Stonewall's "Bigot of the Year" Award is offensive and out of date

By continuing to have a Bigot of the Year award, Stonewall is indulging in playground politics that sits ill with its new role as a facilitator of best practice in the public realm.

At a lavish awards ceremony at the V&A last night, the gay rights organisation Stonewall honoured Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, as its Politician of the Year. That such an award is possible shows just how much society has changed in the twenty-three years since Stonewall was founded. The idea that there would one day be an openly gay leader of a British political party - and a Tory, at that - would have seemed like a wild dream a generation ago. Indeed, it's a measure of how far we have come that an organisation that started out as a pressure group campaigning for the basic human rights of a marginalised and unpopular minority should now be staging a swanky awards ceremony at a top London venue, backed by top corporate sponsors such as Barclays and royal bankers Coutts.

Stonewall's awards are supposed to "celebrate the outstanding contribution of individuals and groups towards lesbian, gay and bisexual equality". The mood turned somewhat sour, though, when Davidson used her acceptance speech to criticise Stonewall for continuing to single out a "Bigot of the Year" alongside the awards for top entertainers, sportspeople and "heroes". Davidson argued that it was "simply wrong" to use the term bigot of opponents of same-sex marriage, as well as being counterproductive. "The case for equality," she said, "is far better made by demonstrating the sort of generosity, tolerance and love we would wish to see more of in this world."

She left the stage to a chorus of boos and jeers.

The Bigot award, meanwhile, was handed to Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the most senior Roman Catholic clergyman in Britain, largely on the strength of his ill-advised remarks about same sex marriage earlier this year. O'Brien, you may recall, described the proposal as "a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right" and likened its proponents to people who would legalise slavery. Even many who shared his opposition to equal marriage were embarrassed by these comments. But the real question, perhaps, is not so much whether O'Brien is accurately described as a bigot but whether it's wise or appropriate for Stonewall to continue to single out a "bigot" for annual abuse. 

The "bigot of the year" category was already controversial after the unlovely pressure group Christian Concern, and later the Catholic Herald, embarrassed some of the sponsors into threatening to withdraw support for the event. A spokesman for Barclays said that "to label any individual so subjectively and pejoratively runs contrary to our view on fair treatment." Barclays also distanced itself from the "bigot" award by stressing that its sponsorship was limited to the sports personality award. This may be technically true but is also subtly misleading, since the name Barclays appeared among the sponsors in all the awards publicity, much of which mentioned the existence of the "bigot" category. 

Barclays is in a rather delicate position here. By sponsoring the Stonewall Awards it is demonstrating its commitment to equality and diversity. Indeed, until the row blew up it was not so much a case of Barclays endorsing Stonewall as Stonewall endorsing Barclays: an institution mired in claims of tax avoidance and mis-selling of insurance burnishing its progressive credentials by associating itself with a leading LGBT organisation. On the other hand, the view of same-sex marriage being denounced as "bigoted" is one which many Barclays customers will share.

Some might say that by accepting corporate sponsorship at all, Stonewall is selling out. But such sponsorship is only possible because so many of the group's original aims have already been achieved. Stonewall was founded, in 1989, in response to the Thatcher government's notorious Clause 28, a vindictive piece of lawmaking that banned the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools. In those days, while the tide was slowly turning, an unthinking homophobia pervaded much of national life. Many gay celebrities still dwelt uneasily in the closet, scared of exposure in the Sun and or the News of the World. The age of consent for gay men was still 21. There were no openly gay politicians, though plenty who were furtively and fearfully so. Local authorities that dared to suggest equality for gay and lesbian people were ridiculed as being "the loony left", while a Chief Constable (Greater Manchester's James Anderton) could go on the record describing Aids as "a self-inflicted scourge" caused by gay men "swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making."

Now that's bigotry.

Such attitudes still persist, but they are scarcely mainstream, as the ridicule that greeted O'Brien's somewhat milder comments about same-sex marriage demonstrates. Stonewall itself has diversified from its original role as a pressure group. These days, a significant proportion of its work involves giving advice to business on Equality and Diversity issues via projects such as the Diversity Champions Programme. It is part of the establishment now. It's the opponents of LGBT equality, groups like Christian Concern, that are on the margins.

In such a climate, continuing to nominate a "Bigot of the Year" suggests an organisation partly stuck in the mindset of twenty years ago. Then it stood out bravely against a society mired in casual bigotry. Now it stands firmly in the mainstream. That's a much more comfortable place in many ways, but it requires some adjustment. There's no need, these days, to indulge a victim mentality by indulging in playground insults and scapegoating. It makes Stonewall look childish and intolerant, and only serves to vindicate the "bigots". Time to grow up.

 

Cardinal Keith O'Brien was named "Bigot of the Year" by Stonewall. Photograph: Getty Images
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Labour can be populist and English without copying Donald Trump

There's nothing deplorable about discussing the common interests of the people.

