INTERVIEW: Twigg backs Labour initiative to encourage more LGBT MPs

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Stephen Twigg’s place in British political history was assured on May 1st 1997.

He was the young out gay Labour candidate who beat Michael Portillo in Enfield Southgate and in doing so provided the iconic moment in the election that ushered Tony Blair into office and condemned the Tories to a decade in the wilderness.

He had been the first openly gay President of the National Union of Students in 1990, and in the following seven years he was at the forefront of the New Labour project as a prominent Islington councillor.

Regarded as one of the brightest new MPs, in 2001 Mr Twigg was promoted Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the House of Commons and just a year later became a junior minister in the Department for Education and Skills.

He was promoted within the department in 2004, but the next year disaster struck when he lost his seat in the 2005 general election.

However, Mr Twigg is on his way back to Westminster – and still smiling.

Currently chairman of Progress, an independent organisation for Labour party members, and director of the Foreign Policy Centre, in September 2007 he was selected to fight Liverpool West Derby at the next election.

At Labour party conference last month he was the guest speaker at a £40-a-head dinner to raise funds for a new initiative that aims to increase gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans representation in Parliament.

Dorothy’s List will financially support LGBT candidates who have been selected to fight for Labour at the next general election.

It is designed to particularly support those in marginals, new candidates and women and trans people. caught up with Mr Twigg at Labour party conference – his first was in 1984.

“I was 17 and I was delegate from Enfield Southgate – we had a motion on lesbian and gay rights, which did not get debated. The party had no policy at that time,” he confided.

Since then gay rights have become a matter of party policy and at conference Labour voted to promote trans inclusion by including it in the party rulebook.

Mr Twigg’s first year at conference coincided with a moment of horrible destiny for Michael Portillo.

That year the MP for Enfield Soutgate was killed in an IRA bomb attack on the Tory party conference – Mr Portillo was selected to fight the by-election.

“I came to the conference in September and then the by-election was in December, Michael became the MP and I became involved in the Labour campaign then. We came third and lost our deposit!”

Mr Twigg said that Dorothy’s List will help build a “Parliament that reflects the diversity of the country,” and is full of praise for the record number of women MPs under Labour.

In recent years gay men have come out on the Tory frontbench, and the Lib Dems have their first ever out gay MP.

“We have more out MPs in all the main parties now which is really good, but still there are people who do not come out and we do need to have larger numbers,” says Mr Twigg.

He was the first out man elected to the House of Commons. 21 minutes later, Ben Bradshaw became the second.

All-woman shortlists clearly helped boost the female representation in Parliament, but they were deeply controversial.

Mr Twigg is wary of anything similar for LGBT candidates. He denies the charge that effectively allocating seats to women only is demeaning.

“I don’t think it’s tokenism. Women-only short lists are clearly controversial and in some situations you will have a local man who feels very aggrieved if he does not get the chance to be selected in his own seat.

“What we know from our own experience and from the experience of the other two main parties is that without it progress is very very slow.

“If people believe as I do that Parliament should be half women and half men, all woman short lists are necessary to achieve that.

“There is a similar debate with black and ethnic minority candidates.

“Women are over half the population and something that works for women would not work for other groups but there are other things that can be done.

“Initiatives like Dorothy’s List are a good way of giving that support.”

As a member of Parliament Mr Twigg voted for landmark legislation such as an equal age of consent, the repeal of Section 28, civil partnerships and gay adoption.

Since his career was interrupted by the voters, Labour has passed yet more gay rights measures. This has left many to ask – is there anything more that government can do?

“The challenge has moved on clearly, in legislative terms it has almost all been done, but there are still massive issues with day to day violence and discrimination, bullying.

“Some of the work going on in education around homophobic bullying is great, and somewhat overdue. This was not focused on at an earlier stage.

“When I was in the department (Department for Education and Skills) we started doing some work on it. I am very pleased at the way that the schools department have given it higher priority – that is great news. We have made great progress here but in other parts of the world the situation is dire.

“In addition to continuing to campaign here we need to give higher priority to tackling issues around homophobia and transphobia across the world.”

Given that his new constituency of Liverpool West Derby would most likely elect the proverbial donkey if it wore a Labour rosette, it seems Stephen Twigg will be back tackling those issues in the Commons, if not in government, after the next election.