The Laws and coming out

It is impossible to detach consideration of David Laws’s misdeeds from the cultural acceptance of ho

Homosexuality is not an exoneration, of course not, no more than are the guy's political talents. No one is saying that clever people, or gay people, or even clever gay people, should not be made to abide by rules governing parliamentary expenses.

Neither David Laws's guilt in claiming housing expenses to which he was not entitled (because his landlord was his lover), nor his acceptance of that guilt, are in question. What remains to be determined is the fitting level of punishment.

To answer this question, I don't see how it's possible to ignore Laws's sexuality, because (in my mind, anyway) the punishment for venality should be of an order of magnitude stronger than that for an attempt to maintain privacy.

Jacqui Smith rented a room from her sister and designated it her "main home". That wasn't out of a desire to prevent her sororal habitation habit from being known: it was from a desire to maximise her cash take. For that, she was censured by, but not suspended from, the Commons. Her eventual expulsion from the House by her electorate was one of the most powerful arguments against AV, by the way: giving first-weight preferences to the last-placed candidates in her constituency could well have returned her to the green benches. (Update: Jacqui Smith has posted a comment below to challenge my reading of events).

So, to repeat, because it matters: I'm not arguing that Laws should go unpunished, or that he didn't act wrongly and against the rules. I'm not even pointing out the strangeness of the "No lover as landlord" rule (does a single act of intercourse with one's landlord break the rule? Or must intercourse be carried out repeatedly over time?).

I'm asking that the most probable reason for his actions be taken into account in order to deliver a just punishment. And I can't – of course I can't – separate Laws's sexuality from my thinking about this.

The best counterargument I've read came from Tom Harris, that good man and Labour MP for Glasgow South, who said to me on Twitter last night that I was "Wrong [to suggest that Laws's homosexuality is part-explanation for his behaviour]. He could easily have afforded not to claim rent at all, thus staying within rules and not outing himself." Means testing for MP expenses? Well, why not? I'm sure with hindsight Laws would have sympathy with this.

It's tempting to reply to Harris, and those who agree with him, thus: you simply have no idea what it's like to live as a gay person.

For all the movement towards legal equality of esteem, we do not inhabit a world where we are treated the same as people who are not gay.

In corporate life, at the start of my career a couple of decades ago, I sometimes noted my own lack of "clubbability" (my inability to socialise with ease, not the desirability of treating me like a baby seal in the 1980s), and asked myself if it was holding me back.

Do you see what I mean? I'm not accusing other people of treating me differently; I'm asking if something unresolved within our cultural etiquette of social interaction (because the liberated gay person is a relatively modern fact) prevented me from being as straightforward with colleagues as I would have been, were I a different person.

You will find this impossible to understand, I guess, but certainly in my twenties I found it almost excruciating to take part in any workplace conversation that moved on to the topic of families, children, schools, holidays, weekends – that is, almost anything.

There seemed no way of participating in such conversations without making a political point, which was the last thing I wanted to do ("Are you seeing anyone?" "Yes . . . [awkward silence] . . . I'm gay! Since you didn't ask").

Now, I'm about as openly gay as it's possible to be, and consider myself liberated: I don't put up with rubbish from anyone. But were I even to a mild degree more diffident, I think my professional (and private) life would be markedly less successful: I would prioritise privacy (for fear of censure) over the joy that comes from living life openly.

For the third time, and in conclusion, let me underline that I'm not claiming that any of this implies that David Laws should not be punished for his expense claim faults. He should be humbled in front of the House and repay every penny that should not have been taken. After that, though, I'd rather let the voters of Yeovil decide whether or not he should be removed from the Chamber.

Whatever happened to that rather excellent Tory initiative on voter recall?

Graeme Archer is a regular contributor to ConservativeHome hoping to remain on the Tory party official candidates' list. In real life he is a statistician. On Twitter he's @graemearcher.

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.