Interview: London Assembly Labour member Tom Copley on Boris, Tories and better sex ed

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Tom Copley became the youngest person ever to join the London Assembly when he was elected as a Labour member in 2012. Speaking to, the City Hall Labour housing spokesperson talks the Tories, Russia, holding Boris to account, and the need for better sex and relationship education in schools.

Tom Copley finds himself in something of a unique position amongst his peers: Last year, the openly gay 28-year-old found himself elected to one of the most prominent positions in London, becoming a Labour member for the London Assembly. As part of the body’s Economy, Housing & Regeneration and Transport committees, he has unrivalled insight into the workings of the Greater London Authority, and of Boris Johnson himself.

“I was delighted to get elected – I wasn’t expecting to get elected it’s fair to say, though I was very pleased that I did,” Mr Copley says, adding: “In terms of being gay, the Assembly actually has had gay members since the very beginning, and I think that’s testament to what a diverse place London is.

“I think being the youngest, perhaps I bring a slightly different perspective to certain issues… I hope I’ve been able to raise some things that wouldn’t have been raised otherwise.”

Mr Copley has certainly used his position to help raise many of the gay community’s concerns as well as keeping the Mayor himself in check. “When we had all the issues around World Pride I raised a number of things with Boris Johnson,” he says, “and again going forward to the London Pride that we had this year, keeping a close eye on what’s going on and making sure that the mistakes of the past weren’t repeated.

“Also challenging the Mayor over things like the gifts he’s been given by the Mayor of Sochi. Obviously with the big issues with gay rights in Russia at the moment, I’ve asked him if he’ll give those gifts back, and actually he hasn’t properly answered the question yet.”

Asked what gifts the Mayor has been receiving, Mr Copley says: “They were only little things, token kind of gifts. I forget what they are but they’re quite small things, but I think symbolically it would be a good thing for him to return them.”

Just two weeks ago, Boris Johnson said it would be wrong to end the twinning arrangement between London and Moscow over Russia’s controversial new anti-gay ‘propaganda’ laws, saying: “I believe that we can better challenge prejudice through engagement. Isolation will not achieve change.” Does Mr Copley agree that the capital should continue to have cultural ties with Russia in the wake of its crackdown on the LGBT community?

“Well, the twinning arrangement is an interesting one,” he replies, “because London’s twinned with a number of places, some of which have worse records on gay rights that Russia. We’re twinned with Kingston in Jamaica – in Jamaica you’ll go to prison for ten years. We’re twinned with a city in Pakistan where again homosexuality is illegal. We’re also twinned with Beijing where although it’s not illegal, it’s hardly a beacon of gay equality. So I think one has to be consistent.”

He goes on to add however: “The only argument one could make about Russia is that they are I believe signatory to various European conventions which they’re in breach of with their law. So I guess that’s possibly an argument you could make to be an exception, but I think it is a slightly more difficult issue.”

Mr Copley has been critical of Boris Johnson in the past, telling PinkNews last year that the Mayor only pays “lip service” to LGBT issues, and questioning why he had failed to produce an Out4Marriage video (a promise he eventually fulfilled in August 2012). Though he struggles to gauge the sincerity of Boris’s new-found support of gay rights, the Labour member believes it can only be a positive thing.

He says: “I always like to give people the benefit of the doubt, however it’s difficult to know whether it’s sincere. I mean it wasn’t just the two men and a dog thing, I believe he’d written some other rather unsavoury things, particularly in The Spectator in the 1990s. I think I would compare him to his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, and Ken Livingstone was going on gay pride marches before I was born, and I think very sincerely wanted to stand up for gay rights. Boris doesn’t have that record, but I completely welcome the fact that he now does speak out very strongly for gay rights, I think that’s testament to how things have shifted.”

Mr Copley partly attributes that shift in attitudes to the initiatives taken by Labour during its thirteen years in government: “Obviously there’s the very practical things we did policy-wise like civil partnerships and adoption rights, equalising the age of consent, but I almost think the biggest achievement we made is the transformation, certainly of the leadership, of the Tory party if not the grassroots, to the point where it’s actually been a Conservative Prime Minister who’s introduced equal marriage, and he should take credit for that.

