"We demean our democracy if we fail to ask questions" - an interview with Mathew Hulbert

Mathew Hulbert
Mathew Hulbert is a charity Trustee, LGBT+ rights campaigner and parish councillor from Leicestershire in the English East Midlands. He was a Borough Councillor from 2011 to 2015 and chaired the board of the Leicester LGBT Centre from 2017 to 2020. He is active in the Liberal Democrats and is Vice Chair of the constituency party in Bosworth. He says he enjoys writing and listening to cheesy boy band songs.

I caught up with Mathew yesterday for a socially distanced interview in which we discussed various issues including Covid-19, the Labour leadership election and Scotland.

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview for A Scottish Liberal. You might not be Scottish but you are most definitely a Liberal and I'm sure my readers will be interested in your perspectives!

Thank you, Andrew. It's an honour to be interviewed for your brilliant blog. We should let folks in on the fact that we've been friends for a good number of years now and talk regularly about all and sundry. So, great to be with you.

Indeed, and our friendship goes back almost as long as does your membership of the Liberal Democrats. If we can start there, when did you decide to join the party and why?

Well, and I still take a lot of stick for this in some quarters, I've been in three parties in my time (not at the same time, mind you!). I joined Labour in my late teens. I was very impressed with Tony Blair and I still consider the 1997-2010 Labour government to be the best of my lifetime. But the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which I consider to have been illegal, was the final straw for me and I left Labour that year. Being of the broad Left (more so then, than now) and being very impressed by the passion and conviction of Caroline Lucas, I joined the Greens for a few years. But, well-meaning as they are, they are not yet a really serious or, indeed, national party. So, in early 2010, I joined the Lib Dems. I've been both liberal and social democratic in my worldview so it made sense. And I saw the difference a Lib Dem Council was making in my own borough. Local Lib Dems were getting stuff done. I knew a few of them and liked them. So, yes, I finally found my political home.

You won't get stick from me over that - I too am a former Labour member but I wasn't quite so impressed with Mr Blair, at least not at the time. Like yourself, I felt "at home" when I joined the Lib Dems in a way I never did while a Labour member. You highlight the significance of your local party in your decision. How important is localism to you?

Oh, I believe in-where possible and where sensible-that power should be devolved down to the most local level and, certainly here in Hinckley and Bosworth, which has had a Lib Dem run Borough Council for most of the last twenty years, the difference having a pro-active local Council, which wants to improve things and get things done, can make. And, indeed, I'm very proud indeed of the difference I was able to make over four years as a Borough Councillor. So honoured and humbled to have had that opportunity.

Yes, you were a councillor on Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council – and a relatively young one too. What do you feel you were able to achieve as a councillor and would you recommend it to any other young people?

Yes, I was thirty-one when elected to represent the village in Leicestershire where I've always lived, Barwell, in 2011. I was a first termer and, therefore, a back bencher (the Council Leader, no doubt rightly, believing that a first term should be about bedding in, not about taking on an executive role). I was proud, nonetheless, to vote for big changes to Hinckley, the main town in our borough; like a new shopping area, cinema and leisure centre, which have transformed the town centre. But, what I'm most proud of are two things: my backbench roles, given to be me by the Council Leader Stuart Bray, as the Children and Young People's Champion (where my knowledge of, interest in and opposition to the cuts to youth services began) and also my role as Fairtrade Champion. I've long been a supporter of the Fairtrade cause, so was proud to do my bit on the Council and, secondly, being a by then Out and proud openly gay Councillor (as the jargon goes) and, according to a local LGBT+ historian, the only Out Councillor in Leicestershire at the time. I bought what is believed to have been the first item on LGBT+ matters ever brought to the authority's Scrutiny Commission and, at that, told my coming out story. So, yes, I'm very proud of what I was able to achieve personally and with colleagues in those four years. Sadly, due to the low ebb the national party was at in 2015 and having (I still think rightly) supported a very unpopular housing development in my ward, I wasn't returned for a second term. But, that's politics.

Which leads quite nicely onto what I was going to ask you next: what are the political issues that you are most passionate about?

