It’s not quite the 200th anniversary of the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, but it seems we’re almost back to the days when a Catholic couldn’t stand for Parliament. Indeed, 190 years in the grand scheme of things is probably the equivalent of the 36 hours that I was the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for Stoke South before I was abruptly deselected – that brief interlude of time before the great liberal party of democracy decided that it was neither liberal nor democratic.
I look back to the heady days of being welcomed into the Lib Dems, into that family where my right to be an individual, my right not to be forced to conform, my right to worship, was supposedly protected by their constitution, perhaps even by their history.
Precisely because I had been a (Labour) MP for 12 years and was known, tweets and all, by senior Lib Dem politicians, I was “fast-tracked” and was soon in Rochdale for probably one of the last assessment centre days (where prospective candidates are vetted) before the election.
At the centre, I made clear my views on same-sex marriage during the interview, in the part helpfully titled “Having the courage to make and defend unpopular decisions and seeking out opportunities to publicise and defend beliefs”. I set out my opposition to aborting Down’s syndrome babies in the written paper on civil and human rights.
Maybe I should have written instead about the Lib Dem opposition to state interference and closing down of free speech…
Was it despite – or perhaps because of – the clear leadership and resilience I demonstrated that I had a call late on a Saturday evening and a confirmatory email the next day telling me I had been successful and would now be the candidate?
After an intense Sunday of website writing, press release-drafting, Facebook page-creating, money-spending, volunteer-getting and nomination signature-collecting, I was ready to launch my campaign. Monday morning saw a splash in the media, the local newspaper, BBC radio and independent radio all giving my campaign great coverage. I was up and running like an Olympic sprinter.
So what went wrong? That’s a good question, because the Lib Dems now seem to think they had no idea about my views. And anyway, they claim it’s not my views that are the problem but the fact that I voted on those views and publicised them. The Lib Dems are, of course, claiming they have no issue with my religious views and very helpfully they have told me I am free to have some of my views (my emphasis, not theirs).
So what really is the problem? However they try to dress it up, the simple fact is that you can’t be a practising Catholic and a Lib Dem candidate. At some point on that Monday someone, somewhere expressed opposition to my views and, rather than show the leadership they ask of their candidates, the Lib Dems got worried and pulled the plug.
Now at that point on Monday, the party could have said: “Rob, can we discuss your views? Can we ask you about why you voted the way you did? Can we understand your religious convictions?”
The deadline for nominations wasn’t for another few days and so, if nothing else, I could have had the right of appeal. But no. Instead, the party waited until a few hours before nominations closed on Thursday to send me a very weak, clutching-at-straws email lacking any real substance.
In their email the Lib Dems seem to say that I can think almost anything I want but I can’t vote or tweet about those views. And the vote in question is the one six years ago on same-sex marriage where the Lib Dems gave their MPs a free vote. How times change. The tweets in question were about the Ealing buffer zone banning offers of help and prayers for those going for an abortion, but the Lib Dems seem now to be unsure themselves. So much for the alleged party of free speech.
What next? Well, for one thing the Church needs to start speaking out more unless it wants the clock turning back to pre-Emancipation days. For another, we need Catholics to ask more questions of the local candidates at this election, and not just about the would-be MPs’ own views, but what they will do about their party’s stance on religious freedom. And we need Catholics to start contacting political parties to challenge discrimination and anti-religious prejudice. I’m not going to keep quiet on this and nor, I hope, will others.
The Lib Dems might not want to follow their own constitution, but as far as I’m concerned I am an individual with deep-rooted values. I will not be forced to conform to a politically correct stereotype, and whether the Lib Dems like it or not, they will not stop me being a Catholic. To paraphrase one of my favourite quotations, I am politics’ good servant, but God’s first.
Rob Flello was the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South from 2005 to 2017