in London who won a case for unfair dismissal after she was dismissed for refusing to oversee civil partnerships because of her religious views. I don’t know if we have any councillors or activists from Islington here this evening that would be able to give their perspectives, but for me this case revealed a major fault-line in the battle for fairness.

Please don’t get me wrong – I am just a likely to be plucky and stick up for the right for one person’s religious freedom. But for me this freedom is guaranteed in the framework of a secular society. We could argue until the cow come home about the extent of religious freedom, but for me one thing is clear – when the freedom of the individual comes into direct conflict of religious belief of another, then individual freedom takes precedence.

There are many who see this issue differently, even within our party – a point demonstrated by a minority of MPs in all parties who voted for the amendment to impose the need of a male role model for women seeking fertility treatment in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

Whilst some Parliamentarians wrangle with this issue and their moral compass, the practical implications of religious conviction undermining the rights of gay people are very real and act as an obstacle to fairness.

If we fail to combat erosion to principles of a secular society, it will not only be the rights of the LGBT community that will suffer. Millions of people rely this protection to live their lives in the way they want – from the women who has freedom over own body in deciding when she will have a child to couples freed from a loveless marriage because of the freedom to divorce. Not forgetting too those who – by being protected for the imposition of any one religion’s views – are therefore free to practice their own religion too.

A secular society does not just protect those without faith – it protects those with faith too.

So, I have looked at two bastions of the state – schools, religion. Finally, I want to look one last arm of the establishment –that of the press.

“Complaining about the press is like complaining about the weather.” Wise words reportedly whispered from Tony Blair to his wife. And to some extent, I agree with him. A free press is a sign of a healthy democracy. However – sometimes what is in the public interest is a far cry from what sells papers.

Look at the case of Lord Browne being forced to resign because of his long-term affair with a male escort, over which he told a white-lie about how they met. Hardly the stuff of resignations, particularly when as the dust settled we saw allegation after allegation about alleged misuse of BP resources disintegrating under the microscope.

The truth is that the heart of the story was simply that the Mail on Sunday was able to out an extremely senior business leader after 40 years of him keeping his sexuality private. As a result he felt compelled to resign.

Decriminalising gay sex in the 60s prevented gay people from being the victims of blackmail. But it still seems to have some way to go before sexuality ceases to be a newsworthy for those who choose not disclose it.

Clearly we have some way to go until we reach complete fairness. As leaders in the communities we serve, Liberal Democrats must act to challenge and to change systems that are inherently fair – whether it’s the schools we govern, the registrar offices we control or the laws we can influence.

Public service providers need to be proactive in dispelling the perception from gay people that they will get worse treatment. Hopefully the next major steps in their transformation will come with the extension of the duty of public duties to promote equality for people of different sexually orientations.

And in the private sector we need to give force to their complaint, speeding up tribunals and making sure those who practise discrimination fear redress.

So we have gone a long
y on this journey to equality and fairness – but equality under the law does not reach into all hears and take away the prejudice and hatreds which rest beneath well-behaved exteriors. That has to be the ultimate goal.

Garden Africa

Second With Georgina McAllister from Garden Africa, which helps HIV sufferers in Southern Africacall of the day is to Garden Africa which is a UK based charity working in Southern Africa setting up training gardens in schools and hospitals to teach people affected by poverty and HIV/AIDS how to grow nutritious food and medicinal plants to improve their health and generate income. They teamed up with Ally Pally Garden Centre this weekend and the garden centre is magnificently donating 20% of every purchase made.

I am photographed with Georgina McAllister who set up the charity. I have offered to try and find someone in the EU who can help them apply for funding. There is an enormous amount of funding available for work with HIV/AIDS and Africa etc – but how to get at it is the devil of the problem. I will contact MEP Sarah Ludford – but if there are any fund-getting specialists out there – feel free to contact me or them.

London manifesto launch

Lynne Featherstone and Lib Dem council group leaders launch their manifestoUp to Lib Dem Head Quarters in Cowley Street. As spokesperson for London I set out the party’s ambitions to make real gains on May 4 and to launch our new London document ‘Empowering Local Communities’. It’s a best practise guide to what Liberal Democrat councils do in London so that people can see what you get when you vote for a LibDem council.

Our new Deputy leader Vince Cable and Lib Dem council leaders and Sarah Ludford, LibDem MEP for London, were also there. I quite like chairing launches. I am generally optimistic and enthusiastic – so I guess it’s a good idea for me to front these occasions.

The atmosphere in the room was very upbeat. Our expectation is that we will win more votes, more councillors and more councils! And judging by our canvassing – that is the way it is going!

Kurdish human rights

In the evening host an event at Parliament – with a number of pretty high power speakers – about human rights issues for Kurdish women in Turkey. The event was titled “Ongoing Violence Against Kurdish Women in Turkey; What the EU-Turkey Accession Talks Offer Women”.

Estelle from the Peace in Kurdistan campaign had approached me to host the event – and the speakers included: Sehnaz Turan – a Kurdish human rights lawyer based in Istanbul; Baroness Helena Kennedy; Margret Owen a barrister and adviser to KHRP; Monireh Moftizadeh – founder member of Kurdish Women’s Project who worked om the Kurdish women’s charter and MEPs Jean Lambert and Sarah Ludford – and me!

Kurdish women in Turkey are fighting on two fronts for their freedoms and rights – both rights for women and for Kurds.

Labour and civil liberties

I go to speak at the Liberal Democrat London Region Conference. I, Susan Kramer MP and Sarah Ludford MEP are on a panel answering questions from the attendees. However, the earlier debate is heated and running overtime and Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty has already arrived and is timed for 4.30pm – so I suggest to my co-panellists that we cut our session from an hour down to just half an hour. So that’s what we did.

Shami did a truly star turn. She has a phenomenal use of the English vocabulary – and a delivery that is very winning in manner. And of course, she is delivering music to Lib Dem ears – the civil liberties agenda. Her job must be a constant delight – to fight the good fight – and get paid for it! I think she is an excellent proponent and a real champion of this agenda.

She slides through all the terrible thefts we have witnessed since Labour came to power. From Control Orders, to ID cards, to proposals to remove trial by jury, to religious hatred legislation (removing free speech), to banning behaviour as a substitute for real cure, to the terror laws and the extension of detention without charge, to retention of DNA records on a national police database regardless of guilt or innocence – to name just a few. These are not just the ones that Shami brought up – but they are what has become a litany of loss. Shami finished with the shameful move to accept evidence got by torture. One wonders where it will end and just how far this will go.