Equality and social justice are values that lie at the very heart of the Labour movement. From the campaign for universal suffrage through the social reforms of the Sixties; the introduction of the Equal Pay Act inspired by the women of Ford Dagenham to Sure Start and the Equality Act. It’s Labour governments that have always strived to make Britain a more equal, fair and tolerant country.
Indeed, one of the greatest legacies of the last Labour government was the progress we made to sweep away decades of legislation based on the prejudice and persecution of lesbian, gay and trans individuals. Abolishing Section 28, equalizing the age of consent, adoption rights for gay couples, fertility treatments for lesbian couples, removing the laws which prevented our armed service men and women from being open about their sexuality, and establishing civil partnerships.
In politics too, we have seen pioneers in our party – Chris Smith and Angela Eagle who stood up and spoke out at a time when being openly gay or lesbian in British politics was a lonely experience. Today, we have record numbers of openly LGBT candidates standing for Labour at this election, including Emily Brothers, our party’s first openly trans candidate in Sutton and Cheam. And another political pioneer, Michael Cashman OBE, will become Britain’s first LGBT rights ambassador under a Labour government. These are recent advances our country has taken that we should never forget, particularly as we celebrate LGBT History Month.
The next Labour government still has work to do to ensure LGBT people experience equal treatment: as users of public services, in the workplace, in our communities and across the world. And key to delivering this progress will be working with colleagues in every department to ensure equality is a priority across every area of government. But, although it doesn’t seem like it to some in politics, legislating is often the easy part. Cultural change, the battle for hearts and minds takes time and will need renewed commitment from all those who’ve fought for progress.
That process has to start with education, which is why it is absolutely right that the Education Secretary Tristram Hunt has committed to tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying as a priority. Key to this is inclusive sex and relationships education (SRE). A Labour government will make SRE compulsory in every state-funded school, including faith schools and academies. We will do so because want to make sure our young people are equipped to deal with the pressures of the modern world, of the internet, and also grow up aware of the diversity of modern families, and to celebrate diversity amongst us.
We need conversations in the classroom about same sex relationships and parenting, conversations about issues such as consent, and about diversity in identity. We know pornography is more accessible than ever before and in the absence of a proper discussion in schools it can become the only sex education young people receive.
Though Section 28 is long gone, its legacy still casts a long shadow over our schools. Far, far too many lesbian, gay and bisexual young people suffer the effects of depression, self-harm and attempted suicide – and we see even higher rates for trans young people. Addressing the challenges of mental health will be a priority for the next Labour government, and as part of this we will focus particularly on ending the scandal of the neglect of young child mental health.
And we will give pupils ownership over setting standards and expectations for their own behaviour. Some of the most effective and inspiring examples of initiatives to tackle homophobic bullying and celebrate difference are those that have been devised and led by young people themselves. By giving young people ownership some schools have seen some significant reductions in incidents of prejudice-based bullying.
Labour will continue to build on our legacy and fight for the values of social justice and equality until every child can go to school to learn in an environment free from bullying and discrimination and until every LGBT person can be proud of who they are and who they love free from fear or prejudice.
Gloria De Piero is Labour MP for Ashfield and shadow women and equalities minister.
Editor’s note, 19.09: This article originally stated that Emily Brothers was the country’s first openly transgender candidate. This was corrected to say that she is Labour’s first openly trans candidate.