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Dr Phillip Lee: Why is the party's LGBT+ group angry?

September 7, 2019 12:00 PM
Zoe O'Connell, Sarah Brown and Jennie Rigg

Sarah Brown, Zoe O'Connell and Jennie Rigg

LGBT+ Liberal Democrats is the party's constitutionally recognised, democratically elected body for LGBT+ people. Our first aim as an organisation is "to ensure that the policies of the party and the actions of its members are compatible with the needs of sexual and gender minorities".

Over the years, "Plus" has kept the Lib Dems at the forefront of the fight for LGBT+ liberation. During my time on the Executive alone, we've made sure the party has the right policy on blood donations based on Science not Stigma; on supporting LGBT+ asylum seekers from countries which would imprison, torture or kill them; on reform of the Gender Recognition Act to remove bureaucratic gatekeeping; to make HIV prevention drugs available on the NHS; and of course on Same-Sex Marriage. We've helped local parties run presences at Pride events around the UK, supported candidates in General Elections, and engaged with the LGBT+ press.

A lot of Plus' work has also been behind the scenes and defensive. When the party's press office tried to brand our achievement on same-sex marriage as "equal marriage", we highlighted the LGBT+ communities' concerns about the remining inequalities such as pension rights and the spousal veto being sidelined. We did our best to work with Tim Farron when he failed to satisfactorily answer questions about the intersection between his faith and his liberalism. Where the party has engaged with us, such as the LGBT+ content of our manifestos or decisions to engage with transphobic groups, we have saved the party from gaffes. Where the party has not, we have repeatedly provided damage control and cleanup.

Recent events are just another example of this. It has been an open secret for some months that the Parliamentary Party had been talking to Phillip Lee about joining the Liberal Democrats. The LGBT+ exec reached out to the party to discuss concerns, particularly over his amendment to the Immigration Act 2014 which empowered the Home Secretary to ban migrants with HIV and Hepatitis B, two diseases which are commonly associated with the LGBT+ communities. His accompanying opinion piece in the Independent made his priority clear: "we also risk burdening our health service with their treatment." Sarah Wollaston, originally a signatory to the amendment in order to support testing for treatment, withdrew when its implications became clear. The amendment was also opposed by the National AIDS Trust, whose chief executive Deborah Jack said "This amendment shows that there remains a shameful lack of understanding about HIV among some of our elected representatives". The World Health Organisation opposes mandatory HIV testing of migrants.

These concerns could have been addressed before Dr Lee came over to the Liberal Democrats, but the party failed yet again to engage with its elected body for LGBT+ people and issues. Our Chair and member of Federal Conference Committee, Jennie Rigg, was forced to an ultimatum - if Dr Lee joined without these issues being addressed, she would leave. Sadly, that's exactly what happened.

After the international media reaction to Dr Lee's defection and Jennie's resignation, the Parliamentary Party including its newest member became defensive and confrontational, including Dr Lee doubling down and stating on television that he stood by his 2014 views. The Parliamentary Party started to engage with Plus, but not constructively. We've been told that Dr Lee did not mean to prevent immigrants with HIV and Hepatitis B from entering the country and receiving NHS treatment, despite his amendment and article stating exactly that, and his belief that people with "lifestyle-related" life-long illnesses should pay for vital medication. We've been told that since Dr Lee is a former GP, he must be right on matters of public health - despite him misunderstanding the phrase "viral load" while talking about HIV. We've been told that Dr Lee had no homophobic or xenophobic intentions, as if intent is magic. We've been told not to make a fuss in public, despite our attempts to resolve this in private being ignored. And meanwhile, anti-abortion, anti-equality former Labour MP Rob Flello has been personally welcomed to the party by Jo Swinson and Chuka Umunna. People with no mandate or authority to speak for the party on LGBT+ issues have been rolled out to rubber-stamp Dr Lee's admission post-hoc.

We have been reassured by Alistair Carmichael that Dr Lee is on a journey towards Liberal Democrat values. We encourage and welcome this journey, and I'd like to make it clear that this isn't about one man, but about the endemic and systemic failures of the Parliamentary Party to engage with its elected LGBT+ group on issues which raise red flags with the LGBT+ communities, taking actions which unnecessarily damage the party's reputation with those communities and expecting Plus to clean up the mess.

As a result of the way these concerns have been patronised and dismissed, our Vice-Chair (and also Vice-Chair of Federal Conference Committee and member of English Council) Zoe O'Connell has also resigned from the party, along with exec member (and member of the Federal People Development Committee and English Council) Sarah Brown. They, and Jennie, were the three most senior LBT women elected to party office - this debacle has been terrible for our diversity.

As the new acting Chair of the organisation, my first priority is to work out how we move forward from where we are. The relationship between the Parliamentary Party and the elected LGBT+ body is not irreparable, but resolving the immediate crisis around Dr Lee is just the beginning - staunching the bleeding before healing can begin. It must begin with the top of the Party recognising the way this has been handled is unacceptable, that attempts to patronise and gaslight our LGBT+ campaigners just deepen the wounds. We find ourselves in a public crisis, and at a time when Conference and Westminster leave our Parliamentarians and activists alike short on time and energy; prior engagement would have avoided the publicity and the urgency.

My biggest fear is that failure to address this will create a scandal around homophobia in the Liberal Democrats to match that of antisemitism in Labour. For our party, with the longest and proudest record of support for the LGBT+ communities, this would be heartbreaking. My greatest hope is that the Parliamentary Party can recognise the constitutional mandate of our LGBT+ body, engage positively and build a working relationship which will allow us to once again be the natural home for LGBT+ voters and campaigners.

Dave Page is the acting Chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats. He has been on the Executive since 2007. Membership of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats is open to all party members. Our Annual General Meeting will be at the Norfolk Royale Hotel, Bournemouth, 6:30-8:30pm Mon 16th Sept.