As Labour’s new populism gears up for Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, it will be tested on voters who are, by a significant measure, more likely to see themselves as English. In the 2011 census, both constituencies scored "English" identity nearly 10 per cent higher than the English average and still 5 per cent higher than England outside of London.

It’s no surprise that both Ukip and the Tories have polled well in these places. In the 2015 general election there was strong correlation between feeling "English", or feeling "more English than British", and voting Ukip and Conservative. Indeed, amongst the "English not British" Ukip took about a third of the votes across England, and the Tories a fifth. Labour lagged below 15 per cent.

Labour’s problems may be getting worse. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, showed "Englishness" gaining at the expense of "Britishness" in the year of Brexit. At the extremes, "English not British" rose by 5 per cent (from 14 per cent to 19 per cent), with ‘British not English’ falling by a similar amount. If past relationships hold, these voters will become harder for Labour to reach.

Although most people in England would favour an English Parliament, or English MPs alone voting on English issues, these have not yet become the political demands of an explicit nationalism as we might find in Wales, Scotland or Catalonia. Indeed, there’s no actual evidence of a direct link between feeling English and the way people vote. It well be that the underlying factors that make someone feel English are also those that incline them, overwhelmingly, to vote Brexit or to support Ukip.

We may identify the drivers of English identity - the declining power of the idea of Britain, the assertiveness of devolution, rapid migration and the EU - but we know little about the idea of England than lies behind these polls. There’s almost certainly more than one: the England of Stoke Central imaginations may not be identical to the Twickenham RFU car park on international day.

One of the most persistent and perceptive observers of alienated working class voters sheds some light on why these voters are turning towards their English roots. According to The Guardian’s John Harris:

"When a lot of people said ‘I’m English’, they often meant something like, ‘I’m not middle class, and I don’t want to be…. I’m also white, and coupled with the fact that I’m working class, I feel that somehow that puts me at the bottom of the heap, not least in the context of immigration. But I am who I am, and I’m not apologising for it.'" People who said "I’m English" seemed to be saying, 'I’m from somewhere' in a ways that politicians and the media did not."

Given Labour’s history in seats where support is ebbing away, it’s reasonable to think that the party’s target must be the voters who Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus describes as "left-wing nationalists". In this definition, "left-wing" attitudes tend to be be anti-capitalist, hostile to business, generous on benefits, support the welfare state and redistributive taxation. "Nationalist" attitudes are seen as isolationist, against immigration, disliking EU freedom of movement, thinking British means "born here" and that Britons should be put first.

For many in Labour, those nationalist attitudes might bring "a basket of deplorables" to mind.  In recent days both the Corbyn left, and centrist MPs like Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, have warned against meeting these voters’ concerns. Progressive Labour populists must also calm those fears. But Labour will be doomed as a party of government it it can’t reach these voters (even if it does hang on in the forthcoming by-elections). The obstacles are formidable, but with the right language and framing, Labour may find an appeal that could cut through without alienating the party's more liberal support.

Just acknowledging that England, and the English, exist would be a start. The reaction to Birmingham mayoral candidate Sion Simon’s appeal to England in a campaign tweet simply emphasised how much of Labour prefers to say Britain, even when they mean England. We don’t need a swirl of St George crosses at every event; we just need to use the word in normal everyday conversation. At least we would sound like we live in the same country.

The defiant cry to be recognised and heard should trigger another Labour instinct. The demand that the nation should be run in the common interests of the people runs deep through radical history. Jeremy Corbyn reached for this with his talk of "elites rigging the system". But no ordinary English conversation ever talks about elites. Instead of "mini-me Trumpism", English Labour populism needs careful framing in the language of day-to-day talk. Labour's target should be not be the wealthy per se, but those powerful people whose behaviour undermines the national interest and by doing so undermines the rest of us.

This language of national interest, both conservatively patriotic and politically radical, meets the mood of the moment. The select committee challenges to Amazon, Google, Philip Green and Mike Ashley struck a chord precisely because they revealed something deeply true and unpleasant about this land. We can defend the national interest without invoking a racist response. Why are our railways sold to other governments, and our companies sold abroad for quick profit? Why should it be easier for a foreign gangster to buy a house in Surrey, and hide their ownership overseas, than for an English family to get their own home?

By asking what any change means to the people of England, we might bridge the divide on immigration. If the impact of migration is exacerbated by the pressure on housing and service, let Labour make it clear that the rate of immigration should not exceed the pace we can build homes for those already here, as well as any newcomers. The government must be able to expand services to meet additional needs. If every policy should work in the interests of the people of England, migration which improves our services, creates jobs and grows the economy is to be welcomed. It is hard to see a genuine liberal objection to posing the migration challenge in that way. With the exception of refugees, immigration policy cannot be designed to benefit the migrant more than the resident.

Let the test of every policy be whether it works in the interests of the people of England, or works only for a few. That’s a simple test that would appeal to widely shared values. It could be the foundation of a genuine Labour populism that speaks to England.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University