Tuesday, 2 February 2021

R.I.P. Maureen Colquhoun, feminist, activist, inspirational woman

I am very sad to hear today of the demise of Maureen Colquhoun, a former Labour MP, ardent fighter for the rights of women, sex workers, gay people, and the first openly gay woman MP in the UK Parliament. 

Maureen Colquhoun, in August 2018, aged 90.

My hubby and I had the pleasure of meeting Maureen, at a birthday party given for her 90th in August 2018 by comrades from South Lakes Labour, along with her partner of many years Babs Todd (publisher of the lesbian magazine Sappho). 

Maureen (left), Babs (right) and Eli Aldridge (Labour candidate for Westmorland & Lonsdale at the 2017 General Election) at the party given for Maureen's 90th birthday. 

Maureen was an inspiration to many of us in the Labour Party, showing women that we didn't have to accept the status quo and that women have an equal right to be heard.

Maureen served as a councillor in Shoreham from 1971-1974, and was elected as the Labour MP for Northampton North from 1974-1979, when she was deselected by the constituency party due to her sexuality and her lesbian relationship with Babs becoming common knowledge. She later served on Hackney Borough Council (1982-1990), then on moving to Cumbria on the Lake District National Park Authority (1998-2006) and on the Lakes Parish Council until 2015. 

She was a radical voice in Parliament, requesting of the Speaker that she be addressed as MS rather than Mrs in the House, and raising the fact that during a debate in the House of Commons in 1975 on the Sex Equalities Bill not a single woman had been called to speak during an hour of debate. She also challenged the male assumed language of the Bill, which referred to he throughout, asking why it could not be s/he

To address the inequality that women faced she introduced a Private Members Bill (Balance of the Sexes Bill) aimed to enforce the equal representation of women in government positions and on public bodies. Although her Bill didn't pass into law, her work led to later changes in the law as more women, including Babs Todd, joined the campaign for equality of the sexes. 

It wasn't until the 2001 amendment to the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act that it finally became lawful for political parties to allow all women shortlists when selecting candidates for election, whilst it took until January 2018 for Members of the Scottish Parliament to pass a bill similar to hers:

"The Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill set the objective for all public body boards to aim to have women comprise a minimum of 50 per cent of nonexecutive members by 2022. Contemporary efforts in England and Wales have not manifested in legislation and have instead relied on a voluntary approach to ensuring equal gender representation on public boards." [Source: The Labour Party, Feminism and Maureen Colquhoun's Scandals in 1970s Britain / Sarah Crook]

Maureen believed that women "should be the legislators as well as the makers of cups of tea", and all of us women activists owe her a huge thank you for her pioneering work. 

You can read more about Maureen on the LSE website here:

Article on Labour List by Angela Eagle, M.P. (Wallasey):

New item from the BBC

The Labour Party, Feminism and Maureen Colquhoun's Scandals in 1970s Britain / Sarah Crook

or in Maureen's autobiography A Woman in the House

Monday, 8 June 2020

The Bristol statue that went for a dip

Feelings are running high around the world after the death of George Floyd in America at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, nowhere more so than in Bristol, where a controversial statue of slave trader Edward Colston was dragged from its plinth and down to the harbour-side, where it was then pushed into the Bristol channel, to the delight of the assembled crowd.
In a BBC report the statue was described by Bristol mayor Marvin Rees as "an affront" to the city's community but that it would most likely be retrieved from the water and placed in a museum - hopefully with explanatory panels about the horrors faced by those who were taken into slavery by traders such as Colston in the 18th and very early 19th centuries.

The slave trade was mainly in the hands of the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British. Slaves went to the New World, mostly to Brazil and the Caribbean. From 1660, the British government passed various acts and granted charters to enable companies to settle, administer and exploit British interests on the West Coast of Africa and to supply slaves to the American colonies.

Bristol was, of course, the major slave port in Britain and, along with London and Liverpool, much of their wealth came from philanthropists such as Edward Colston who made their fortunes from the slave trade before the final abolition of the slave trade by The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.