So, I'm passionate about a range of things. The issues that I've campaigned on most in the party, whether in elected office or not, are LGBT+ rights and equality, the need for well-resourced youth services run by professional youth workers, Fairtrade, and, of course, quality public services for people. And, locally, I've campaigned to save (sometimes with a successful outcome, others sadly not) my village's SureStart Centre (still there) when it was threatened with the axe, library (sadly, not still there), and post office (not stand alone, but now in a local newsagent). It's my view that such things are what make a community a community, the glue that binds it together. And when such facilities are lost, what really is left bar houses and shops? So, whilst there's breath in my body, I'll always campaign to save and protect local services that people rely on so much. I've also, with others, led on LGBT+ recognition locally. Which we can touch on more, if you'd like.

Yes, we should. In fact, to say you've "campaigned" for well-resourced youth services is something of an understatement - your efforts on that front basically forced the party into acting. Tell me more about how that happened.

Well, that's very kind. I've certainly worked with a small group of fellow members who are passionate about this issue. I want to salute my dear friend Linda Jack, who was campaigning on youth work and its ability to reach otherwise unreachable young people and to mend broken lives, before I was even in the Lib Dems. But, yes, I've done all in my power to ensure the issue remains on the radar of Lib Dem MPs and Peers.

During the final months of the Coalition I was privileged to attend and contribute to many of the weekly meetings in Parliament of the Lib Dem parliamentary backbench committee on education, families and young people, which met at Portcullis House and was co-chaired by then MP Simon Wright and Lords education spokesperson Mike Storey. That was hugely helpful in putting youth services back on the agenda. It was, pretty much, all I ever talked about in those meetings. Then, at the Autumn 2015 party conference, I successfully moved a motion calling for investment in youth services. We often try to pretend the party hasn't done wrong when it has, but here we were condemning Lib Dem Ministers for being a party to (and not doing enough to stop) the unforgivable cuts to local councils which led many local authorities to feel that they had little choice but to axe non-statutory services such as their youth work provision. I disagree with the councils doing so, but I understand it given the budgetary settlement they were left with. It's a false economy though, of course, because though the youth clubs/centres went (600+ nationwide, just devastating) the young people didn't go away. They and their often not inconsiderable issues, worries, and needs, were still there. They just ended up having to use other, already stretched services, such as the NHS and, sadly in some cases, the criminal justice system.

I've been on and chaired fringe meetings on this issue at both federal and regional party conferences. I've done regional TV several times talking about it, been quoted in newspapers about it. So, yes, I'm proud of the part I was able to play. And, so, so thrilled that we got a commitment to restore youth services in our manifesto last December. I'm just sorry we're in no position to enact that.

However, I'll continue to hold this government to account on its pledge to invest in youth services. It must do so and it must make them properly statutory, so never again can they be cut by local councils, however bad the budgetary settlement might be. I want to thank Lord Storey and Layla Moran for being really supportive of this cause over a number of years. Lord Storey, at a federal conference, said it was my and Linda's campaigning that kept the issue alive in the party and, just a few weeks back, Layla very kindly told the East Midlands Lib Dem conference that I'd been 'indispensable' on the issue. More praise than I deserve, but very gratifying none the less. We must act on this, as a nation, not just so that youth work can play its part in reducing knife crime, essential as that is, but also so that youth work can play a role that schools are too stretched to do in regards to giving that truly holistic education, teaching those life lessons that are invaluable and ensuring we raise a generation of well-rounded, responsible citizens for the country's future.

You should be rightly proud of that because without those efforts youth services would almost certainly have not received the attention they deserve. I'd like to turn now to your LGBT+ activism. That's massively important to you, especially the local dimension you referred to earlier.

Yes, I've known I was a gay guy since I was about eleven. Sadly I didn't come out until my thirty-first birthday (a little over nine years ago). I wish now I'd done so much earlier, perhaps at university, but we who are LGBT+ Come Out at different times/stages/ages in our lives. I was elected to the Borough Council a few months later, in May 2011, and I decided that I wanted a part of my public representation to be campaigning on LGBT+ issues.

Part of that was helping to secure funding for a local LGBT+ social and support group. That ended after a year, sadly, due to lack of funding. But from that initiative sprang, last year, a partnership-led by the Borough Council, but also including Hinckley Library, the local FE College, and the Leicester LGBT Centre (which, until last month, I chaired) to organise events celebrating and commemorating key dates in the LGBT+ calendar. So LGBT+ History Month in February, IDAHOBIT (the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, Transphobia) in May, Pride month in June, and the Trans Day of Remembrance in November. Being part of the small team leading on this has been so rewarding and I hope to see it build and build over the coming years. We've named the initiative 'True Colours' after the iconic Cyndi Lauper song. We have a newsletter and, again a first, dedicated pages on the Borough Council website. So, yes, it's one of the great joys of my life to be part of it. Representation is so important, especially in a relatively small and close-knit community like mine.

