Lynne Featherstone interview Part 1: Early life and influences

As Minister for Equalities in the recent coalition government, Lynne Featherstone was the originator and architect of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. She has received various accolades and awards for her work on equalities. In his book Gay Shorts (2015), the former Conservative Party politician turned broadcaster and member of the LGBT community, Iain Dale said that:

Same-sex marriage will be associated with Lynne Featherstone in the same way that we associate David Steel with the 1967 Abortion Act and Roy Jenkins with the legalisation of homosexuality.

In the hours following the icy gales of Storm Doris, I caught up with Lynne at Taunton’s most distinguished hotel, The Castle. The previous evening, she spoke at a party fundraiser in East Devon. After our interview, she was heading off to another commitment,as the guest speaker at the Bridgwater and West Somerset Liberal Democrats annual dinner. She is certainly a woman in demand! Among the bustling crowd of Saturday night revellers, who were making good use of the historic hotel’s bar and restaurant, Lynne and I managed to find a table and a couple of chairs, tucked away in a reasonably quiet corner.

In the hour that I had with the Lib Dem peer, I wanted to cover a lot of ground. Obviously, the subject of her new book Equal Ever After was going to dominate much of the conversation. Besides the same sex marriage bill, I wanted to find out more about the former MP and her life before  and after her time as Minister.

You are a north London girl, could you tell me a bit about your childhood?

I grew up in a block of flats. I went to the local primary school and won a scholarship to the independent girls day trust, South Hampstead High School for Girls. I wanted to go with all my friends to Camden High, but my headmistress convinced my mother to allow me to sit the entrance exam, which I passed.

My mother didn’t believe in education. She was a child of an immigrant, and for her it was all about surviving financially. She wanted me to go out to work and not get ideas above my station!

I wanted to be an actor. They do say politics is show business for ugly people! I gave up acting to become a designer because my mother said to me if there was one thing worse than acting it was art school. Therefore, I wanted to go to art school. I was always the rebel!

You didn’t become involved in politics until you were around 40 years of age, relatively late in comparison with other politicians. What did your previous adult life entail? 

I went to Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brooks University) to study Design for three years. I led my first campaign there, which was to save Art. The powers that be were closing my course because they wanted to convert to a university. I got the whole college out. We had marches, and I gave a radio interview, which was my first ever media. We won. It did eventually become a university but not until after I’d left!

This experience gave me a taste for campaigning. Although I wasn’t particularly partisan, I did think about politics at that time, but no party appealed to me. It was the mid-seventies. The Liberals were a small band, and the party was engulfed in the Thorpe affair. The Tories had this disastrous three-day working week. When Labour got in, they were equally as awful. I don’t even remember about the Greens. Therefore, I walked away and became a designer.

I worked for a big architecture and planning company before setting up my own business. I was a designer for twenty years, including for transport consultants. This stood me in good stead when I became Chair for Transport for London. You never know when something is going to come in useful.

Besides those that you’ve just mentioned, what other skills in your previous career helped you with your political career? 

Many more transferable skills than you would have thought. The basis of being a designer is about resolving a problem, usually financial. You’re really looking at what someone does, what their messages are, how they are communicating those messages and how to reach their target market. Bingo, it’s the same as politics. I’ve found that all of my twenty years in design have not been wasted in terms of a political career. Although I didn’t know I was going to have a political career at the time.

You don’t come from a conventional political background. Your parents weren’t involved in politics, you didn’t go to a university, didn’t do PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), no previous parliamentary experience, why politics?

There were many drivers in. Firstly, I had that taste for campaigning in my early twenties. Then I got angry at the world. When Thatcher was Prime Minister, I thought she was creating a very selfish world and, at that point, I had two young children. I did not want this type of world, so I thought I should do something about it. I started volunteering at a local hospital and noticed that the nurses were too busy to spend enough time with patients. They were literally run off their feet. The hospital couldn’t afford to purchase their own equipment. Every piece of equipment on the ward was donated. Without this generosity, the health service would fall apart. I thought ‘how do you change this?’ That was a crisis and, sadly, the NHS is still in a crisis. The only way this could change was to either own the multinational, which was clearly out of my reach, or get involved in the political process because somewhere in there is how you change things. That’s literally when I joined the political party. Although I didn’t know which one to join.

Why the Lib Dems then?

I researched all the political parties and their policies. I was never going to be Conservative. They are not really me, although I think some of their policies are okay. Greens are a single-issue party and are not serious enough. Labour are controlling, and I cannot be controlled. I will not belong to an organisation that says you have to be regimented. If you don’t say or do the right thing then you are not included. You can see this now with Momentum. I know it’s an extreme version, but even generally Labour was much more command-and-control. I liked the idea of the Liberals. I’m obviously a natural Liberal. The last time I had looked at them, they were six men in a taxi! They were now the Liberal Democrats. They had a really sound hook that I could hang my political hat. They weren’t perfect, no party is an exact fit, but I could be comfortable within them. It was a good choice. You do not choose Lib Dems for a political career. You choose them because you believe that you are a liberal.

Who were your main political influences? Did you have a political hero?  

Shirley Williams. She is stunning. She is an amazing politician. Shirley is a role model for both men and women. Funnily enough, she was the originator of polytechnics. I thought polytechnics were a magnificent idea of a sort of mixed economy of students. I don’t like segregation amongst students.

In your quest to become an MP, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t a straightforward or easy journey. You stood as a Lib Dem in the Labour stronghold of Hornsey and Wood Green in 1997. After two unsuccessful attempts at winning the seat, you overturned a huge majority to beat your Labour nemeses in 2005. After one defeat most candidates fall into the political wilderness, what made you continue? 

I don’t really count the first election in 1997. We did little work in my own constituency and spent the majority of the time helping the neighbouring candidate, Simon Hughes. Essentially, I stood as a paper candidate.

We were 26,000 behind in 1997, but we cut that amount in half at the 2001 election. This was one of the top two biggest swings in the country, so it gave me the confidence that we could win the next time around. To be honest, I thought from the start it would take eight years and it did.

To be continued…

* Rob May is a Political History PhD student and Lib Dem activist.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.

One Comment

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Mar '17 - 11:19pm

    Baroness Featherstone is an asset to our party. Her work in equality excellent , her personality very friendly .

    If we are to accept David Steel as responsible for the abortion legalisation, it is not right that Iain Dale attributes the homosexuality legalisation to Roy Jenkins, it belongs to Leo Abse, who, like Steel, brought in the private members Bill. It all ,inadvertently ,or directly, also belongs to Jenkins, as he backed them all the way with government support.

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