Saturday, 29 May 2010

David Laws' dilemma and the transition to gay equality

Having been Shadow Education spokesman for the third party until a fortnight ago, David Laws has had a remarkably high profile since the election.

George Osborne let him announce the Coalition's £6 billion of spending cuts, and it was revealed that Laws had disagreed with his own party's resistance to early cuts even during the campaign.

His Commons' defence of the cuts made him every Tory's favourite LibDem, with several on the right finding him a rather more robust economic 'dry' than your average Cameroon. The Standard's Paul Waugh was among those to jokingly tip him as next Tory leader.

Even Law's non-appearance on Question Time with Alastair Campbell caused a stir on Thursday night.

He would have made further waves on policy in his own party with his interview in tomorrow's Times, in which he appears to endorse some of John Redwood's ideas on tapering the capital gains tax, while most LibDems are supporting Vince Cable's efforts to defend the Coalition agreement against a concerted challenge from the Tory right. ("“Genuinely, I am struggling to think of anything we have disagreed on", Laws says of his apparent mind-meld with Chancellor George Osborne).

That may now get rather less attention since Laws is involved in what could become the first serious personnel crisis of the Coalition, with The Telegraph's report on his second home claim.

The paper reports that Laws claimed up to £950 a month for eight years to rent a room in two properties owned by his partner, James Lundie, until 2009. Since 2006 parliamentary rules have banned MPs from "leasing accommodation from a partner". The revelation has already led to Law's decision to pay £40,000 back while reporting himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner.

That looks like a tacit acknowledgement that the rules were broken, as does his statement that:


I regret this situation deeply, accept that I should not have claimed my expenses in this way and apologise fully"


So early in the honeymoon of the Coalition, given Laws' absolutely central role in the Cabinet, and the great difficulty that the two parties would have in finding any other LibDem who might command such confidence among Conservatives about their willingness to wield the spending axe, we can anticipate enormous efforts by both party leaderships to secure Laws' position if at all possible. (And David Cameron's wish to appear tough on expenses has consistently been combined with a rather pragmatic tendency to treat valued allies considerably more leniently than others. And the Prime Minister may particularly think there would be value when in putting himself out to defend a LibDem colleague: something that might be remembered when the Coalition hits choppy waters over a policy dispute).

However, Number 10's initial statement is non-committal and rather lukewarm, according to the BBC:


A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said: "The prime minister has been made aware of this situation and he agrees with David Laws' decision to self-refer to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner."


The Telegraph says that it intended to report the expenses claim without reference to Laws' sexuality.

Laws' own statement states that this was impossible. That is probably correct, to the extent that he probably feels it would have been unable to offer any coherent account of the expenses claim without giving the full story.

Laws also says that


“In 2006 the Green Book rules were changed to prohibit payments to partners. At no point did I consider myself to be in breach of the rules which in 2009 defined partner as ‘one of a couple … who although not married to each-other or civil partners are living together and treat each-other as spouses’.

“Although we were living together we did not treat each other as spouses. For example we do not share bank accounts and indeed have separate social lives. However, I now accept that this was open to interpretation and will immediately pay back the costs of the rent and other housing costs I claimed from the time the rules changed until August 2009.”


That sounds rather tricksy and lawyer-like. It is probably not the natural reading of the 'partner' bar. However, it has also been pointed out that Laws would have been entitled to claim similar amounts had the property been jointly owned, and so some might feel that it is a breach of the letter of the rules only.

The liberal principle of fair treatment is surely honoured best by assessing the legitimacy of the expenses issue simply on its own merits.

Laws' sexuality should be entirely irrelevant to this. It is very strange to claim that revealing this would be the Telegraph's primary motivation: the paper specialises in expenses' revelations and would surely have reported this story about the Chief Secretary in any event. By the same token, it is difficult to see why the personal background ought to prompt greater support for Laws over whether the expenses claim was legitimate, beyond a broader sympathy at what has clearly been a difficult personal decision to make his personal life public as the report appears. (However, LibDemVoice suggests the context does exonerate Laws in assessing what it bills as his "statement on his expenses and sexuality").

What remains most puzzling, given the strength of Laws' motivation to retain his privacy, is why the Yeovil MP, famously a millionaire by the age of 28, felt the need to make any second home claim at all.