Absolutely, and your contribution - just by being visible in a small community like yours - is immeasurable. If I may, I'm going to move from discussing LGBT activism to faith, which some might feel represents something of a huge leap. However, you're both an out and proud gay man and a member of an inclusive congregation in the Church of England. Presumably, for you, there's absolutely no incompatibility between being LGBT+, or an LGBT+ ally, and being a person of faith?

Firstly, thank you. You're very kind. Being Out and someone in public life isn't always easy; I've found myself at times on public platforms debating some people (and it pertains to this question, as they were people of professed faith) who've held the most vile views about LGBT+ people. Words can and do hurt.  Being an LGBT+ person of faith is often extremely difficult. And, let's be honest, being a person of faith in LGBT+ communities isn't necessarily the easiest thing either. But, and I can only speak for myself, I believe passionately in a loving God. In a God of justice and grace. In a God who loves all of his creation, in its wonderful diversity and who, absolutely, made LGBT+ people as much in His own image as anyone else.

So, I see no contradiction in being a gay man and in being a liberal, progressive Christian who attends a warm and welcoming Inclusive CofE Church (St Mary's in Hinckley.) Over the past year I've also found great comfort, solace, and support in attending, as a private individual, the Leicester Diocesan LGBT+ group 'Sparkle.' To meet with a good sized group of fellow LGBT+ Christians, once a quarter, is an absolute joy. At the most recent meeting Leicester's and Loughborough's Bishops both attended. It was an interesting dialogue. I think one is more liberal than the other. But I'm a glass half full kind of bloke and I welcome the dialogue, whist recognising that hearts and minds aren't going to be changed overnight. In Leicester and Leicestershire we now have a number of LGBT+ inclusive/welcoming churches; including St Nick's in Leicester, St Mary's in Hinckley and All Saints in Loughborough. I hope this number will grow in the coming years.

This is terrific to hear – at least I think so as a progressive Christian. What would you say then to people who believe it is impossible to be both a Liberal and a Christian?

I would say that they are profoundly wrong, Andrew. Let's name that elephant in the room, shall we? You're on about Tim Farron, I assume?

Well, I was thinking about Tim, but others too. In his resignation statement Tim said there was an incompatibility in being a Christian and a leader of a Liberal party, which is slightly different although something I'd still disagree with. But there is something else...a growing movement, especially in the US but also in some parts of Europe such as Hungary and Poland, which is both religious and political in nature, that explicitly argues that liberalism is diametrically opposed to Christianity. Closer to home there's also this idea that people who are politically active shouldn't, as Alistair Campbell argued, "do God".

On Tim, who we both know, I think, in many respects, he's a perfectly pleasant man who does a lot of good work as an MP and spokesperson for our party. But, I fundamentally disagree with the views he's previously expressed (and, to my knowledge, hasn't changed his mind on) about gay sex being a sin. He's entitled to his view, of course, but what he's not entitled to do – and I think this is what led eventually to him standing down as Lib Dem leader – is to expect (as he appeared to do) to be able to express such a viewpoint and not face considerable push-back and challenge from party members and others. Now, Tim would no doubt claim, as probably would others in the Church who share his view, that he's just following Biblical teaching. I believe that it's perfectly possible to follow Biblical teaching and be an LGBT+ person in a loving and intimate relationship with a same sex partner.

On the movement, mostly in the US but here to, that you refer to, I just think they're wrong. And there's an increasing number of scholarly reports that have been produced taking a wholly different view. They set out, far better than I ever could, why the church, here in the UK and around the world, should embrace LGBT+ believers. And, though there's a very long way indeed to go on this, I'm heartened by initiatives here, such as Inclusive Church and Extending the Table, which are bringing together LGBT+ Christians and providing a framework infrastructure as to how, in the often labyrinthine internal workings and processes of churches, we bring about eventual change in church policy and doctrine. I hope that happens soon and will continue to work for it...however long it takes.

Amen brother!

