Fifteen Minutes in Conversation with Ben Bradshaw

Ben Bradshaw is the Labour MP for Exeter, he was first elected in 1997 as a part of the first Labour Government for 18 years. As one of the first openly gay MPs at the time of election, he gained a constituency which had been Conservative for 27 years whilst running against a Tory candidate who was openly very opposed to homosexuality. Personally, I think that simple fact alone shows great patience and resilience – a real testament to his character. During the 13 years that Labour were in power, Bradshaw held a variety of roles. Some of his titles have included: Under Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

I had encountered Ben Bradshaw once before, rushing through Parliament, on his way to a meeting. The Labour MP is a political figure I admire for his respectful, yet determined disposition. He engages in conversation and debate in a thoughtful manner, considerate of facts and mindful of others arguments. Earlier this month he gave me the opportunity to poke at his thoughts on a few issues, and I leapt at the chance.

In January this year, Mr Bradshaw spoke in the Commons about the “long overdue” need to ban gay conversion therapy due to its extremely damaging impact on an individual’s physical and psychological health. Six months later, the government announced plans to ban the practice, a decision I’m sure many would agree is the right step forward. When I spoke to Mr Bradshaw, he said he was “very pleased” with the announcement, but still acknowledges that it will be “quite a challenge to draft the legislation in a way that makes it effective”. It’s certainly an extensive task, with no simple solution. Creating a law is one thing, implementing it, making sure it works, is another.

Mr Bradshaw goes on to explain why it poses such a challenge. “A lot of this practice goes on in quite fringe, fundamentalist religious organisations that are quite secretive. A lot of the people who are subjected to it are frightened,  they are intimidated, they’re subject to emotional pressure and they find it very difficult talking about the whole issue”. He adds that we should be “Ensuring that we educate, and that the leaders of faith organisations educate their members and their member-churches, that treating somebody’s sexual orientation or their chosen gender identity as something that could be ‘cured’ – in inverted commas – is completely outdated and unacceptable”.

As an MP under New Labour, Bradshaw has witnessed the many changes made to law which have provided greater protection for the rights of the LGBT+ community. He described this as an “Incredible Period.” He continues, “I feel very proud and privileged to have been a Member of Parliament in that period, and also the first Member of Parliament who was selected and elected as an openly gay person. If I’m honest, I was actually overwhelmed by how much we did – exceeding more than my expectations”. In 1997, Labour inherited a stack of discriminatory legislation, and by 2010 a majority of it was cleared away. For context, just a few of the changes made during this time include:

  • Introducing an equal age of consent
  • Repealing Section 28
  • Legalising gay adoption
  • Introducing civil partnerships

This is a short, simplified list. There was so much more that was achieved in a such a short space of time. As Mr Bradshaw said to me, “It was only really left to the successor government to change ‘civil partnerships’ and call it ‘marriage’, it wasn’t a big legal difference,” although, it is an ongoing job. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t more to do, especially on Trans+ rights. However much you do in law, it still takes a while to completely change public attitudes. There are still sectors of our society where homophobia is still rife, where people who are LGBT+ find it very difficult to be out. So, our work is never done. Gay conversion therapy is a good example of that”. I completely agree with Bradshaw on this, but I also feel it is vital to point out that it is clear that so much progress could not have been made without the bold changes that occurred under the last Labour government. Every path of change needs a robust start, and for the LGBT community, New Labour was it.

When we spoke it was a little over a week after London Pride, where the parade was disrupted by anti-trans protesters. Mr Bradshaw, a keen supporter of better protection for trans individuals, says “I was very pleased that Stonewall condemned that activity completely… And I’m very pleased that the Labour Party has made quite clear it’s position of support for Trans rights. It’s very unfortunate that a small number of people are trying to undermine that progress in this way. All groups and minorities who have been subject to historical oppression and discrimination should work together, stick together, and should not allow themselves to be picked off or divided”. This year, the Government released the LGBT Action Plan in order to help improve the lives of LGBT people who may face adversity or discrimination. “I’m confident that with the Government recently announcing it’s LGBT+ Strategy, and finally consulting the Gender Recognition Act, that we will make progress on this. It is very important that we listen to the experience of Trans people, and we take them seriously”.

