Fountain pen writing

Following his comments earlier today, I’ve just fired off the letter below to Vince Cable. I think it speaks for itself.

Dear Vince,

I would like to express my concern regarding comments made by you today regarding possible alliances with The Independent Group, especially comments made this afternoon on the BBC that the group “shares many of our values”.

The very first line of their values talks about the first duty of government being “to do whatever it takes to safeguard Britain’s national security”, a clear dog-whistle anti-civil-liberties and anti-immigration statement.

Its members now includes people such as Joan Ryan, (Founding director of “Labour No to AV” and one of ministers responsible for ID cards) Chuka Umunna, (Staunch opponent of free movement) Mike Gapes (Pro-Iraq war, even post-Chilcot) and Gavin Shuker who has, at best, questionable views on LGBT equality.

These are publicly expressed views of those MPs, not merely a few votes where they have been whipped to follow the party line despite personal reservations.

There are indeed some members of TIG who appear to share our values. That includes Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston, who might not just make great allies but might well be at home within our party. And I would certainly encourage working with other MPs on an issue-by-issue basis, for example, to revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit.

However, neither a suggestion they “share our values” as a group nor any national alliance with TIG as a whole at the ballot box will further the cause of liberalism in this country.

When I first started documenting trans people who had stood for elected office, the aim was simple. Demonstrate to those interested in putting themselves forward for public office that being trans and non-binary is no longer a big deal.

With the record number of openly trans and non-binary candidates standing in 2016, it very much appeared that mission had been accomplished – and not just in terms of candidates, but also those having been elected, with the total currently standing at five. As a reminder, here is the list prior to the local elections. Gantly was first elected in 2014, but only transitioned recently so is new to this list but the others will be more familiar names to regular readers.

Osh Gantly
Islington, Highbury East Ward
Term expires May 2018
Zoë Kirk-Robinson
Bolton, Westhoughton North & Chew Moor
Term expires May 2019
Sarah Larkins
Thanet, Eastcliff Ward
Term expires May 2019
Anwen Muston
Wolverhampton, East Park Ward
Term expires May 2020
Zoë O’Connell
Cambridge, Trumpington Ward
Term expires May 2019

Sadly, this year, that changed.

The list below was compiled back in April, after the close of nominations for the local elections. But in discussion with several candidates, people expressed fears that the current media frenzy around trans people would result in them being targeted for harassment at a time which is already stressful and hectic for any candidate. There were also worries that anti-trans campaigners would try to interject in online social media conversations with (potential) constituents, something that has happened to MPs before now.

So, because I value accuracy and did not want to publish a partial list, the publication was delayed until after the election.

And unfortunately, those fears were not unfounded. On polling day, Sarah Brown was subjected to abuse on social media after featuring on a list of LGBT candidates put out by LGBT+ Liberal Democrats. No LGB candidate was targeted in the same way.

It has since been revealed that transphobes targeted the same twitter account for vexatious complaints to try to have it shut down in retaliation for supporting trans people – an attempt that failed, with one conspirator forced to admit they could not actually find any objectionable content about which to complain.

Elsewhere, local “thugs” paid a visit to the house of a sitting Conservative trans councillor and her partner, who was also a candidate that year. It is unclear if the timing was a coincidence or not.

Hopefully, next year the storm will have passed and we can return to the usual schedule. The actual results on the day were somewhat less dramatic than the rhetoric in the media around trans people. There were no major shifts in the vote and nobody new was elected, and Gantly comfortably retained her seat on Islington Borough Council.

Sarah Brown
Cambridge, Petersfield Ward
2nd place, 20.0% (+7%)
Full results
Aimee Challenor
Coventry, St Michael’s Ward
4th place, 5.4% (-0.1%)
Full results
Emma Copeland
Fareham, Fareham North Ward
3rd place, 13.6% (+1.3%)
Full results
Sam Feeney
Huntingdonshire, St Ives East Ward
3rd with 2 elected*, 33.5%
First election on new boundaries. Full results
Osh Gantly (Standing for re-election)
Islington, Highbury East Ward
Re-elected 3rd of 3 elected*, 37.5%
Full results
Charley Hasted
Lambeth, Bishop’s Ward
6th, with top 3 elected*, 24.8% (-3.0%)
Full results
Jennifer Kirk
Bolton, Farnworth Ward
3rd place, 4.5% (-1.5%)
Full results

* Some elections were “all-ups” where voters are entitled to multiple votes and multiple candidates are elected. Percentages are based on the proportion of valid ballot papers which included a vote for the candidate rather than the total number of votes cast.

