Sowing the seeds of equality
I was 17 when the miners’ strike began in 1984. I was a Labour activist in the Tory stronghold of Enfield Southgate; doing my A levels at Southgate comprehensive school; and I was gay but had not yet told anyone. Southgate Labour activists used to collect food for the miners and their families in Palmers Green. While we collected we had passionate arguments about the rights and wrongs of Arthur Scargill’s strategy but we all shared a basic sense of solidarity with the miners.
I was never involved in Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners – the organisation whose relationship with the Dulais Valley mining community in south Wales is the subject of the new film Pride – but its work had a real impact on the Labour party and the wider labour movement. I went to my first party conference in 1984 with my constituency’s resolution calling on Labour to adopt comprehensive policy to root out discrimination on the basis of sexuality. At that time Labour had no conference policy on LGBT rights. We failed to even secure a debate. A year later, that all changed.
It is sometimes hard to convey how different things were then. Aids was often described as the ’gay plague’; local authorities which sought to tackle homophobia were dismissed as part of the ‘loony left’; and the Labour leadership was very wary that a commitment to LGBT equality would be a vote-loser.
The work done by LGSM contributed to a significant shift in the attitude of the trade unions. While some unions had already taken a progressive stance, others were more cautious. After the strike had finished, the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights (now LGBT Labour) launched a major push to secure a policy commitment from the 1985 conference. For me personally this was an extraordinary time – I left school, came out, and played my small part in securing victory at the Bournemouth conference.
I remember listening to Sian James – now member of parliament for Swansea East and played by Jessica Gunning in the film – at a fringe meeting telling the remarkable story of Dulais Valley and the impact of LGSM. At the conference we had enough resolutions to secure the first ever debate on LGBT equality. A few weeks earlier, the TUC had adopted a comprehensive policy. Nevertheless, Labour’s National Executive Committee remained cautious, recommending that we remit our motion. The effect of this was that, when we refused to do so, the recommendation was for the conference to reject it.
I remember lobbying trade union delegations and the fantastic support we got from the National Union of Mineworkers, especially the south Wales NUM. We knew the vote would be close but the sense we had was that we would win despite the NEC recommendation. It was a powerful debate with some great speeches in favour – and a lone CLP delegate who spoke against. We demanded a card vote and we won. There is no doubt in my mind that the solidarity between LGSM and the Dulais Valley mining community of south Wales played a significant part in delivering that victory.
Over the subsequent decade or so, Labour’s commitment to LGBT equality was strengthened. Section 28 marked a low point but out of it came a renewed campaign in which the Labour party and the trade unions played an important role alongside Stonewall and other LGBT organisations.
We can be proud of the comprehensive legislation passed by the last Labour government. But the seeds were sown in the much more difficult times of the mid-1980s when standing up for equality was a lot more controversial than it is today. Hopefully, Pride will bring this story to life for the next generation.
Stephen Twigg MP is honorary president of Progress
Photo: Simon Murphy
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