If we can look at more recent developments now, how is the Covid-19 pandemic affecting you and how do you feel about the UK government's response to it?

I'm a parish councillor (I was elected last May, having previously served 2011-15, the same time I was on the Borough Council) and, obviously, this situation has meant we're not able to hold face-to-face meetings. We hope to be able to hold virtual meetings when government regulations allow. We've delegated powers to the Clerk, who's working from home, to enable statutory functions to continue to happen. I'm answering parish e-mails and communications from residents in Barwell at home. It's good to feel of some use to others at a time like this.

I've been furloughed from my work (I work for a small charity in my village) and wholly reliant/dependent on the scheme the Chancellor announced in relation to 80% of wages being paid by the government in these extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances. So money will be tight for a while for sure. Potentially very tight. So, I'm at home, only going out every few days for essential supplies. As with us all, I've never known, in my forty years, a happening, a news event, an occurrence which has so utterly dominated and changed our lives and been the sole topic of TV and radio news bulletins for so long.

I have admiration for our key workers in the NHS and other emergency services – but also, yes, shop workers and cleaners and hospital porters and others who, all too often, are forgotten about in our political life. They are all stars. I hope the government will do what it shouldn't have taken a global crisis for them to do...namely give a pay rise to all of those public service staff who are, indeed, doing so much at this time. I think, at this time, political point scoring isn't helpful. But, whilst recognising the extremely difficult circumstances ministers and civil servants are having to deal with, there are very serious questions for ministers, as those electorally responsible, to answer: the lateness in the response, the lack of timely financial support for those people who are self-employed, the lack of adequate mass testing (especially for frontline NHS staff), lack of protective equipment for NHS workers, and so on. We demean our long fought for, and much cherished, democracy if we fail to ask these questions and demand straight answers to them at this time. The government needs to up its game.

On the plus side, being furloughed has led to you returning to blogging, which I might say is rather welcome! Today Labour elected a new leader in Keir Starmer. What your view of the result, what it says about the Labour Party and potentially what it means for the future of the UK?

Cheers for the comments about my blog. It's helped take my mind off things. I think and, despite being in a different party, hope that Labour has today begun the very long road back to respectability and electability. It has pulled itself back from the brink. The Corbyn hard-left experiment has totally and utterly failed. He was the worst leader of the opposition in my lifetime (and I lived though Iain Duncan Smith's leadership of the Tories!). He was apparently incapable of changing/moderating the hard left views he'd spent thirty plus years on the Commons back benches cultivating. He should never be forgiven for his contemptible failure to address the vile scourge of anti-Semitism in his party. He should never again occupy a frontbench position for his party. He should retreat back to the political fringes where he belongs.

So now we come to Keir Starmer. What a mammoth task, given all of the above, that man now has ahead of him (and he was in the shadow cabinet for those years noted above, so must share some of the blame). But, he's clearly a very different man to Mr Corbyn. Much more moderate, with none of the baggage that Corbyn bought to the role. He must sack all of Corbyn's acolytes. He must reduce massively the influence of the Corbynite pressure group Momentum. He must almost wholly refresh the Labour front bench. He must talk about the bread and butter issues that most affect people's lives and, I would say this of course, support a referendum on a change to a proportional voting system. I think all of us who believe in a Social Democratic, progressive politics should wish him well.

So Labour have a new leader, but four months after a poor General Election result we still don't. My impression is that you're not exactly thrilled the Lib Dems have put off our own leadership election until 2021...

I think it's simply the wrong decision to have made. I, of course, completely understand that, at the present time, all of our focus must be on doing whatever we can to prevent the virus from spreading and, in regards to the government and medical and scientific communities, to come up with means to defeat it. So, a short delay of a few months would, I feel, have been accepted by most of us who are members of the party. But, suspending arguably the most important part of our internal democratic processes-choosing our leader-until the middle of next year is, to me, not only wrongheaded but actually risks us, sadly, being seen as a farce.

This isn't about any current holder of any office, including the Federal Board, but I call on the President, the acting leader and the FB to change this decision and for the leadership election to be held, online, as soon as is practically possible. In the Autumn, but no later. Who leads the Lib Dems might not matter to most people at the moment and I understand that, but it matters to our members and to those people in our communities who look to us for leadership. We must have the chance, this year, to choose our leader...so she, he or they can hold this government to account and begin to chart the course that will enable us to win again after the serious failings and electoral reverse suffered at last year's general election.

