Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents

Submission by Stonewall (SC-68)

  1.  Stonewall welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Speaker's Conference set up to consider the representation of minority groups in the House of Commons. Stonewall is a national organisation working across Great Britain that has campaigned for equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people since 1989.

  2.  In summary, Stonewall believes that:

    — The Speaker's Conference is most welcome but we strongly regret that its remit has not thus far included the extremely low number of openly lesbian, gay and bisexual MPs alongside gender, ethnicity and disability. Stonewall welcomed the late addition of disability issues to the original Conference remit.

    — Openly lesbian, gay and bisexual men and women, able to contribute the knowledge of their own lived experience to parliamentary proceedings, are currently seriously under-represented in the House. Opinion polling conducted by YouGov for Stonewall suggests that this undermines the confidence of the wider gay population that they might ever be successful should they wish to stand for Parliament.

    — The continued under-representation of openly-gay MPs means that the House of Commons does not reflect the wider population. Treasury actuaries estimate that 6% of the UK population is either lesbian, gay or bisexual—some 3.6 million people. However, only 2% of current MPs are openly lesbian, gay or bisexual—and all but one of these are male.

    — We agree that it is essential that Parliament reflects the communities it serves, both to promote voter engagement through visible role models and to enrich debates and decisions with their lived experience, not exclusively on sexual orientation or equality matters.

    — It is also evident that the under-representation of women in the Commons compounds the grave lack of openly-gay women politicians—there is just one openly-lesbian MP among more than 1300 members of both Houses.

The problems caused by the unbalanced representation in the House of Commons

  3.  Stonewall strongly believes that there are currently too few openly lesbian, gay and bisexual MPs in the House of Commons. If they are to speak with the lived experience of being gay, it is essential that politicians who are not heterosexual can be entirely open and relaxed about their sexual orientation to fellow MPs and to their constituents.

  4.  There are currently only 13 openly lesbian, gay or bisexual MPs in the House of Commons. This figure represents just 2% of all 646 MPs. Treasury actuaries have estimated that 6% of the UK population are lesbian, gay or bisexual. If the House of Commons were representative of the wider population there would be 39 lesbian or gay members.

  5.  As noted above, there is just one openly-lesbian Member of Parliament out of 125 female MPs able to speak on behalf of the 1.8 million lesbian or bisexual women in the UK. This represents just 0.8% of all female MPs.

  6.  None of the openly-gay MPs is from either a black or minority ethnic background or is disabled.

  7.  Even though Stonewall works with MPs across all parties who have been extremely supportive in advancing legal equality, we believe there remain too few elected politicians able to speak in debates and influence decisions with lived experience of being gay. Lesbian and gay politicians bring a varied range of expertise and contribute to issues far wider than equality or sexual orientation.

  8.  Because lesbian and gay people do not see their community reflected in Parliament, many are still deterred from standing for election themselves and often still believe that the elected chamber does not adequately represent their interests.

The relationship between low levels of representation and voter attitudes to Parliament

  9.  Lesbian and gay voters' attitudes to Parliament are certainly affected by the lack of visible openly-gay MPs. The lack of openly lesbian and gay members sends a signal that being open about one's sexual orientation remains a barrier to both selection as a candidate and election as an MP.

  10.  Opinion polling conducted for Stonewall by YouGov demonstrates that, despite modest efforts by some political parties, the majority of lesbian and gay people expect to experience discrimination if they seek selection by a political party to stand for Parliament. The polling shows that:

    — Three in five lesbian and gay electors think they would face barriers to selection by the Labour Party.

    — Half of lesbian and gay electors think they would face barriers to selection by the Liberal Democrats.

    — Nearly nine in ten lesbian and gay electors think they would face barriers to selection from the Conservative Party if they wanted to run for Parliament.

  11.  Political parties have also failed to convince their own gay and lesbian supporters that they can play a full role in political life, with significant numbers expecting to face discrimination should they seek election.

  12.  Seven in ten active supporters of the Conservative Party would expect to face barriers. Nearly half of Labour supporters anticipate problems from their party in getting selected, along with three in ten Liberal Democrats.

  13.  Separate YouGov polling commissioned by Stonewall, of more than 2000 adults, found that nearly nine in ten voters would be "comfortable" if their MP was lesbian or gay, yet more than half felt that lesbian and gay people were likely to conceal their sexual orientation in politics. It is a maturity of approach that does not yet appear to have been adopted by the main political parties.

The reasons why more lesbian, gay and bisexual people do not become members of Parliament and the problems and practical difficulties encountered by gay people looking to become MPs

  14.  Stonewall believes that the selection phase is critical. The vast majority of people who become MPs do so by being selected for one of the major political parties. Consequently, the parties themselves need to take further steps to attract qualified lesbian and gay candidates.

  15.   Even where openly-lesbian and gay people are successful in being selected, they are rarely selected in safe seats. There are currently only two MPs, one Labour and one Conservative, who were selected as openly gay candidates in safe seats.

  16.  Some potential candidates still perceive that their sexual orientation may be used by political parties to undermine their candidacy. During the 1997 general election, Ben Bradshaw faced repulsive claims from an opponent in Exeter. As recently as 2007 Miranda Grell, a council candidate in the London Borough of Waltham Forest with parliamentary ambitions, told prospective voters that her opponent, Cllr Barry Smith, a gay man in a civil partnership, was a paedophile with a 16 year old boyfriend. Mr Smith's partner was 39; Mr Smith was subsequently abused in the street. Grell was convicted under the Representation of the People Act (1989) on two counts of making false statements about another candidate to gain electoral advantage.

Actions that could be taken by the Government to address disparities in representation.

  17.  Stonewall does not believe that party shortlists reserved solely for openly-gay candidates would be an appropriate way forward in this country. However there are other positive actions which we believe should be permitted by law.

  18.  Efforts to increase the representation in the Commons among minority groups must apply across the piece. The arguments put forward in relation to engagement with modern democracy and the importance of role models, for example in relation to race, apply equally to sexual orientation.

  19.  Any positive action measures that the Government is considering as part of its forthcoming Equality Bill should extend to sexual orientation too, in order to increase the representation of lesbian and gay people in public life, including in the House of Commons.

What actions have been, or could be, taken by political parties, campaigning groups and others to address disparities in representation?

  20.  Political parties should encourage significantly more engagement by lesbian, gay and bisexual people at grassroots level to help develop a "pool" of potential candidates. Currently some parties give strong signals that under-representation of gay people is not considered to be serious by, for example, closely monitoring the ethnic or gender breakdown of council candidates but not that on ground of sexual orientation.

  21.  Political parties should demonstrate a commitment to encouraging representation from under-represented communities by offering mentoring and support for potential candidates from such groups.

  22.  Senior political figures need to be much more explicit in articulating their desire that the House of Commons should be properly representative of all communities within 21st century Britain as a way of enhancing the legitimacy of the House.

  23.  Stonewall now works closely with more than 450 major public and private sector employers helping them to enhance good practice in recruitment. There are a range of further models that could be used from this work to enhance the appeal of parliamentary politics as a career option.

  24.  We hope that the Speaker's Conference will not miss the historic opportunity to address the under-representation of lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Parliament. Stonewall would be very happy to provide further advice or detail.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 27 May 2009