Zoe at the Spring 2018 Liberal Democrat rally

I was lucky enough to be able to speak at the opening of Liberal Democrats conference last weekend, the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the party. The topic I spoke on was the history of LGBT+ equality campaigning in the party – something that actually predates the 1988 merger by some time, as the old Liberal Party was progressive and including even in the 1970s. Here’s the speech I gave.

For those who want to know more, there’s further information on the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats web site.

Good Evening! For those who don’t know me, I’m Zoe O’Connell – amongst other things, I’m a councillor on Cambridge city council.

But the reason I’m up here today is because I am also on the executive of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats.

And, as you’ve already heard, this year is a special anniversary.

An anniversary of something really, really… bad.

I can see a few staff members near the front looking worried now. Don’t worry, I’m not talking about the formation of the Liberal Democrats!

No, I’m talking about the 24th of May, 1988. The Conservatives implementing section 28, banning any mention of homosexuality in schools. Leaving a generation of frightened LGBT kids with nowhere to turn.

Liberals back then were determined folk – just as many of us are now – and were not going to waste any time. After all, the old Liberal Party had already included full equality in their 1979 general election manifesto so many in the newly formed Liberal Democrats were already well on board.

And they didn’t let being busy with the formation of a new party slow down their campaigning.

Just nine days after the party was formed, Simon Hughes MP – was amongst those standing up in the Commons, speaking out against section 28.

Thirty years on. What’s changed?

In terms of a liberal commitment to LGBT rights, not much.

Our party had started as it meant to carry on – there’s a reason the motto of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats is “Always Been There For You… and Always Will”.

There have been many campaigns along the way. Equalising the age of consent. Opposing the ban on men who have sex with men – and their partners – giving blood. Civil Partnerships. The first Gender Recognition Bill in 1996.

But the highlight of 2013 for many was a bill championed from within the Home Office by Lynne Featherstone.

Same Sex Marriage.

There were highs and lows along the way. Watching their Lordships debate what constituted consummation of a gay marriage was… enlightening.

And for the lows there was the predictable roll call of usual suspects spouting homophobic…

…well, it’s the rally, I’m not allowed to swear! Unfortunately, there are some ways in which other parties have not changed in the last 30 years, either.

But liberals won.

Liberal Democrats, in government, doing what Liberal Democrats do best.

Delivering on equality.

From the exhilaration that followed same-sex marriage, you might think the fight is over.

Sadly not. The need for liberals in parliament is as strong now as it was back in 1988.

LGBT asylum seekers still face intrusive and wholly inappropriate questioning, and end up being sent back to countries where they face persecution, imprisonment… even death.

And we are now seeing battle over equality for trans people hit the headlines.

That’s ahead of a consultation on trans equality later this year, and eventually a debate in parliament.

I already know which side Liberal Democrats will be on.

The right side.

We were ahead of history.

We are ahead of history.

I hope you’ll help us stay ahead of history.

Thanks for being here, and I hope you have a great conference.

"May abandons plans for House of Lords reforms"Good news! Brexit won’t be happening in our lifetimes!

At least, that’s the best conclusion I can draw from recent news.

It has been 19 years since the House of Lords Act 1999, which abolished most of the hereditary peers*. Phase 2 of those reforms was due to introduce elected members of the Lords, but despite the Wakeham Report being published in 2000 we are still waiting.

A widely recognised problem with a simple and democratic solution.

But Theresa May wants more time to think about it. 19 years is not long enough for the level of “careful thought” regarding such obvious reform.

Compare this with Brexit. A complicated piece of work, with no obvious solutions to problems like the Good Friday agreement, Gibraltar, Trade. And over which the country is deeply divided.