How do you think we move forward after a string of disappointing results - especially the last General Election?

Well locally, here in Hinckley and Bosworth and elsewhere, we've been winning. Not just seats but whole Councils and Lib Dems in executive office in local government are making a really positive difference in their communities. And, as our good friend Councillor Michael Mullaney has pointed out, we win locally by focusing laser-like on the “bread and butter issues” that concern most people (when we return to normal life, that is.) Health, education, law and order, a strong mixed economy, support for the most vulnerable in our society.

So, I suggest, our national party and our MPs/spokespeople could and should learn a lesson or two from our successful Councillors, activists and local parties. When we've achieved our best results, in recent decades, it has been when we've had eye catching policies such as a penny on income tax for education. We also, again as Michael has pointed out, need to reach out to and show genuine care and concern for communities beyond our London/South heartlands. We need to win again in the North, the Midlands, Wales and Scotland. In rural villages and towns, not just in university cities. We also, I believe, need to reach out beyond our professional, middle-class base. To working class communities, like the one I'm proud to be from. Our new leader, when we finally get one, and our party as a whole has a big job of work to do to start winning again. We need to get on with it now.

As an Englishman, living in England, how do you view the question of Scottish independence?

I thought you might ask me this, Andrew. I have, I guess, a rather nuanced position on this. I guess I'm a unionist in as much as I'd like to see the UK remain intact. My Britishness is, in truth, stronger than my Englishness in terms of identity. So, of course, I'd like to see the UK go forward as four nations. But, given how badly Scotland especially has been treated by the UK Tory government over many years, I completely understand why Scottish nationalists feel that their nation would be better off as an independent nation. And, indeed, though with a much different history and set of circumstances, why Irish nationalists feel similarly.

Our party's position on Indyref 2 would be funny if it wasn't so serious. It’s plainly hypocritical and makes us look ridiculous. There has been a clear material change from 2014, that being Scotland having been taken out of the EU against its will. Yet, apparently, Scottish voters shouldn't get a chance to vote again on its constitutional future for “a generation”.  Yet, out of the other side of the Lib Dem mouth, came a demand that those same voters should get a chance – aafter just a few years – to vote again in a second referendum on our membership of the European Union. So, it appears at least, that if we (Lib Dems) agree with a referendum result then we don't agree with another vote and where we don't agree we support another vote. I mean, where do you start with that?

Such a position may explain why the party in Scotland has (and correct me if I'm wrong, Andrew) long been in the doldrums. Liberals must always be in favour of national, as well as personal, self-determination. So, yes, a second referendum on Scottish Independence should be held but I'd hope that Scotland's voters would again vote to stay part of the union.

Many thanks for sharing your views. If you don't mind I'm going to finish with a couple of light-hearted questions. If you could change one thing about the Lib Dems, what would it be?

That's a light-hearted question? Hahahaha. I thought a light-hearted question might be something like which male celeb do I currently have a crush on?

I was looking for a,light-0hearted answer! But you can talk about hot male celebs too if you like...

OK...well, firstly, an answer to the hot men question I asked myself. Hahahahaha! Kelvin Fetcher (from Emmerdale and Strictly Come Dancing) is a very hot and buff bloke. And, boy, that fella has the moves!

On the Lib Dems. – and, actually, this is serious. I'd have the Social Democratic tradition (to which, Andrew, I know we both belong) be much more prominent n the party. And we in the Social Democrat Group in the party are working for that right now.

Finally, can you tell us something surprising about yourself?

Something surprising... well, many folks may not know that I used to be a radio journalist for a group of commercial radio stations in the Midlands. During those years, among others, I interviewed Gordon Brown (when PM), David Cameron (when opposition leader), Ming Campbell (when running for the Lib Dem leadership), Ann Widdecombe, Clare Short, Barry Norman, Marti Pellow, and many other well known public figures. Very enjoyable years, those.

Wow. Barry Norman! What was he like?

Interesting. It was a down the line thing. Nice guy.

Thanks so much Mathew for taking the time to talk to me this afternoon. I hope you enjoyed the conversation.

Thank you, Andrew. It was a pleasure. Can I say to you, your family and your readers. Stay home. Stay safe. Stay well.