Be proud of UK’s most diverse parliament ever – don’t jeopardise it

The most diverse British parliament has emerged from a tumultuous election. But will the Democratic Unionist Party’s conservative stance endanger this feat?

Stephen Frost
14 June 2017

Assembly election poster in April 2016 in Stranmillis, Belfast. Albert Bridge,geograph/Flickr. Some rights reserved.This is the most diverse parliament the UK has ever had. We have 207 women, 51 Black and Minority Ethnic MPs, 45 openly gay MPs: this representation is a cornerstone of our democracy.

It’s the first time Britain has had more than 200 women in parliament, now making up 32% of all MPs. The number of LGBT MPs increased from 32 in 2015 to 45 in 2017 – an astonishing 40% increase in just two years. Tanmanjeet Singh Desi is the first MP to wear a turban, Layla Moran is the first female MP of Palestinian descent, Preet Gill is the first female Sikh MP, and - Afzal Khan is Manchester’s first Muslim MP.

What’s more, for the first time ever, more than 50% of MPs have a comprehensive school background.

Whilst we may celebrate this diversity, and increasingly view it as normal, it’s worth reflecting on how it has been achieved. For many years there was a huge backlog of untapped talent in politics, and if we don’t continue to collectively push forward, there is a very real risk things can go back.

13 years ago, I was part of the team at Stonewall that helped achieve workplace equality, same-sex marriage and the Equality Act, protecting lesbian, gay and bi people. Today, the Democratic Unionist Party, now working with the Conservative Party, opposes many of these hard-won rights.

The DUP previously supported a campaign called “Save Ulster from Sodomy”. The party vehemently opposes same sex marriage, and is largely responsible for the fact that Northern Ireland is the only remaining part of the UK where gay people do not have the same marriage rights as everyone else.

Ian Paisley Jr. is on record for his views that he finds gays and lesbians “repulsive”, arguing that homosexuality is, “immoral, offensive and obnoxious”.

Arlene Foster, Leader of the DUP, is against what she views as “redefining marriage,” while Ian Paisley Jr. is on record for his views that he finds gays and lesbians “repulsive”, arguing that homosexuality is, “immoral, offensive and obnoxious”. Former DUP Health Minister Jim Wells believed that children raised in a gay relationship were more likely to be abused or neglected, when the evidence does not support this.

Most people in the UK assume that progress, and gaining civil rights, is a one-way street. In fact, progress is not a given, and when the government is influenced by people who do not agree with the new norms and basic civil rights of our modern, diverse society, things can go backwards.

Regression is unlikely given the attention and scrutiny they are now receiving, but it is precisely this attention, scrutiny and conscious inclusive leadership that will protect these rights. It also helps when influential people from within the ‘in group’ of the current coalition speak out, and Ruth Davidson, openly gay leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has said she has received personal assurances from the Prime Minister that LGBT rights are non-negotiable with the DUP.

There is also cause for hope in that some DUP MPs have since expressed regret and a change of heart. Many are realising there are alternative arguments that have widespread support, science and fact behind them, and are modernising their position accordingly. Ian Paisley Jr has apologised for his comments about gay parents raising children and Trevor Clarke now better understands the stigma attached to labeling AIDS or HIV as a purely gay disease.  

When the people of the UK voted to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump won the US presidential elections, it was seen by many as a rejection of diversity. The increasingly diverse parliament is cause for hope, but also comes with a note of caution.

We know that inclusion happens most authentically when people get to know others who are different from them. Rather than diversity being a nebulous concept in a boardroom or a polling booth, when people can see, touch, hear, and interact with those who are different from them, it becomes personal and therefore real.

The real hope is that diversity rubs off on the DUP, and others, and that broad bipartisan consensus is built upon, rather than destroyed.

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