My best guess is that the thinking time for that will be at least 100 years.

*Fun Fact: Hereditary Peers are the largest group of elected members in the House of Lords, followed by the CofE Bishops and then Liberal Democrats. The caveat is that in every case the electorate is quite small – the remaining hereditary peers elect each other, and the Bishops are elected by various Synods.

On Wednesday morning, Profesor Robert Winston made some wild claims regarding trans people on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme. He talked about “horrific” surgeries, extremely high surgical complication rates and linked this to a high level of regret. For those not familiar with the topic this might sound like solid science from a respected personality.

It’s not science.

One possibility is that he’s just clueless about the topic. After all, he’s a fertility rather than gender specialist. Another option is that he’s dishonestly using statistics to engage in scaremongering based on a political, not scientific, viewpoint.

Winston made equally wild claims about cycle lanes causing pollution last year. He didn’t say what paper he was referring to so he couldn’t be fack checked. This time, he sourced his claims the following day via Twitter and the article is available online for a fee.

One of Winston’s statements on Radio 4 was that there are complications in about 40% of trans surgeries. That figure does not appear in the paper. It actually says the complication rate is 32.5%, but we also get into confusion over terminology.

You see the same confusion with “elective” vs “emergency” surgery. These are medical terms with specific meanings not apparent to the layperson, and elective just means it was scheduled in advance, but it can still be life-saving surgery. And if you worry about such things, don’t ever read the patient information leaflet for Ibuprofen. Apparently, it causes heart attacks.

Someone as senior as Winston is no doubt aware of the possibility of confusion when using technical terms. But he wants us to believe trans surgery is terrible, so he abuses this confusion and talks about complications then moves on to “horrific” surgeries. He leads the listener to believe that all complications are “horrific” and many surgeries have unwelcome results.

They don’t.

Most complications are minor, and might not even register with the patient as a complication. For example, nearly half (44%) of the complications in the study are “Meatal Stenosis”. These form the bulk of the 21.7% “reoperation” rate, largely from one German study (The paper is available for free, but contains graphic genital surgery images not suitable for an office environment) It might sounds serious and make it seem like SRS is Germany is very dangerous. However, in lay terms, it means “you probably piss in a funny direction, or dribble a bit”. The fix is minor in most cases and might not even need an operation. The Germans seem to use a two-stage technique, so appear to be unfussed by needing “re-operation” – they have already scheduled a second-stage operation.

Some things can go wrong of course, as with any surgery, but most of the “complications” are in this vein or even more minor.  A bit more bleeding than was expected or some tissue granulation.

Now we get into issues of individual agency. If the patient understands the possible consequences of a treatment and has given informed consent, isn’t that OK? Even with the scary prognosis Winston paints, it’s better than the alternative of a lifetime on Spironolactone or Zoladex. And that’s before we worry about the mental health issues involved.

I am a liberal, and I believe firmly in individual agency. It is entirely possible Winston has a more authoritarian view on this. But without knowing his views on similar issues such as abortion and the right-to-die, I don’t know what his outlook is.

Having planted the scary 40% figure in people’s minds, Winston then goes on to conflates regret with surgical complications. Signal boosting stories of regret and framing the debate to exaggerate regret rates is sadly a common anti-trans media tactic right now. However, trans surgeries have one of the lowest regret rates of any surgery – recent studies report it as being around 1-2%, with a meta-study looking at papers all the way back to 1960 when surgical techniques were less developed still only places the figure at 2.2%. For comparison, surgical regret rates for prostate surgery was a whopping 47% in one study. Another paper found that breast cancer surgery had a 24% regret rate.

Finally, the programme was nominally about trans children.

Children can’t get surgery.

Last night, I gave a talk at Pembroke College as part of Cambridge Hub’s Michaelmas Series. The topic was censorship.

This morning, I woke up and saw that the headline story in The Times is Jo Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, wanting to “guarantee free speech” at universities.

It is worth noting there is already a law that ensures freedom of speech at universities, but it would seem that Johnson wants even more extreme guarantees. The existing law is not invoked or referenced when we have one of the regular fusses about high-profile figures having their right to free speech violated. That is because they are not being censored.