***

Separately to the finding on the expenses issue, this episode might well come to be seen as the close of an era of transition to equality for politicians who are gay.

Some have tonight expressed disappointment that, in the Britain of 2010, the most powerful gay man in the Cabinet did not feel he could be open about his sexuality. That is an understandable instinct, but it is surely legitimate to think that these are highly personal decisions. Most of us would be reluctant to think we could pronounce, without having lived in their shoes, on somebody else's choices about their own life.

Not that, until really very recently, there was any choice at all, wikipedia's resources on British LGBT politicians capture. Matthew Parris' biography offers a very interesting account of how there was no alternative to the closet for a would-be Conservative MP - he was an MP from 1979 to 1986 and came out after leaving the Commons though Labour's Chris Smith was the first MP to come out publicly in 1984. Parris' own his brave speech on gay rights in the House did not take too much decoding.

Few would have imagined that, only twenty-five years later, gay politicians in the Conservative party - like their black and Asian colleagues - would find party HQ so very keen to project them to the national media as proof that the party has changed.

Indeed it can now be that would-be liberalising instinct for positive PR which risks pigeon-holing them as "gay MPs", though it is to be hoped that this too will pass as the novelty wears off, as we move towards the broad diversity of the nation being represented in politics becoming the unremarkable norm.

Those MPs who did not feel they could be open about their sexuality when entering public life may not have found it easy to do so later. So a couple of generations of politicians found themselves experiencing a much more rapid recent liberalisation of social attitudes than was expected when, for example, Peter Mandelson first worked in a high profile role for Labour in the 1980s or sought selection as an MP in Hartlepool in 1992.

Indeed, it was only in 1997 that Stephen Twigg and Ben Bradshaw (whose opponent campaigned on a homophobic platform) became the first MPs to be elected for the first time when already publicly known to be gay. That 18 openly gay MPs were elected to Parliament in 2010 captures the scale of the shift in just a few years.

David Laws, selected in Yeovil in 2001, may be one of the youngest and it might be hoped perhaps also among the last of a generation of MPs to feel that this dilemma existed in a sharp way.

Strikingly, no gay Liberal Democrat MP was publicly "out" until 2005 and so Laws would have had to have wanted to be the first gay MP in the party to declare his sexuality. Stephen Williams in 2005 and Steve Gilbert in 2010 were elected while acknowledging they were gay, while Simon Hughes in 2006 acknowledged that he was bisexual and publicly apologised for the highly contentious 1983 Bermondsey campaign against Peter Tatchell, saying " "I hope that there will never be that sort of campaign again. I have never been comfortable about the whole of that campaign".

Until the late 1990s, a central fear was of a bar to a political career, either through discrimination by poltiical party selectorates or, as often, a feeling among would-be liberal party activists that the public wouldn't buy it. If that fear of discrimination has receded considerably in the last few years, perhaps a concern about being seen primarily through an identity lens has been a motivation for others to keep their sexuality private.

We can hope that this era of transition towards equality may now be coming to an end. It may not be too optimistic to think that almost every new candidate for a major party in the next General Election would feel able to be open about their sexuality if they wished to do so - and perhaps to find too that very few people cared about it one way or the other.

***

There was a rather strange profile of Laws in Friday's Guardian, which portrayed paperlessness and his proud refusal to own a filing Cabinet as the key to the personality of the government's deficit cutter in chief.

The piece skated somewhat around his private life, though perhaps not always with maximum care and attention. It reported that he had told new Conservative colleagues that he would probably have joined the Tory party had it not been for its stance on section 28 and social liberalism. But, given his wish to keep his private life private, there was a completely bizarre comment from a "friend", who claimed Laws as one of the few LibDems


Another long-standing friend puts it as follows: "There are four ways in which Liberals are liberals: economic liberals, political liberals, liberal in personal life and social liberals. To me, he is a complete Liberal. He is one of the few people who ticks all the boxes."


