Politics - Iain Dale has no problem being an openly gay Tory

Far from being the preserve of Colonel Blimps, it was the Tory party that stood the most gay and bla

The past two weeks have been like attending my own funeral. I've had 400 e-mails and letters of commiseration, expressing genuine sorrow that I won't be adorning the green benches as member of parliament for North Norfolk. Many of my correspondents seem far more upset about it than I am - or maybe the full shock of how we managed to turn a small Lib Dem majority into a huge one hasn't hit me yet.

Twenty months ago, I became the first so-called "openly gay" candidate to be selected by a Conservative constituency association. I declared myself during the interview process and received 66 per cent of the vote. I drove away from the selection meeting in Holt proud not only of what I had achieved, but also of my party. A rural constituency had picked someone they thought would be the best candidate, and his sexuality hadn't mattered a jot. Just how it should be.

In the months leading up to the campaign, I could count on the fingers of two hands the number of anti-gay comments I received. We had three or four resignations from the local party when I was selected, but that would have happened if I had been anything other than a Volvo-driving married man with 2.4 children. Still, I do not pretend that my sexuality didn't matter. I received a vicious letter from a party member resigning in protest at my selection. Three months later a man came up to me at a fundraiser and admitted he was the one who had written the letter. "I just want to tell you that I now know you to be an outstanding candidate and you have my full support," he told me. I had proved myself and he had the guts to admit to my face he had been wrong. It was good to know I had been able to break down some prejudices.

During the campaign itself homophobia did rear its head. An influential Liberal Democrat councillor spread his poison in a way that only Lib Dem councillors can. But, to his credit, the party's successful candidate in North Norfolk, Norman Lamb, apologised to me at the count for this. A vicar in the village of West Runton reportedly advised his congregation not to vote for me. He was probably not alone. My "favourite" moment came the day after the election, when the wife of one of our county council candidates told me she didn't think I'd lost because I was a "bum bandit". Charming. But hilarious, too.

There has been some press comment about the failure of several other gay Conservatives to get elected. Did homophobia play a part in the various defeats? In Falmouth and Camborne, Ashley Crossley faced a bitter fight within his local party, parts of which seemed determined to oust him at any cost because he was gay. In Hove and Portslade the excellent Nicholas Boles fought a good fight and came within a whisker of winning, while in Holborn and St Pancras, Margot James increased the Tory vote by more than 20 per cent. In the two constituencies where gay Conservatives were defending seats (excuse the pun) Nick Herbert's vote went up, as did Alan Duncan's. Mine didn't. That's life, and I'm getting over it.

I didn't lose because North Norfolk rejected a gay candidate. I lost because the Lib Dems ran a relentless campaign to persuade Labour supporters to vote tactically. I lost because our national campaign, though highly professional and slick, did not ignite the fires of optimism among an electorate sick of personal insults and negativity. It may not be racist to talk about immigration, but it is perhaps not clever to put the words "racist" and "Conservative" on the same poster. And I lost because the Lib Dem MP had a huge personal vote, far beyond anything I've encountered anywhere else.

Far too many people define "modernising" as appearing on television without a tie, or in the narrow terms of ethnic background, sexuality, gender and age. We should be reminding people that we had more ethnic and gay candidates than the other parties. Our party has indeed changed, but our language did not reflect this. There are many on the so-called progressive left who continue to question the Conservatives' commitment to social liberalism. They continue to assume the Tories are full of Colonel Blimps. I would argue that the Conservative Party has moved slightly ahead of the electorate in embracing this agenda. If black candidates can be selected in Windsor and Cambridgeshire and gay candidates can be elected in Arundel and Rutland, with increased votes, that sends out a powerful signal. And, best of all, there won't be a single candidate for the Tory leadership who doesn't think this is a thoroughly good thing. How times have changed.

Iain Dale was Conservative candidate for North Norfolk and is a political commentator and writer. He is managing director of Politicos.co.uk

This is the first in a series of guest political columns

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The nuclear charm offensive