As so many of our port cities were built as a result of the profits of slavery, and many of those will have statues or memorials to those traders whose fortunes helped develop them, so some commentators are arguing that we should be grateful to them for their philanthropy whilst ignoring the issue of slavery, whilst others (myself included) feel that these symbols of oppression should be removed.

Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, image by Simon Cobb and used under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
In most places the names of slave traders will have passed out of memory, but in Bristol the Colston Society exists, and every year holds events and services to remind the city of how wonderful their man was, with no mention of his heinous crimes against humanity, no reminder of the thousands of slaves who died as a result of his trading, just a celebration of him as a city benefactor not as the man who, as recent research has confirmed, can be directly linked to the deaths in transit of at least 20,000 African slaves, including more than 3,000 children. It's no wonder that Bristol became a flash-point at the weekend, and understandable that protesters wanted to make the ultimate point by tearing down the statue of Edward Colston that so many found offensive.

Whether or not you agree with the tearing down of the statue*, it has opened up the public debate on historical slavery in a way that no amount of council discussions or school homework over the years has managed to do.

There are many such public memorials to slavers in places in the UK, as this country's wealth was built on the enslavement of the peoples of the colonies and the exploitation of its home population, in industries such as cotton, sugar, spices, rum, timber etc.  It's time to remove these commemorative symbols from our public places and relocate them into museums of slavery and population history, where the stories of the exploitation of the people can be shown in the context, both of their abuse of the people involved and the fabulous wealth that the traders generated for themselves.

The stories of those who were enslaved in the pursuit of profit must be told, whether stolen from their own lands by slavers or our own native population forced to work in often appalling conditions for little money, they are our history and our ancestors.

Glorification of the slave owners and traders is not appropriate in the 21st century, irrespective of how philanthropic those people may have been and, whilst we cannot change our country's history, we can and should learn from it. If that means changing the names of buildings, such as community centres, schools, streets etc, from those of slavers to something more appropriate then this should be done.

If government and local authorities do not take heed of what has happened in Bristol, or if they respond in an inappropriate way, then they are opening the door on mass public action by people across the country who feel their voices are not being heard.

It's a wake up call!

See also The list of monuments and memorials removed during the George Floyd protests.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

We need more housing and we're not getting enough!

George Clarke's Council Housing Scandal programme on Channel 4 is making waves, and so it should!

Before the 1979 Conservative government we had a plethora of council housing - owned by local authorities and leased to those who could not afford to buy their own homes. Then came along the Thatcher government and introduced the Right to Buy scheme, with enticements and discounts to encourage tenants to buy the house they had previously been renting. OK, you might think, so what, they will build more to replace them... but they didn't, and therein lies the problem!

The council houses that have been sold off were not replaced. The funds that their sale brought into local authorities which a sensible person might think should have been reinvested in housing were not allowed to be. Councils could not build more houses. This is a huge part of the reason for the housing crisis, it's why families are struggling in sub-standard expensive private rentals, or staying with relatives, and it's not good enough!

A bit of housing history...

Let's look at the origins of council housing as given on the Parliament.uk website:
The end of the First World War in 1918 created a huge demand for working-class housing in towns throughout Britain. In 1919, Parliament passed the ambitious Housing Act which promised government subsidies to help finance the construction of 500,000 houses within three years. As the economy rapidly weakened in the early 1920s, however, funding had to be cut, and only 213,000 homes were completed under the Act’s provisions.
The 1919 Act - often known as the ‘Addison Act’ after its author, Dr Christopher Addison, the Minister of Health - was nevertheless a highly significant step forward in housing provision. It made housing a national responsibility, and local authorities were given the task of developing new housing and rented accommodation where it was needed by working people.
Further Acts during the 1920s extended the duty of local councils to make housing available as a social service. The Housing Act of 1924 gave substantial grants to local authorities in response to the acute housing shortages of these years. A fresh Housing Act of 1930 obliged local councils to clear all remaining slum housing, and provided further subsidies to re-house inhabitants. This single Act led to the clearance of more slums than at any time previously, and the building of 700,000 new homes.
Under the provisions of the inter-war Housing Acts local councils built a total of 1.1 million homes.
Think of that, 1.1 million homes built by local councils between 1919 and 1939, which equated to 55,000 houses per year.