The inference that being gay rather than straight somehow demonstrates a greater committment to liberalism seems very puzzling. Doubtless, a well-meaning liberalism is intended by the friend, yet the unfortunate (and surely unintended) suggestion would instead appear to be of promiscuity. Making that mandatory for anybody who wants to be considered fully liberal suggests that the this anonymous LibDem may not be quite such an expert on the litmus tests of liberalism as they appear to think that they are.

9 comments:

Rob said...

I don't see how suggesting someone is liberal in their private life equates to them being promiscuous. Liberalism is not libertinism.

I find it a bit odd that you suggest that he should not have collected expenses to which he was fairly entitled within the letter of the law. You come very close to suggesting that he should not have claimed at all, given his personal wealth, which would - I think - be the first time I've ever seen you argue for means testing. Given that he could have claimed far larger sums - for personal profit! - had his name been on the mortgage, it is very hard to see how he can be accused of foul play.

It does seem that the only reason there's any case to answer here is that David Laws didn't enter into a civil partnership and have his name added to the mortgage on the property. If he had, there would have been no controversy whatsoever, as it would all have been well within the rules. He would even have profitted financially from doing so! His personal affairs, beyond this point, are really none of our business and I think it's a shame that this is now a matter for public discussion. As your own post reflects, there are plenty more aspects of David Laws' actions in the political sphere that are far more worthy of comment, debate and disagreement than this.

Zio Bastone said...

Rob:

What distinguishes the financial actions of politicians from those of other people is the ideal of public service. It is in that context that Barbara Follett’s security guard expenses and David Laws’ rental payments both become rather questionable. There is indeed an argument for suggesting that neither should have claimed, given each had ample means. Why on earth should there not be? Nor is there much of a case for special pleading, either in Ms Follett’s case that her security needs were somehow terribly special or in Mr Law’s case that his (perfectly reasonable) wish for a private life should be subsidised (unwittingly) by the taxpayer.

And what you term ‘the letter of the law’ isn’t really the point. And he was, of course, in breach of that ‘law’ in spirit.

Sunder Katwala said...

Rob,

Point taken. It was just a very odd comment. If being liberal in your personal life means anything, it would mean having the freedom to be yourself and flourish.

Sadly, Laws did not feel that was possible, as this Times interview sets out, whether through family/religious/cultural pressures. There is a difference between not wanting your sexuality, relationship/marital status to be part of a public persona and having a relationship which you feel unable to tell any other person about at all.

Having read more about it, I have somewhat changed my mind. It is very difficult to keep the two issues entirely separate, though in principle we ought to do so.

So, personally I would hope he survives it, as Julian Glover argues well.

There does seem a clear breach of the rules. He could have claimed more if he had organised his affairs differently, but that does not justify a claim outside the rules. The point about means was that, if he was absolutely set on organising his life in a way that a claim would be outside the rules, he was in a position to do that too.

Tom Griffin said...

I wonder whether the interview in which he endorsed Redwood's ideas was the same one he gave to The Times on Thursday in which he denied being gay.

And if so was the pressure over his sexuality a factor in him caving to the Tory right on Capital Gains Tax?

Stuart White said...

A very nice piece. Sunder. Although I think he is deeply wrong-headed on some things, and not the sort of liberal I am in terms of economic justice, I very much hope that David Laws will survive this.

Stuart White said...

That first bit should be: 'A very nice piece, Sunder.'

Rob said...

Redwood's idea on CGT is largely a return to Lawson's policies in the 80s - much higher rates of CGT (equalised with income taxes) with tapering to reduce the rate for people who hold investments for the long term. It was New Labour that cut CGT rates to 18% (based, I imagine, on some kind of Laffer curve notion). Though I consider some of Redwood's other ideas to be somewhat zany, his taken on CGT seems to be sane and workable and provides a good way of taxing short-term or speculative gains at income rates without damaging business investment. (disclaimer: I am not a tax lawyer or accountant, so there may be a devil or two in the detail).

Captain Cabernet said...

Would social security investigators have judged someone with similar living arrangements to be "cohabiting" for the purpose of benefits fraud? I think we all know the answer - so why should a wealthy MP be treated differently?

Rob said...

Captain Cabernet - possible, but I'd imagine HMRC would judge them as separate individuals for the purpose of, say, section 660 rules on dividend payments. I'd imagine Laws has more experience of the latter kind of thing than the former.