Despite existing free-speech laws, there is already quite a bit of censorship at our Universities, and it comes from two sources. Neither form is good, and neither should be extended. Paradoxically, increasing the latter of these two forms of censorship is precisely what Johnson’s proposals will do.

The first is the PREVENT duty. That duty is supposed to target all extremism that leads to terrorism. Controversially, it usually ends up targeting Islamic and other non-white forms of extremism. In a university context, it is used to question room bookings and the nature of invited speakers. I doubt Islamic societies at universities will be welcoming Johnson’s statement today. It is unlikely the duty will be relaxed in support of “free speech”.

The other source is the de-facto censorship of students and student protest against influential media figures.

Wikipedia says censorship is “the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information”. I have mentioned PREVENT, and there’s no doubt that duty involves censorship even if there is disagreement over the desirability of PREVENT overall. China censoring WeChat is an example of that most in the West would regard as negative, and we have also seen cases within LGBT+ communities of censorship gone wrong with unintended consequences.

There is a common theme in those cases. Positive or negative and deliberate or accidental, it is those with power doing the suppression.

What is not censorship is selling only eight tickets to an event and having the venue cancel, as happened to Kate Smurthwaite. Smirthwaite seems to believe “free speech” means she can demand people listen and that venues give her a free platform. Consequently, she used her media contacts and influence to spin a story about how students were suppressing her free speech. The publication of her ideas was undoubtedly not restricted as a result. Quite to the contrary, the resulting media fuss and claims to martyrdom at the altar of free speech gave her an even more prominent platform.

Peter Tatchell was not censored when a student learnt he was due to speak at the same event as her and pulled out. She did not want to share a platform with someone she believed is racist and transphobic. Her withdrawal was not public, but Tatchell’s outrage at being unable to demand the energy of someone less powerful was. He used every possible media outlet he could muster to denigrate her.

A particular shout out needs to go to Julie Bindel at this point, who has repeatedly claimed to be censored herself but has just resorted to issuing legal threats against Brooke Magnanti, a.k.a. Belle De Jour. It is not surprising that Bindel’s claims have not received any media coverage condemning her attempts at silencing. There is a common theme running through these claims of censorship against media figures. Allegations are always targeted at those with less power.

There is a chilling effect hidden within these false claims of censorship, however. Those whom the allegations target become figures of derision in the press with no way of responding. They do not have their voices heard. I was at the event held in parallel to Greer’s Cambridge Union slot, and I know several of the students involved felt traumatised by resulting coverage. They are less likely to now engage in activism.

Media outrage is increasingly invoked to shut down legitimate free speech rights such as protest and running petitions. It happens merely because high-profile disagree with protests or feel threatened.

Ratcheting up that rhetoric will only increase the pressure on students to conform. Contrary to what Johnson believes it will not broaden the minds of young people. Instead, it will teach them that the powerful will not tolerate criticism.

There has been some press coverage today of another proposal on Lords retirements, this time to limit the length of service to 15 years. This isn’t the first time this has been proposed, and something similar with a ten year limit was part of Liberal Democrat ideas for House of Lords reform during coalition.

Firstly, let us take a look at the proposal I discussed previously, namely retiring peers on the basis of age. Is there any correlation between age and how often a peer contributes? How much someone contributes to politics is a largely subjective measure, but for the purposes of this discussion I have used the number of days a member is mentioned in Hansard over the last year. The raw number of mentions is a less helpful measure as a few people have over a thousand mentions due to extended back-and-forth discussions in less well-attended debates. (Click for larger versions of the charts)


Age of Peers vs. Number of days contributed


There’s certainly some link between age and contributions, with 90-year-old members of the house understandably contributing less than those in their 40s. But there is no sudden drop-off and it is hard to identify an age at which members are no longer pulling their weight.

The new proposals do not appear to retire existing life peers, so we would still have the problem I outlined in my previous post about needing members to retire to make more space any time soon. But if this proposal did go ahead, is there any drop off in length of service and contributions?