Then came WW2 and the huge destruction of housing in many cities and ports across the country.  The University of the West of England (Bristol)'s website on Domestic Architecture 1700 to 1960 explains what happened next:
At the end of the war, slums remained a problem in many large towns and cities and through enemy action 475,000 houses had been destroyed or made uninhabitable. In many towns and cities, temporary accommodation was provided by pre-fabricated houses. Altogether 156,000 prefabs were assembled using innovative materials such as steel and aluminium and proved a successful and popular house type. Although many well outlived their life expectancy, pre-fabs were only ever intended as a temporary measure and for the new post-war government the provision of new council housing was a top priority. Local authority house building resumed in 1946 and of the 2.5 million new houses and flats built up to 1957, 75% were local authority owned.
So, another 2.5 million houses and flats were built between 1945 and 1957 which equates to an average of more than 200,000 new homes per year. 

Even in the late 1950s there were still houses available to rent privately, but the growth of council housing estates created new communities in towns, cities and villages across the UK and some of the older rental stock was sold off at low prices in many places, e.g. Radcliffe in Lancashire, where my late parents bought their 2-up, 2-down terraced cottage for £500 from the Wilton Estate. It had been realised that decent safe modern homes were needed by families and councils built them.

How did it all go wrong? 

In 1979 the Conservatives won the General Election and one of the key note policies of the new government under PM Margaret Thatcher was the Right to Buy scheme
After Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in May 1979, the legislation to implement the Right to Buy was passed in the Housing Act 1980. Michael Heseltine, in his role as Secretary of State for the Environment, was in charge of implementing the legislation. Some 6,000,000 people were affected; about one in three actually purchased their housing unit. 
This meant that some 1.8 million council homes have been sold to tenants at a discount between the 3rd October 1980 and the end of 2015. For much of the time of those sales councils were not allowed to use the funds received from the sales to build new houses. It is only relatively recently that councils seem once again to be allowed to build houses, although most of these have been in conjunction with a housing association so are more properly social housing not council housing, as they are not managed by the councils themselves.

In 2016 a further change occurred, when the Housing and Planning Act 2016 extended the Right to Buy to housing association tenants. This potentially affected an additional 1.3 million households without addressing either the net housing shortage or the difficulties in building new homes faced by local authorities and housing associations.

The fact verification website fullfact.org states:
Taking a long view, house building has been mostly decreasing since the 1960s. The early years of this decade saw house building at its lowest peacetime level since the 1920s.
No recent government has seen enough homes built to keep up with demand.
In 2014 Dr Alan Holmans, a housing expert at the University of Cambridge, produced new estimates of the housing gap. They were based on 2011 data but took housing conversions, second homes and vacancies into account.
His analysis suggests that we need to build about 170,000 additional private sector houses and 75,000 social sector houses each year—in total, an extra 240,000-250,000 houses each year, excluding any reductions in the existing housing stock.
So how many have been built and under which governments?

The graph doesn't give figures beyond 2016/17 but in November 2018 the charity Shelter stated:
At least 320,000 people are homeless in Britain, according to research by the housing charity Shelter.
This amounts to a year-on-year increase of 13,000, a 4% rise, despite government pledges to tackle the crisis. The estimate suggests that nationally one in 200 people are homeless. 
To provide homes for all the homeless will take political will, something which seems sadly lacking in this Tory government.

George Clarke's website states:
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of council housing. But instead of being able to proudly celebrate its success we are sadly, firmly in the midst of a housing crisis.
Our country has not been building enough new council houses to meet demand. And since the 1980s, millions of council houses have been sold off through the Right to Buy without being replaced.
The result – more than 1 million people are on council house waiting lists today.
Is it any wonder that George Clarke is calling for 100,000 new council houses to be built every year for the next 30 years?

If you would like to add your name to his campaign petition please do!