At the beginning of last year I wrote to a friend, a magistrate and fellow councillor with whom I had worked closely on Ward Committee business and in the local elections. I indicated that, since the next meeting of the Ward Committee was invited to submit resolutions to the Annual General Meeting of the local Labour Party Executive, I intended to put down a motion urging the Parliamentary Party to work for the early implementation of the Wolfenden Committee’s recommendations on homosexual offences. I was hopeful that I might again enjoy his support and knowing both his religion and his taste in journalism, I could not at that time see any good reason why this should be withheld.
Some days later I visited his home to test the reaction. We talked for an hour or so about anything and almost everything other than the content of my letter, until his wife had to leave the room to attend to the children. He then told me (in hushed tones) that of course he hadn’t been able to refer to the matter in front of his wife but that he considered my intended action to be most unwise, since homosexuality was totally unsuitable for discussion by the sort of people who attended the Ward Committee. When I pointed out that this was the only way to bring the matter before the Executive, he added that he didn’t consider it suitable for the people who attended the Executive either. I said that since I felt it was time that the movement as a whole was giving some consideration to this problem, perhaps he would suggest where I should start, other than in the Ward Committee, but I appealed in vain.
I came away somewhat disheartened but a little wiser, having discarded my rather naïve assumption that, in any given person, prejudice was to be found in inverse proportion to intelligence. I consoled myself with the thought that if there was to be a fight, it is as well to know the territory on which the battle is to take place. It looked, in this instance, as though it was to be in darkest John Gordon* country.
The committee met late in January and I put the motion. Our magistrate friend made the main plank of his case his objection to any discussion of homosexuality in a mixed company. I pointed to the absurdity of this; to the many times it had already been discussed in mixed company; to the fact that the Wolfenden Committee was itself a mixed body; to the many prominent women who had lent their names to the demand for reform. No use! I suggested that his difficulties could perhaps be overcome if consideration of the motion was deferred to a later meeting with an agenda circulated in advance, so that nobody should be drawn into a discussion which they would rather have avoided. The single objector however, persisted. No vote was taken, but the Chairman (another member of the Bench) ruled that there seemed to be a majority against the item going on the agenda. It was an odd way of closing the proceedings, but the hour was late and it was clear to me that there was no prospect of further progress on that occasion.
The next meeting was a month later and I objected to the Chairman’s ruling which was not substantiated by a vote and which rendered the committee as a whole guilty of an irresponsible piece of evasion. It so happened that the sole objector on the previous occasion was not present, having succumbed to the superior attraction of an evening football match, and the change in climate was quite remarkable. The meeting was well attended, by present standards, and the committee agreed to a discussion which took place at considerable length and concluded with the motion being carried unanimously. It was decided that I should move the resolution at the Annual Meeting of the Executive and one of the women members volunteered to second it.
The secretary of the Executive could hardy have opened the envelope containing the written resolution before tales of consternation and dismay began to trickle out of the Labour Party offices. I visited the Chairman of the Executive to find out how much time would be allowed for moving and seconding and to try to sense what kind of conspiracy, if any, was afoot. He referred to the amount of criticism which had been voiced in the previous year about the lifelessness of the Executive and Ward meetings and said he though it would be an excellent thing to have this resolution which “would give us plenty to go on and should provide some lively debate.” He said he would allow unlimited time, subject only to not crowding out any other resolution and indicated that he didn’t propose, since it was the AGM, to enforce standing orders, which would have meant no new business after 9.30 pm. If there was a conspiracy, it seemed that he had no part in it.
Some time later, the woman who was to second the resolution indicated that she would like to be excused this task. It was not that she had altered her opinion about it rightness, she said, nor had anyone attempted to persuade her to change her mind – it was just that she no longer felt capable of facing the ordeal.
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The night of the Executive meeting was bitterly cold and the attendance was not particularly good, considering it was the AGM. It was remarkable, however, for the presence of a large number of Aldermen and Councillors who appear individually from time to time at Executive meetings, but who are seldom to be seen there collectively.
It should be explained here that every Labour councillor and alderman on the Borough Council sits ex-officio on the local party Executive. Three years ago this meant the whole town council and today it means only a little less. The origins of this arrangement are obscure and the explanation which would most probably be offered is that it enables all the representatives on the council to be fully in touch with the wishes of the party. Another reason, which I suggest would be much nearer the truth, is that it can be conveniently used to ensure that the wishes of the party do not diverge too much from those of its publicly elected representatives.
It soon became clear that sex, if it exists at all for these people, exists apart from life – something to be found in the jungle or the rabbit hutch or the farmyard but never, never, perish the thought, in the lives of all the ordinary, decent, respectable hard-working people who send us back to the Town Hall each year.
The resolution was the only one for consideration. This only became clear after the meeting had begun, since it was not the normal practice to circulate resolutions to delegates along with the notice of the meeting. (It appears that this was only to be done by word of mouth and only in certain indefinable circles). The first confirmation of my earlier suspicion of caucus manoeuvrings came when the Chairman, instead of calling a mover for the resolution, simply read it out and asked what were the wishes of the meeting.
