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  • T Southwell

A Coffee With Helen Belcher

Helen Belcher is the Lib Dem candidate for West Reading and Mid-Berkshire in the upcoming general election. If you’d like to know a bit more about them then feel free to do a bit of googling but, in summary, Helen is currently a councillor in Wiltshire. She grew up in Reading before moving to Leeds, where she studied mathematics and systems engineering. She’s one of the co-founders of ‘Trans Media Watch’ - a charity that works to improve coverage of trans people in media - and was awarded an OBE in 2023 for her services to the trans community.

Helen kindly agreed to come and have a chat over some coffee, which I initially forgot to record. She reminded me at a certain point to start recording - which I then did. Here’s what I managed to get of our conversation.


T. Southwell - Thank you so much for taking the time to come and talk with us. I guess, first off, would you like to introduce yourself and talk a bit about what you do?

H. Belcher - Oh okay, wide question. I’m Helen Belcher, I do a number of different things. I have worked to try and make trans people’s lives better for the last fifteen years or so, and as part of that I’ve got into mainstream politics. I’m a councillor in Wiltshire and hoping to be the MP for Reading West and Mid-Berkshire after the next election.

T.S - We did touch on this a bit earlier, but regarding transphobia in media - in society at large - there was a lot of debate surrounding the Lib Dems’ definition of transphobia that got updated last year. How do you feel about it? I know we touched on it a bit but there’s this sort of fine line between “freedom of speech” and just, well, being transphobic when it comes to gender critical views.

H. B - So, nice to start with the easy stuff? Excellent. Okay, one of the things I do is head up a group called ‘Trans Actual’ and they crowdsourced their definition of transphobia three or four years ago. So the definition we have on our website is driven by trans people - trans and non-binary people - and it attempts to show what might be examples of transphobic behaviour and show what might underpin it. So experiences have formed that definition. The Liberal Democrats adopted a version of that definition and have then dropped it on some legal advice. I’m not sure where the party is, at the moment, with the definition. I’ve spoken to a lawyer who basically said they’re not entirely sure why we need a definition at all because it’s about people’s behaviour towards other people, which is a fair point - and I guess that’s a large part of things underpinning the equality act or hate crime stuff - where what people’s motivations are shouldn’t excuse their actions, or if they’ve displayed hateful behaviour towards somebody it shouldn’t only be a crime if it falls into one of these set categories. So I think it’s pointless to say that we don’t have a problem with transphobia inside the party - but I think it’s actually pretty well contained and I don’t think we have it as rampantly as other parties do. That’s not to give us a clean bill of health, it’s just to say that our leadership is completely on board and is aware of the problem and I think, like society as a whole, is struggling to know how to address it. So in terms of how that’s driven by media coverage - I think an awful lot of it is driven by media coverage. What’s happened in the media has empowered a group of people to try and force their beliefs on other people, as opposed to just letting other people get on and live their lives - and I know they would say the same the other way around - but just because you have a belief doesn’t mean that it’s somehow special, or it excuses you from the impacts of expressing that belief. What we’re seeing at the moment is a group of people with a belief who are trying to push for it to be consequence free. And that would be a very odd exemption - no belief is exempt from other laws within society. I won’t do what I usually do in private conversations but you can believe that, say, the Earth is flat and the moon landings are therefore fake. And that’s fine, you can go and believe that. But if you then use that as an excuse to go and harass people like Buzz Aldrin whenever they make an appearance then, well, no that’s harassment and that is a criminal offence in the UK - therefore you should be prosecuted for that. Just because you have a belief doesn’t mean that you are immune from other aspects of the law. And in the media we’re seeing treating trans lives as up for debate, not putting trans people’s positions forward, misrepresenting what trans people are saying and what our experiences are, and basically driving a narrative that, at its heart, wants to drive us out of society.

T.S - Yeah, it is tough. I guess one issue is sort of intent. It’s hard to draw strict lines with harassment. Like if someone is repeatedly misgendering you - and it’s clear that their intentions are malicious - it’s hard to do something about it.

H.B - Yeah that is hard. But then actually a lot of law surrounding things like stalking and harassment understand that the perpetrator might be masked in particular ways. Then the issue is the understanding of authorities - how they understand how particular experiences are masked, how particular actions are masked. It’s not easy.

T.S - Going back to what you said earlier about the Lib Dems having transphobia more contained than other parties, I think that a lot of queer people - myself included - are just so angry and disappointed at the Labour Party. And, well, the Tories aren’t really an option. So, yeah, I guess my question to you is: are the Lib Dems a party that will strive to support LGBT+ people, and within the party have you yourself experienced much bigotry? Has it been much of an issue during your career?

