30 May, 2010

Out in Politics

So the chief secretary to the treasury, David Laws, has resigned his post in the coalition government because of an expenses scandal that has also exposed that he is gay. It's a situation so tricky that on his programme this morning, even Andrew Marr said 'for once, I have nothing smart to say about it'.

The facts are that between 2004 and 2007, David Laws claimed expenses on properties he had rented from his long-term partner, James Lundie. In 2006, Parliamentary rules were changed to forbid MPs from 'leasing accommodation from a partner'.

It's debateable whether the word 'partner' is just a catch-all to include husbands, wives, common-law partners and civil partnerships (which have been legal in the UK since 2004), but Mr Laws clearly believed that his own relationship with Mr Lundie could not be described as fitting the parameters of that clause. Furthermore, to protect his own privacy in an environment where the prejudices of the public could have prevented him from serving them, it looks as if he continued to claim expenses until such time that he could cease doing so without it drawing attention to his private life.

I do wonder if any straight relationships were exposed in a similar way in the last round of expenses scandals: an unmarried MP in a relationship claiming rent on a property owned by their partner. If there were, would they just have been all part of the same scandal, so that the nature of their relationship might not have been clear, or is it just that the press wouldn't have felt the need to expose a heterosexual relationship because it doesn't have the whiff of scandal that a homosexual one does?

Whichever way we look at it, David Laws is clearly a victim of homophobia. He's felt compelled to live in the closet, keep his relationship a secret and maintain a practice of claiming for expenses to as not to draw attention to his private life. Though his resignation was prompted by those expense claims - which he's vowed to pay back - some might say that there's an issue of trust here that David Laws has betrayed. It might even be suggested that gay people who live their lives in the closet cannot be trusted with a position in public office. But we also have to look at the reasons why a person might choose not to come out. After all, how many MPs have lost their seats because of revelations about their private lives?

David Laws had to resign because he is gay. What's interesting is that, unlike almost every other MP to have resigned a post because of a 'private matter', the view here seems to be that he is an 'honourable man' - and without any of the irony that the phrase might carry from Marc Antony's use of it. Could this in fact be a turning point - that a member of parliament might not have to resign because of his or her sexuality? Well, that's down to the voters and, sadly, the reactions from the Daily Mail this week could be seen to reflect many of them (I won't provide a link to that, simply because it only helps them in the long run).

Last Wednesday, I was honoured to be among the guests to witness the election of Camden's new major, councillor Jonathan Simpson. The mayor is joined on the council by new deputy leader Angela Mason, a major figure in gay equality campaigning since her days as head of Stonewall in the 1980s. The inauguration took place during the council's annual general meeting and entertainment was provided by, among others, the London Gay Men's Chorus... and a local resident who had some rather forthright views on one of the other councillors.

Camden council has had its troubles recently, but the new mayor's agenda of promoting the area's wealth of musical talent and fundraising for its venues seems to be very welcome. As so many of the musical entries I've written in this blog were inspired by tickets provided by him as his 'plus-one', I can wholeheartedly vouch for his passion for live music. I'm sure he'll make great progress for the council and for Camden in the next 12 months. Congratulations, mate!

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