A senior Alderman at the back of the hall moved that the motion should not be discussed (it was the very same one, incidentally, who had told me over a pint in the local some months earlier, that men should steer clear of politics until they had got all the sex out of their systems!) Another Alderman, this time at the front of the hall seconding this said that, since the resolution had been passed unanimously by the Ward Committee, he thought that some explanation should be given as to why this particular course was proposed.
The remarkable identity of approach between these two, separated by the full length of the hall, and of subsequent speakers in scattered places each of whom – in theory – had only learned of the resolution after taking his seat, finally convinced me (and others) of the existence of a secret and self-appointed elite.
The seconder went on to say that these matters were not really political issues at all, but were questions for the individual conscience. Traditionally, political parties did not concern themselves with them and they were dealt with, if at all, by private members in the House. This indeed was the only way they could be dealt with, because they cut clean across party lines.
I asked him how the individual conscience was to make itself felt, in a matter involving legislation, except through political action, pointed to the constituency bodies in the movement which had taken a stand in favour of reform and indicated that the contention about “non-party matters which cut clean across party lines” was perfectly respectable when used by a spokesman who has to comment upon something which his party has not discussed, but that when it was used actually to prevent discussion within a party it became a very shabby get-out.
The single dissident from the Ward Committee maintained his objection to a discussion in mixed company and then objected to the committee’s decision being described as unanimous because he had not been present at the meeting!
In the end, suppression won the day by 13 votes to 6 with a good many abstentions.
The following morning I rang the Agent, who had not been present at the AGM, and complained that there had clearly been some “rigging”. He admitted that “certain people” had considered the resolution to be of such importance to “the party” that a private meeting had been held to decide what should be done. He had been present at this, but had not been in favour of the decisions taken. He seemed unhappy about the whole situation and asked me not to do anything without consulting him.
It soon became clear that nobody “in the know” was seeking to deny that the private meeting took place, being much more concerned to conceal its composition. The Agent, when pressed further, said he would try to arrange for me to meet the people concerned, but I saw little hope of this happening. Some time later the Chairman of the Executive told me that the organisers of the manoeuvre would never admit to it and that the task of establishing individual complicity was a hopeless one. This enlightening interview ended with what I took to be a warning rather than a threat, “If you persist in fighting this issue alone” he told me “the Party will simply use it as a whip to thrash you with”.
I reported back to the Ward Committee at the first opportunity, the meeting being honoured by the presence of the Agent, a thing that had only happened once before since I joined the party at the time of Suez. The Ward Committee took
the view that the Executive had acted contrary to standing orders which impose upon it a duty to at least consider resolutions submitted by constituent bodies. They determined to submit the resolution again and obtained an assurance from the Agent that it would be circulated in full to delegates along with the agenda. This would at least give everyone the chance to play the caucus game. Our former dissident didn’t oppose the decision to try again, although he reserved his right to oppose the resolution in the Executive “on grounds of conscience.” Here was progress indeed! (In fact he didn’t even attend the Executive meeting!)
* * * * *
It came up again in June and the climate (and composition) of the Executive had changed a little. None of the members who had firmly committed themselves against any discussion attended the meeting, although there was no question of them not knowing what was on the agenda. This time suppression was out and evasion and misrepresentation were in. I spent some twenty minutes in moving the resolution and it was briefly seconded by a young councillor from another ward. Much sympathy was subsequently expressed for the homosexuals’ dilemma, although in all but a few cases it was followed by the usual parade of humbug – across party lines – individual conscience – political suicide.
Alderman A had attended a meeting where Sir John Wolfenden had spoken and he was sure that the committee’s recommendations were not intended for early implementation. Councillor B would be much more ready to support the motion if it was not for the fact that at least some of the agitation for reform was organised by the queers themselves. Councillor C said it would lose all the local elections for us.
Nobody suggested that it would frighten away new industries and, looking back at this omission, I feel only surprise. However, at no time was the principle of reform attacked and all the arguments against action were on the grounds of expediency or supposed expediency, a fact which provided just about the only hopeful feature of the whole debate. In the end “next business” was carried by six votes to four, with an even larger proportion of abstentions than before, in order – as the mover put it – “that it should not be made obvious that there was a split in the local party”
Perhaps the abstentions are the most difficult thing to explain. It may be that a long succession of red herrings and appeals to prejudice had created in the abstainers such a feeling of confusion that they really didn’t know what to do for the best. Subsequent discussions have persuaded me, however, that many of them were in fact convinced by the arguments in favour of reform, but hesitated to support the motion out of deference to old and respected colleagues.
The debate now continues elsewhere, and we may survive long enough for it to be thrust into Parliament again. There is undoubtedly a number of Conservative members there who care about homosexuals, but memories of Bournemouth and Belfast** are still too fresh in Tory minds to permit any spectacular initiative from that quarter. It seems then, that the British homosexual in his long search for justice will have to turn in the end to the Labour Party – yes, even to this Labour Party – for his main support. My God!
* John Gordon was a reactionary and homophobic columnist on the Express newspapers who missed no opportunity to denigrate both gay men and those who sought to de-criminalise them.
** The MPs for both Bournemouth and Belfast (Nigel Nicholson and H. Montgomery Hyde respectively) lost their places in Parliament due, at least in part, to their support for homosexual law reform.