The discussion on Trans rights has a growing number of supporters, but more is needed to sustain substantial, long lasting change to both legislation and social attitudes. Mr Bradshaw’s stance on this is undaunted, decisive, and confident. This is something I want to see more of. Trans people exist, but few people take the time to listen to their experiences – even fewer take the time to be active allies. Society’s attitude needs to shift, and for that to happen we need people in positions of power to speak out on the topic. Ben Bradshaw is an example of how it is done – and how it is done well.

On the wider subject of rights, the progress over the last twenty years with regards to human rights has exceeded that which occurred in the twenty years prior. This was kick started with the Human Rights Act, something I believe we should be keen to protect. When asked about the impact he thought Brexit would have on these rights, Bradshaw replied “Hugely damaging… Brexit, unless it’s stopped, is going to be an absolute disaster for our country. It could be particularly damaging when it comes to equality and human rights because it would put into question Britain’s adherence to European norms of equality and human rights legislation”. This is a great cause for concern,  Mr Bradshaw goes on “Some of the hard right Brexiteers have made absolutely clear that this is their intention. At times when we’ve had right wing, Conservative governments in Britain, Europe has been there to defend our human rights”.

Although, perhaps we shouldn’t be too concerned. The MP for Exeter is hopeful that with a ‘People’s Vote’ on the final Brexit deal, it can be stopped. He believes that “When the British public, who are renowned for their common sense, are faced with the reality of Brexit rather than the lies and fantasy that were sold to them during the referendum campaign, they will say ‘hang on a minute – this isn’t what we voted for’. They would end up supporting a general election and voting for a party committed to keeping us in – or supporting a People’s Vote on the final deal. I think the latter is more likely”. Either way, Bradshaw firmly believes that the final say will be given back to the public, and inevitably this is likely to put an end to Brexit.

This is only furthered by the disaster of the Chequers Brexit White Paper, which Mr Bradshaw described as a “Dead duck,” because “It didn’t survive it’s encounter with the Cabinet or the Parliamentary Tory Party because both Boris Johnson and David Davis resigned, and then the extreme right wing European Research Group of Tory MPs shredded it in a number of votes… We are no closer to knowing the Government’s position is… I’m extremely worried that this makes a No Deal – falling off the cliff edge – more likely”. He speaks with conviction, sounding confident that this will further the movement for another referendum. I wish I could have the same confidence. Despite being fully supportive of a vote on the final deal, I’m not sure how such a vote could come about with such little time left before 29th March 2019. It seems even more unlikely since neither Corbyn or May support the second vote.

Continuing with the topic of leadership, Ben Bradshaw has served under four different Labour leaders. I was very interested to see how the dynamic of the party has changed since he was first elected. After all, the style’s of Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn really couldn’t be more different.  Bradshaw explains that there “Hasn’t been a big change in the party in local government in my constituency, where we have an excellent Labour Council… and in the Parliamentary party, where we have large number of extremely talented and good representatives,” but doesn’t hesitate to add that “It is clear that the party membership has shifted to the left in recent years. That is what has resulted in the two leadership victories for Jeremy”. However, despite being fairly critical of Corbyn in the past, Bradshaw sounded more positive of the current leader’s abilities. “I think following his second leadership victory and then following last year’s general election result, in which surprised everybody when he helped deprive the Government of it’s majority means that he is secure in his leadership position… He has earned the right to take us into the next general election.”

[ DISCLAIMER – I think it is very important to note that this interview took place before the release of the Peter Willsman tape, that is the reason why it was not discussed. Ben Bradshaw has spoken out about antisemitism before. Here are some examples: #1 #2 #3 ]

Mr Bradshaw’s messages are simple and clear: unity, protection of rights, and furthering equality within our society. He is an ardent Remainer, heart-set on stopping Britain’s exit from the EU, and keen on securing a ‘People’s Vote’. Many members, myself included, are becoming disillusioned with the Labour Party,  but this conversation reminded of the better sides to the party. I hope to see more of this rationale in the future – I want an inclusive Labour Party focused on uniting people and protecting their rights . It was a pleasure to interview Mr Bradshaw, an opportunity I’m very grateful for, and one I won’t forget too soon.

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