British Labour politician
Maureen Morfydd Colquhoun has the distinction of being the first British member of parliament to be outed as a lesbian.
Her political career began with the General Election of February 1974 when she was returned as the Member of Parliament for Northampton North with a majority of just 1,538. At the time of her election she appeared to have been happily married for the past twenty-five years with three grown up children. A supporter of Tribune she was on the far left of the party, but as it happened it was not her politics that were to cause her difficulties.
Maureen first came to the public's attention in February 1976 when she asked the Speaker George Thomas to refer to her in future as either 'Maureen Colquhoun' or 'Ms Colquhoun', rather than 'Mrs Colquhoun'. This very naturally led to a chorus of newspaper headlines such as 'When a Ms Is As Good As a Male' and general guffawing all round. Poor George, who really had no understanding of the issue whatsoever, responded by saying that he felt obliged to use some kind of prefix when referring to her, but promised to "endeavour to slur it in such a way as to reduce, if not entirely eliminate, the audible distinction between 'Miss' and 'Mrs'".
Having now drawn attention to herself in such a fashion, the press felt that there was more fun to be had at her expense. As indeed there was, since shortly after her election to the House of Commons, Maureen had decided to leave her husband and set up home with a certain Barbara Todd who happened to be regional director of the magazine Sappho. In March 1976 she and 'Babs' held a house warming party at their new London home. The journalist Nigel Dempster managed to get hold of one of the invitations, which apparently featured "two entwined females" as he later very gleefully reported in his Daily Mail column of the 15th April. Maureen complained to the Press Complaints Commission who ruled in her favour on the 3rd December, citing the Daily Mail's article as "a gross intrusion into privacy and harassment of a serious kind". The Mail shrugged off the verdict claiming that it was in the public interest to disclose her sexual preferences on the basis that it had some bearing on her political activities.
Of course today's modern Labour Party would have been the first to leap to Ms Colquhoun's defence, it was a different matter in the 1970s when the Labour Party was, if anything, far more puritanical than their Conservative opponents. The Labour Weekly of the 27th January, 1978 later accused her of "passing herself off as a married woman" and of "living a lie", which was fairly typical of the rank and file attitude of the time. Being a lesbian was bad enough, but she then went on record to voice her opinion that, having met and spoken to the man, she had come to the conclusion that Enoch Powell was not a racist, and that the Labour Party might do well to listen to what he was saying, and offered the opinion that "The real bogeymen are in the Labour Party, who use soft words and put no money into solving the problems of poor blacks and poor whites in inner cities". (Sympathising with Mr Powell was a definite no-no in Labour circles at the time.)
Further trouble ensued when on the 5th December 1976 the Sunday People ran a story under the headline 'Woman MP socked me' about a parking attendant claimed that he had been struck by Ms Colquhoun during a dispute over a parking ticket. Subsequent correspondence received by the paper from those that had also met the parking attendant in question expressed considerable sympathy with Ms Colquhoun's actions. Nevertheless her subsequent appearances at Westminster were accompanied by Conservative MPs clutching their faces in mock agony.
The net result was trouble with her local Labour Party back in Northampton, particularly in the Park Ward which began a campaign to have her removed and in September 1977, the local party voted to deselect her by 23 votes to 18, citing her obsession with trivialities such as women's rights for the decision. Or as the local party chairman Norman Ashby put it, she had been elected "as a working wife and mother" and that "this business has blackened her image irredeemably".
Maureen was not without her supporters however, who promptly formed
the Colquhoun Action Committee. They supported her appeal before the Labour Party national executive committee, and since it was abundantly clear that she had been de-selected purely on the basis of her sexual preferences she was rapidly re-instated as the Labour candidate. Not that this made that much difference as at the 1979 General Election she was decisively beaten by the Conservative candidate Tony Marlow.
After losing her Commons seat, she finally got round to divorcing her husband Keith in 1980 and worked as an information officer for Gingerbread before going back to the House of Commons to work as a researcher for various Labour MPs. She remained active in local politics and was a local councillor for Hackney between 1982 and 1990 where she was vice-chairman of the housing committee. She later moved to the Lake District where she took on the role of Chief Executive of North West Government Relations in 1994 and also served as a member of the Lake District National Park Authority between 1998 and 2006. There she soon made a name for herself, beginning in 1999 when she campaigned against the expansion plans of the American multinational Acco, owner of the Cumberland Pencil factory in Keswick. She was also to be found campaigning in favour of speed limits on Lake Windermere and against low-flying aircraft, whilst arguing that members of the Park authority should disclose their membership of the Freemasons. Most recently she was to found arguing against the "political correctness" involved in the National Park's decision in 2005 to axe guided walks on the fells on the grounds that these services were only used by "white, middle-class, middle-aged people".
- Maureen Colquhoun at
- Matthew Paris and Kevin Maguire Great Parliamentary Scandals(Revised edition, Chrysalis, 2004)
- Dan Atkinson, from The Guardian, September 4, 1999
- John Crowley, Threatened Lake District rangers granted a reprieve, Daily Telegraph, 05/01/2005