`Brown's gay? So what?' Tyneside is outed as a tolerant electorate

Esther Leach,John Davison,James Cusick
Monday 09 November 1998 01:02 GMT

WHILE LABOUR'S spinners and shakers were wondering if they had managed to handle the latest "gay minister" revelation any better than the last one (or two), voters and party faithful in Nick Brown's Tyneside constituency were closing ranks yesterday in a broadly supportive, if defensive, stance.

The Independent was actually barred from the Wallsend Labour Club, and from the Jubilee Club and Institute in the nearby district of Walker, where Mr Brown was a city councillor before becoming an MP.

"We are not going to assassinate our MP," said an indignant Larry Dixon, secretary of the Jubilee Club. "To me, it doesn't matter if he is gay. Why should people want to make capital of it?"

Reporters or photographers wanting to "sensationalise people's private lives" would not be allowed into the club, he said. "We want people to come in and drink beer."

Part of his concern, however, seemed to be how frank some of his regulars might be at 2.50pm when "they have been drinking beer since noon."

Outside the Wallsend Labour Club, the reaction was also that the MP's private life was his own affair. "I always knew he was gay," said one middle-aged Labour supporter. "As long as he is doing his job as an MP, what does it matter? It's just garbage newspaper reporting."

He did add, however, that Mr Brown's admission might matter to some local voters. The "so what" attitude to a person's sexuality is fairly superficial in working-class districts such as Walker and Wallsend. "It would bother me if I had a son or daughter like that," the Labour supporter said.

Media commentators have compared the situation Mr Brown was forced into with that of Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary and MP for Islington in north London, who is openly gay. Wouldn't it be a lot better for Mr Brown to have come out on his own account in the same way, so saving speculation and embarrassment?

But then his East Newcastle and Wallsend constituency is not Islington. Despite Tyneside's trendy clubs, the fashions and the glittering shopping centres, a man's ability to drink beer, fight or "pull lasses" is almost as revered now as in the days of building ships or hewing coal.

It is also true that Labour's hold on areas like Newcastle East is total. Several people going into the Wallsend club did not know who their MP was, and one said that if they "put up a rocking horse in Wallsend it would get in".

Robert Gallon, 58, said he had voted Labour all his life. "I can't remember what name was on the ballot paper, though."

Newcastle United away to Manchester United at Old Trafford was a more pressing concern to most Geordies yesterday. Kenny Jones and his friends were following it on the radio as they tended their allotments on Walker Road, overlooking the Tyne. When The Independent broke the news of their MP's gay admission, they were unmoved. Mr Jones, who voted Labour, said: "It's up to the individual. If you are gay, you are gay." He emphasised that he was "straight" himself, and added: "It's up to the individual, just so long as they're not child molesters."

In Newcastle Labour Club, Billy Anderson, 49, also thought there were more important orientations than sexual ones. "If the bloke he had a relationship with went into prostitution it is not his fault and he is not in a position to be blackmailed," he said. "But if Nick Brown had confessed to being a Sunderland supporter, that would really have been it."

Down the North Sea coast at Hartlepool, the constituency home of Peter Mandelson, who was also at the centre of an "outing" row last week, the supportive PC veneer was looking a little thin. Streams of abuse came from some who thought the idea brought embarrassment on the town, and others urged Mr Mandelson to "come out" if the suggestions that he is a homosexual are true.

Fire-fighter John Hall, 47, who voted for Mr Mandelson, said he should not be condemned, whatever his sexuality. "But he shouldn't be in the closet. He should be up-front about being gay, otherwise he could lay himself open to abuse and blackmail," he said.

"To me, it makes no difference so long as he does his job. It's his private life and I don't think people are bothered. I would still have voted for him if I'd thought he was gay."

Women voters seemed to be less bothered by the suggestions. Carol Strong, 45, a cleaner and bar lady in a local social club, agreed that it was better to be "up-front" because of people trying to use the information against him.

"But it really doesn't make any difference what he does in his private life," she added. "I really don't think people care or think about the political implications so long as he gets on with the job."

Support from others wasdouble-edged. "I don't care if he is gay. I just think he's a weak politician. He doesn't have any sort of a presence," said Kenny Burnham, 49, a foreman steel erector.

But from some directions the hostility was total, with men talking about the "shame" that would be brought on Hartlepool by having a homosexual MP. "The idea makes me cringe with embarrassment," said one.

There is, it seems, as much Old Britain as Old Labour in the party's heartlands.

Words Of Support: Gordon Brown, Chancellor: "I think most people understand this to be a personal issue and a private issue, and I think they will applaud the way Nick Brown has handled these matters with dignity.

"I think it is true to say he has support not just in the Cabinet and from the Prime Minister personally, but support right across the Labour Party and indeed, I think, right across Parliament."

George Robertson, Defence Secretary: "What people do in their private lives, as long as it doesn't affect others, is a matter for them, and I think that's the view of the vast majority of the British people."

Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP: "I would like us to reach a stage where anybody's reaction to these lurid headlines is a very large yawn and a loud `so what?"

Angela Mason, executive director of Stonewall: "Coming out is a personal decision and should be left to the individuals. Forcing MPs to come out serves no public purpose and causes only personal distress to those concerned."

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