Length of service for peers vs Days contributed

As we can see, there is definitely a tendency for long-term members to be about less often but perhaps not as much as would be expected, and there is no obvious point at which peers suddenly stop attending. The most prolific Lords tend to be within their first five years but there are plenty of newer peers who don’t contribute as well as a number who manage plenty of engagement – cross-bench peer Lord Hyldon contributing on over 100 days over the last year despite having been a member for nearly five decades stands out, for example.

So it would appear that term limits for peers are not perfect, but a better way of dealing with the excessive number of Members of the House of Lords than mere age.

Longtime readers of this blog will recall that I have previously written about the census in some detail. And if you’ve been about the last day or so, you’ll have seen the fuss over the news that the Office of National Statistics might make declaring your sex optional in the 2021 census.

The full details are not known as the Sunday Times story is from a leaked report and contains few details. This did not stop the Times breathlessly rushing to get quotes from two well-known anti-trans “feminists”. It seemed no trans people were asked for quotes.

The misreporting around this issue is even more widespread than usual for trans-related stories. Misreporting caused by concerns that facts will get in the way of a good headline that further demonises trans people. So here are some myths already doing the rounds, debunked.

Myth: Gender will no longer be recorded in the census, or we will have inaccurate data on gender
There are many forms in existence in which make gender optional, and most people still tick the appropriate option. Religion is a far more sensitive issue and even when the question was made optional in the 2011 census, only 7% of people chose not to provide an answer.

And the Office for National Statistics are likely to use “imputation” to fill in the gaps – a system they routinely use and causes problems analysing statistics for minority communities, such as trans people and poly households. In a nutshell, if you put your name as Mary and don’t tick “Female”, the ONS may still record you as female in statistics.

Myth: This will erase women’s identity
Tick the box, or don’t tick the box. Your choice, nobody else’s. Established religion has not disappeared since the question was made optional in 2011.

Myth: Trans people and only trans people will not answer the question, which is why it’s optional
Most trans people identify more strongly with one gender than the other, and are likely to simply tick the box they most closely identify with. The groups most likely to skip this question are, roughly in order of likelihood:

  1. Those who think it is “none of your damn business”. (A view that’s been held by some feminists quite separate from trans concerns for some time)
  2. Respondents who didn’t understand the question, perhaps because of language issues
  3. People who simply couldn’t be bothered.
  4. Non-binary people

I predict that we will see some attempts to extrapolate the non-binary population of the UK based on 2021 data. I doubt such extrapolations will be valid.

Did the Office for National Statistics get this right?
In a word, no. At least, it doesn’t look like they have but it is hard to say until the final report is published – it may be that there has been selective quoting from the report in the original article (£) and the ONS considered other factors more important. In particular, I find it a little over the top for a government report to state that asking about sex rather than gender is reallys “unacceptable”. But that may have been one side point in a longer article, or reporting the views of a focus group.

And “Other” was rejected because it was “thought to homogenise trans people and differentiate them from the rest of society“. That statement suggests that whoever wrote the ONS report has a tentative grasp of trans issues at best, as it is only true if you start from the assumption that all or most trans people will tick “other”. Liberal Democrat Conference speakers cards have an “Other/Prefer Not To Say” option on them for gender for over a year, and we have not had any complaints about that. If we were going to get complaints about getting an equality issue wrong, that’s precisely the environment in which I would expect them to surface.

And finally, there seems to be some conflation in the quotes between non-binary and intersex issues. It is unclear why the ONS has lumped intersex people in with non-binary people in this way, as they are overlapping but still distinct groups in much the same way as being Irish and having red hair are.

There has been a bit of a fuss in the media recently about the House of Lords. This is a perennial discussion and this time it was triggered by a BBC documentary “Meet the Lords”, which apparently portrayed the upper chamber as a bunch of out of touch scroungers.

I say “apparently” because I have not watched it. I know many members of the Lords, and certainly that description does not hold true for the ones I know and I don’t much feel like watching something I know to be inaccurate. That may be because the Lords and Baronesses I’m most familiar with are part of the 400-odd working peers who regularly turn up.

Not that I begrudge Lords membership to the others because many will have done their time. Yes, they can retire under current rules. But there is little incentive to do so and retiring might upset the political balance that exists if one party’s members retire quicker than another’s.

