Retiring from politics won’t stop Ben Bradshaw fighting for LGBTQ+ rights

ben Bradshaw over the years

After more than 25 years in parliament, veteran MP Ben Bradshaw has stepped away from politics – but that does not mean he is done fighting for the rights of LGBTQ+ people. 

Cooking, reading, going to the theatre and gardening on his and his husband’s small holding in Sicily are just a few of the hobbies Bradshaw “sacrificed to my political life” and which he will have more time for nowadays. But whilst “a bit more fun and relaxation” is certainly on the agenda, like anyone who has spent a large portion of their life committed to something as passionately as Bradshaw has to LGBTQ+ rights, it’s impossible to just switch that off. 

“I’ve always been fired up,” he told PinkNews, “but I’ve got re-fired up on LGBTQ+ equality because of the assault that the community is under at the moment.

“That’s one of the areas of policy that I’ve always been involved and engaged in, where I will want to remain engaged in some form because we have a massive fight on our hands.”

He is keen to “continue making whatever contribution I can” to that fight, stating he believes the “tone of the debate” around LGBTQ+ issues will completely change if there is a Labour government and “anti-trans campaigners and their media supporters will just find themselves whistling in the wind”. 

It is perhaps fitting that Bradshaw’s career as an MP started and will – potentially – end on Labour party highs.

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Ben Bradshaw, then British foreign office minister, is received by Kuwaiti State Minister for Foriegn Affairs Sheikh Mohamed Sabah al-Sabah in Kuwiat City 14 October 2001. (YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Bradshaw’s parliamentary career began back in 1997 when he ran as the out gay Labour candidate for the seat in Exeter, a constituency which had been staunchly blue for nearly three decades at that point under MP John Hannam, who had held the seat since the 1970 election. 

The ensuring campaign trail for the seat was vitriolic and bitter, with the parliamentary hopeful the Tories selected – Adrian Rogers – not being shy about expressing his views on LGBTQ+ issues, calling homosexuality a “sterile, disease-ridden, God-forsaken occupation”. 

“My Tory opponent said that ‘Ben Bradshaw is a homosexual, works for the BBC, rides a bicycle, speaks German: he’s everything about our country that is wrong’,” he recalled of the ‘97 election. 

Exeter voters didn’t bite though and Bradshaw won with a comfortable majority, becoming just the second out gay MP to be elected, as Tony Blair’s New Labour swept to victory and ended John Major’s Conservative government. Bradshaw would also subsequently go on to win the next six general elections in the Exeter constituency, retaining his seat even when Labour were ousted from government in 2010.

Ahead of the 2024 general election, which takes place on Thursday (4 July), Labour look set for another record victory – with some political pundits suggesting the Conservatives south-east stronghold will be decimated and Keir Starmer’s party could even gain more seats than it did in 1997.

Bradshaw is certainly confident, saying the party has the “best chance of winning since [he] can remember: “It feels to me both from reaction on the doorstep and our canvassing returns, but also from watching the campaign and the polls – as we have since 2005 – so I’m more optimistic than I have been at any time since 2005 that Labour has a chance to win.” 

Then prime minister Gordon Brown (R) and then culture secretary Ben Bradshaw (C) greet the England Women’s Cricket Team at Downing Street on July 14, 2009 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

For Bradshaw, who has been an MP while seven prime ministers have taken up residence in Number 10, he feels his “parliamentary life could be divided into two sections”. 

“Obviously I’m biassed and I’m Labour,” he said, “I think if you look back now on the Blair-Brown years, it feels like a golden age. 

“Not just on LGBTQ+ equality and rights, but the economy was doing well. People were getting better off. You know, we saw record investment in our public services, health and education, the lowest, shortest waiting times, the highest patient and staff satisfaction in NHS history.

“Not where we are now.”

Much has certainly changed during Bradshaw’s political career, not just in terms of who is in government but how political debate and discourse is conducted.

The bigoted statement Rogers made about Bradshaw was one which he says nowadays, even amongst the “toxic debate and moral panic” about queer issues, you would be hard-pressed to find coming out of the mouth of any prospective MP on the campaign trail. 

That being said, he does feel “there’s definitely been a deterioration of the social discourse” during the previous 25 years, particularly with the rise of social media. 

“You’ve always had to have a thick skin to go into politics and it’s particularly difficult if you’re a member of a minority group that’s a target for prejudice and bigotry,” he said. 

“The volume of it and the immediacy of it has gotten worse with social media.” 

He continued: “One of the things I would say, though, is that I sometimes think people could withdraw a little bit more from social media. I don’t engage with bigots. I would simply mute them. 

“I know there are some brave souls who do go out there and fight – and that’s absolutely essential and we also more trans allies to be fighting on behalf of trans people – but, I think, if people are worried about their own vulnerability or their own mental health, it’s not a cop out to make a decision not to engage.” 

Labour politician Ben Bradshaw poses with their medal after being appointed as a Knight Bachelor (Knighthood) following an investiture ceremony at Windsor Castle on October 24, 2023. (Getty)

The toxic debate around trans rights, single-sex spaces and the the Equality Act have been a prominent feature in the run up to the 2024 general election, with trans folks used as a “political football to divide people”.

Keir Starmer has long been criticised by members of the community for flip-flopping his stance on LGBTQ+ issues – particularly trans rights – and for sometimes seemingly agreeing with the Conservative government’s increasingly troubling position.

Bradshaw, however, stands firm behind the Labour leader and the party’s manifesto pledges: “I know Keir Starmer. He is a 100% LGBT ally.

“He’s a human rights lawyer. He knows about human rights, and he knows about the importance of legal protections for minorities. 

“Whether it was his response to Sunak outrageous trans ‘joke’ in parliament when the mother of Brianna Ghey was in the chamber – Keir was brilliant, slapped it down completely – or Labour’s very resolute rejection of Badenoch and the Tory government’s suggestion that they want to tear up the Equality Act. 

“No, I have complete confidence in Keir and the Labour frontbench.”

Regardless of how people are going to vote though, be it for Labour, the Conservatives or another party, Bradshaw urged people to use their vote and to not feel as though their vote doesn’t matter.

“A few votes here and there could make the difference between a government that’s on your side and one that is going to take the UK to a very dark place when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights.

“So please use your vote and use it wisely.”

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