“Even if he couldn’t bring his whole party with him, it was a brave thing to do.”

While some in the Tory party have used the passing of equal marriage to disparage Labour’s record on the issue, Mr Copley says that those people “should hang their heads in shame, because Labour was transformative on gay rights.”

Another, slightly more unfortunate, transformation that has occurred recently is the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) tumble down the rankings of Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index since Mr Johnson took over the top job in 2008: “I think it’s pretty bad that it’s slumped down from 2nd to 278th. I think that’s possibly down to the fact that I think that where Ken Livingstone had a real focus on equalities and took them very seriously – not just gay equality but race equality, women’s equality, all these issues – I think perhaps Boris has had less of a focus on that, and that’s why we’ve fallen down the list.

“It’s certainly not a homophobic place to work at all, but could it do better in terms of LGB equality – yes absolutely.”

Mr Copley, who worked on Ken Livingstone’s successful campaign in 2010 to be selected as Labour’s mayoral candidate, might use the former mayor as a point of contrast to Boris, but what does he make of the backlash Mr Livingstone faced from some quarters of the gay community over his meetings with homophobic Islamic clerics?

“I disagree with Ken over al-Qaradari, I don’t think he should have been invited to City Hall. Ken did it all in good faith and in the belief that it was a way of improving relations with the Muslim community. I disagree with him on that particular issue but I don’t think any of that should detract from his very vocal support over the years for gay rights. “Like I say, he was on gay pride marches before I was born. He used to be vilified by the press in the 1980s: no leading politician would do it except for Ken. I think he made it easier for politicians subsequently.

“I mean this was a time in the 80s when closeted gay Tory MPs were going to the lobbies to vote for Section 28 and then would be drinking in gay bars later in the evening,” he continues. “So there was an awful lot of hypocrisy. I’m not saying it was easy at the time to be an openly gay politician, not at all, but I think Ken’s actions did help politicians subsequently to be more vocal in support for gay rights.

“I’ll always admire him for that,” he adds.

Away from the politics of the GLA, the 28-year-old is a strong advocate of sex and relationship education, undoubtedly one of the key issues facing LGBT youth today in the face of record HIV infection rates.

When I ask him whether parents should have the right to withdraw their children from classes discussing sex and same-sex relationships, Mr Copley is unequivocal: “I think children have a right to learn about these things and to make their own judgements. There is a balance to be struck, but would we tolerate parents taking their children out of a history class because they didn’t agree with a particular thing being taught? I don’t think we would. I think that the child’s right to know in this case trumps the parents’ rights.”

Saying that compulsory sex education should start early at an “appropriate level,” Mr Copley recognises that such education must be attuned to the challenges of the 21st century, echoing Nick Clegg’s concerns that sex and relationship guidance – which was last updated 13 years ago – is out of touch with the needs of the new technological generation.

“I think we need much more comprehensive sex education, because kids – particularly now with the internet and everything – a lot of children are learning about sex because of pornography, and I don’t think that’s a very good place to learn about sex or indeed relationships. So I think you need that comprehensive sex education in schools.

“There is pressure on young people to send explicit photos of themselves to others, and I think there is particular pressure on young gay men,” Mr Copley explains. “The big problem is, once a photo is out there you can’t take it back. I imagine that a great many may one day regret hitting ‘send’. Modern sex and relationship education ought to address this issue. Unfortunately it currently does not.”

Passionate, confident, and already a political high-flyer before the age of 30, I ask the Mr Copley if we can expect to see him running to be London’s first openly gay mayor in the near future.

“Certainly not this time, goodness me!” he laughs, before adding: “It’s a good idea never to rule anything out, and I certainly wouldn’t rule it out in the future. It is I think a fantastic job to have.

“What I would hope is that post-2016, assuming we have a Labour mayor and assuming I manage to get myself re-elected to the assembly, I would hope to have some sort of role to play in a Labour administration – but of course that’s up to whoever wins!”