In the 1970s, the Daily Mail “outed” Maureen Colquhoun – making her the first openly lesbian MP in British political history. But she wasn’t accepted in society so easily.
Maureen Colquhoun was born on 12 August 1928 and joined the Labour Party aged 18
She read for a degree in Economics at the LSE before she later entered political life.
In 1971, she was profiled as a future MP and nicknamed “Maureen the Mouth” by the Daily Mail
She rejected their stereotyping from the off:
“women have a reputation for talking too much when, in fact,
She talked of her hopes for entering Westminster
“I’m absolutely longing to go to Westminster. There’s so much mythology about the place that people are scared of it”
“I don’t believe in shutting up, sitting down and holding up my hand”
Colquhoun talked of a generational shift in women’s rights
“I think women of my age have had to depend of their husbands to liberate them. Young girls now are different, and I’m glad”
In 1977 she told Polly Toynbee that she was drawn into politics after being frustrated by the bureaucracy she encountered when seeking help for her son, who was born deaf
Colquhoun was selected to be the Labour electoral candidate for Northampton North for the early 1974 election.
On her first day in the Commons her friend Arthur Blenkinson, then Labour MP for South Shields, spotted her in the canteen and, after welcoming her, implored her to do something to improve the quality of the food.
‘“You deal with the bloody food”’ Colquhoun retorted, ‘“I’m going to be Chancellor of the Exchequer.”’
However she was annoyed at the Commons culture
“I have sat through every single debate on economics in the house but I never get called. I get called to speak on womany things, social questions, education”
In June 1974 – she made an early impression by writing to the Daily Mail to call on her fellow women MPs to back her bid to make victims of rape anonymous
“a lot more women would probably come forward to report rape if they knew their names would be kept private”
In May 1975 Colquhoun ended her relationship with her husband and later began a relationship with Babs Todd, a gay rights campaigner.
The first public speculation began in February 1976, she asked MPs to refer to her as Ms in the House – causing a media stir
“It is time we took the lead to get rid of the outdated and ridiculous assumption that if we marry we should be an appendage of our husbands”
In April 1976 Nigel Dempster’s diary in the Daily Mail reported that Colquhoun had moved out of her shared house with her husband and had moved in with Todd.
He also gave out the name of their children and the street that she had moved in to.
Dempster had come across an invitation to a housewarming party which featured “two women embracing”
Colquhoun made a complaint to the Press Council about the Daily Mail’s invasion of her privacy
The Mail argued that it was a matter of public interest because she held “very strong views” and was not a quite backbencher.
The Press Council took the view that her participation in the feminist movement meant “the breakdown of her marriage was a matter the public were entitled to know about”.
had ‘taken a very strong stand on feminist issues and has not been loathe to publicise her views on them’, and that this had informed its decision
Colquhoun declared this reasoning to be contrary to the Sex Discrimination Act
The Spectator agreed that the public had a right to know because
“a speech in favour of women’s liberation has quite different validity if one knows it is delivered by a practising lesbian”
The Daily Mirror was also critical of her decision not to be open about her sexuality with her constituents
“MPs whose sex life was not normal have always concealed the fact…”
The Mirror went on to argue that had she been open about it “it is unlikely it would have adopted her”
“The day may come – we hope it does – when a man’s or woman’s sexual preferences within the law will be of as little concern to others as the colour of a tie or a skirt. But it hasn’t come yet”
Nigel Dempster then used his column to harass her asking why she no longer returned his calls.
She then cause controversy when she appeared to criticise Labour’s policy on race when she claimed that Enoch Powell had been dismissed too easily as a “bogey man”
“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 the inner cities.
However, once the comments had been cleared up – the CLP withdrew its complaints.
A second move then came when she was accused of not spending enough time in the constituency and generally bringing bad publicity through her causes. She was also cruised for trivial issues such as the use of train tickets.
Others felt they had been conned because she had been selected “because of her family image, married to a national newspaper journalist with three children”
Members of the Labour Party in Northampton claimed that the party would lose the seat if they allowed Colquhoun to fight it.
“Local feeling is that she had the confidence of everyone and it is now a marginal seat. She will not win it”
Polly Toynbee – writing in the Guardian – concluded
“I find it impossible to believe that they would have removed Maureen Colquhoun had she still been quietly married”
In 1977, moves began within her CLP to deselect her as an MP.
“After some 30 years in the movement I don’t propose to have my political integrity damaged by a lot of hot-headed rumour-mongers”
In September 1977, Northampton North voted 23-18 for a motion that she should retire at the next election.
After a three hour meeting she claimed that “pathetic charges” had been brought about against her because the real issue was prejudice against her relationship.
Soon after the vote, she declared “I am gay and proud of it. I am glad that in my private life I have love and care for someone”
Ironically, after she had advocated deselection policies, she said she was now going to appeal to the 95% of people in the constituency who supported her to remain as the Labour candidate.
There were also support from people in the feminist movement – the Maureen Colquhoun Action Committee campaigned to overturn the decision.
Following an appeal to the party’s National Executive Committee, which found she had clearly been removed on the grounds of her sexuality, she was reinstated as Labour’s candidate.
But she refused to back away from her comments on race
“I do blame the Labour Government for the rise of the National Front”.
As a result, she felt she received a lack of support from her colleagues in the party
“The Labour Party would have liked me to fight it all like a Tory – fight it quietly, stiff upper lip”
She claimed “I sense that they are all ashamed of me all of a sudden. I don’t know why. I do feel quite let down by my friends”
She then argued that the party had been infiltrated by the middle class
“My style is direct. I have not changed. What has changed is the type of party – lecturers, teachers, doctors, came into it – and they call me middle class!”
Colquhoun rejected any notion that she should have to declare her sexuality. “If homosexuals have to state their sexuality, then others ought to consider saying “I left my wife” or “I am spending a weekend with my girlfriend” or “I am living in a London flat with my girlfriend”.
She did admit that “being a self-confessed lesbian has ruined my political career”
In March 1979, she presented her Protection of Prostitutes Bill to Parliament. She told Gay News that
“It is terribly important for all gay people not to let other people tell them that they do not have the ability to do a job of work.
There is nothing about being gay that makes you incapable of doing a job”
But the damage had been done, and at the 1979 general election she was decisively beaten by the Conservative challenger.
When she lost her seat the Daily Mail reported that the “self-confessed lesbian” Colquhoun had already signed on the dole in Hackney and was expecting her first payment in the next few weeks.
And when the Mail came to review the end of the 1970s they asked the question of whether homosexuals were actually gay (as in happy) – referencing MC:
“The fact is that there is an eternal human-nature gap between what people agree to accept and their everyday behaviour and reactions to minorities”
A few years later, In 1981, she again came back in the public eye following the trial of the Yorkshire Ripper. She attacked Sir Michael Havers comments as “an incitement to kill prostitutes”
This was after he opened the trial on the saying:
“Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women”
Colquhoun argued that this attitude had “allowed him to carry on killing women for five years”
Her old foe Nigel Dempster took another chance to rip into her.
In a diary entry “Whore Sense” he reported that she had joined “The English Collective of Prostitutes – not that she is one herself”