But it is very clear that having over 800 members is unsustainable and reform is needed. And the latest discussion has gone back to the idea of a mandatory retirement age. 80 is the most common cited retirement age, although 75 is also sometimes quoted. I should state here that I am against this idea, not just because it is not enough (as we’ll see momentarily) but because age and the ability of someone to contribute to politics are not necessarily correlated. The data used for this post has been extracted from the UK Parliament Data Service who also provide details on attendance and speaking, so I might try to see what correlation exists between age and attendance in a subsequent blog post.

Back on topic, I was interested in how retirement at 75 or 80 would affect the size of the House of Lords. I had a hunt around for this but other than some fairly rudimentary estimates for the size of the house in 2022, I could find no other information on the topic so performed my own investigation.

We can have a pretty good guess at what the Lords will look like under current rules, because statistical data on life expectancy is available and calculating retirement is easy. What we cannot predict is how fast Prime Ministers will create new peers, but a very conservative estimate would be no less than 12 a year. (The averages for Heath and Brown) It’s hard to know how fast peers will retire voluntarily as the rules allowing this are new, but 18 retired last year so a restrained Prime Minister should just about be offset by voluntary retirements.

As we can see, even retiring peers at 80 doesn’t shrink the upper chamber quickly. The membership will drop below the current size of the Commons (650) in 2020, versus 2027 under current rules, but 400 is reckoned by many to be a more sensible size and even without new appointments that level isn’t reached until 2028, 11 years from now. (Versus 2033 under current rules) The more aggressive approach of retirement at 75 does immediately make the Lords smaller than the Commons, and 400 members is reached by 2023.

You may have noticed the long tail on the graph above. This is not because we have some immortal members of the House of Lords, even though it might feel like the opinions of some more senior members hark back to some distant and long-forgotten past. This is because even without new appointments by the Prime Minister, there remain just over 100 hereditary peers plus the Church of England bishops. Removing those posts and letting the same rules apply to those members as currently applies to life peerages does not really affect the overall outcome much.

Whatever the solution to the House of Lords is, mandatory retirement age might be a step in the right direction, butoes not seem to be it. We’re back to needing more fundamental reform, such as an elected upper chamber.

And finally, if you wonder about how all this affects party balance: In every conceivable scenario of retirements, both with and without hereditary peerages and the bishops, the Conservatives remain the largest party in the Lords but they never quite achieve a majority whilst the bishops are present. However, scrapping hereditary peerages and Bishops woudl result in a Tory majority in the upper chamber some time between 2036 (Retirement at 75) and 2044. (Current rules)

Last Saturday, The Times published an opinion piece by Janice Turner in which she tells a version of events that took place at Speakers’ Corner last week during a protest by trans activists. By the time of publication, Janice’s narrative of an elderly woman being beaten up had already been proven false by video circulating on YouTube. This is my letter to the editor in response to that piece, sent on Saturday afternoon – The Times have chosen not to publish it.

Dear Editor,

I am writing in response to Janice Turner’s article “The battle over gender has turned bloody”.

Janice seems to be unaware that the incident which occurred during a protest last week was videoed and that it was posted on YouTube. The video tells a very different story to the one she presents, in which she claims a trans activist committed an unprovoked assault on a 60 year old woman. Or perhaps she has taken a leaf out of Donald Trump’s campaign playbook, and wants to try to establish her view as the pure and unadulterated truth regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

What the video shows is Janice’s “60-year-old in specs and sensible shoes called Maria”, who she clearly want to portray as someone defenceless, holding a trans activist in a headlock and trying to kick them repeatedly. I understand the police were called, viewed the video and concluded no action was needed because Maria’s injuries had been sustained as a result of her being pulled off by one of the activist’s friends.

Although stills are available, the video has since been taken offline. Presumably because the person who posted it realised that crying foul when you sustain injuries in the process of assaulting someone else is not a good PR tactic.

I condemn all violence. If Janice wants to condemn violence, she too should condemn all violence. Not just those incidents that help prop up her narrative of hate.


Councillor Zoe O’Connell