H.B - Okay - the leadership is entirely set on the LGBT+ community. Ed Davey, the current leader, was the MP who moved the repeal of Section 28 and has been nothing but supportive of me. I also have a good link through to Lord Newby, who is our leader in the House of Lords, and again there’s a good relationship there. So I don’t have any doubt that our leadership, and actually pretty much all of our MPs, are totally supportive. They get it, it’s part of our DNA - to believe people when they tell you who they are. It’s part of our constitution that we shouldn’t be enslaved by conformity or poverty. We were the first party to have an openly trans mayor of a city - way back in the 70s or 80s. I stood with the full support of the party in the last two general elections in not-quite-a-target-seat but a very high-profile seat. So, from that perspective I don’t have any doubt. You look at our party conference and all of these “gender critical” things just get roundly defeated. So, what they try and do is try and mask it in different terms, but we have a group of people who know exactly what they’re trying to do so they never get very far. From that perspective, I don’t have any qualms with our party. It’s unfair of me, really, to comment on Labour. What I would say is that I’ve worked for over fifteen years on a cross-party basis. And we had a cross-party consensus - until the Conservatives broke it in 2019. Now, that is their right but I’d like some explanation as to the sudden about turn because they didn’t ever stand for election on it - Johnson didn’t put anything in his manifesto about it. So to turn around and say that they have a mandate to go and do all of this “biological sex” nonsense is untrue - it’s

completely untrue. And we see elsewhere in the world that when people stand on anti-trans platforms they get roundly defeated. It’s not popular within our society because it’s not, at least in our country, it’s not something that people are actually worried about. People are worried about: can they heat their houses? Can they feed themselves? Are they going to be able to get a GP appointment if they need one? Are they going to be able to get to work? Are they going to have a job - what’s their job security? What’s the environment around them like? Hospital appointments - if they get seriously ill how long are they going to have to wait? All of these things are what they’re worried about. Trans people are not within that group because, well, most people don’t think they’ve ever met one. Out of the thousands of people I’ve spoken to in the past eight years it has come up about three times. So, if they want to fight an election on it then it will be brutal - it will be horrible for the people involved - and they will get absolutely wiped out.

T.S - Yeah, I guess that’s what we’re hoping for. I’m sorry if I’m asking a lot of questions about LGBT+ topics. I guess it’s just important to me as a trans person and you have a unique perspective-

H.B - Not unique - I’m not the only trans candidate, and I’m not the only trans candidate in the Lib Dems either.

T.S - Yeah, sorry. A more informed perspective. Last one. I was just going to ask: the Lib Dems don’t seem to have a clear policy on how to tackle trans healthcare. I know that in larger terms it’s not a massive proportion of the general population but within the trans community it’s a big issue. We’re just seeing waitlists increasing and increasing, and it’s just so difficult for trans people to get healthcare.

H.B - Yeah, it’s a big issue. I’m not entirely sure whether we have a policy on it or not. The fact that I’m not sure indicates that it’s not a big issue even within the party. Again, you tie it into the whole issue with the NHS and difficulties getting GP appointments anyways. I mean, I’ve been referred to an ENT consultant and I’m on a waiting list - the GP has told me it’ll be at least a year until I see an ENT specialist. So all over the NHS we’ve got, what, 7.8-million people on hospital waiting lists? It’s the biggest number there’s ever been. That’s more than ten-percent of the adult population of the country - one in eight adults on a waiting list. It’s no wonder that has an impact on our economy. In terms of trans healthcare, I’ll tell you what I’d like to see. And that’s a system very much like the one NHS Wales has put in where you have sets of GPs with a special interest - a specialism - who are willing to work together on a local basis, who are willing to see trans people, and prescribe for them, and monitor them. Because the NHS has tried to treat this as a specialist issue whereas most of the time it’s just a hormonal issue and making sure that someone’s mental health is ok. And GPs are good at that - GPs can do that - if they have the right training. So we’re not providing sufficient training, we’ve got this mindset that it’s a “specialist” piece of medicine, whereas NHS Wales have turned that on its head and they’ve cut their waiting lists down to around a year. And that’s what we’ve been pushing for across the UK - not necessarily the Lib Dems but as trans people - we’ve been pushing for that across the UK since the 1970s. And NHS Wales has shown that it works, other places around the world have shown that it works. We’re not expecting trans people to take an entire day off work and travel to London, Manchester, or wherever. The waiting lists at the moment, just to see somebody for a first appointment, are horrific. There are two ways to measure a waiting list. The way the NHS does is people we have seen for the first time today, when were they referred? And most of those people were referred in 2017 or 2018 - most people have had to wait at least five years to get to that point. The other way is to look at the rate they are clearing appointments - and at their current rate, someone did the maths on it, that is about fifty years. Fifty years. That is clearly untenable. Something clearly has to change. We know that the GP model is more efficient - and it’s cheaper because you’re not requiring psychiatrists for every single person. Because, let's be honest, most trans people do not need a psychiatric evaluation because being trans is not a mental illness. Being trans in our society - the way society treats us - may cause stress or depression but that’s very different to saying that being trans is a mental illness. But that’s just general life. So if we can sort out society and get back on the track of actually listening to the issues that affect us and trying to address those - and a better way of approaching healthcare - then we can sort an awful lot of the problems out very cheaply and very quickly. And so I can’t see that our party would stand in the way of that.

T.S - So, do you - or the Lib Dems at least - think that focusing more on an NHS reform as a whole is important and trans healthcare will benefit as a result of that?

H.B - I don’t know enough about it but something has to change. We have shortages of nurses and doctors are everywhere across the NHS, so we have to find a better way of doing this. We’ve had years of underfunding of the NHS, years where insufficient doctors and nurses have been trained, the Conservatives upped the numbers this year - conveniently in time for an election. Nurses will take four years to feed through the system anyway, and that still won’t be enough to resolve the staffing issues we have now - let alone those that arise in the next four years - and doctors will take at least seven years. So these are long-term fixes that are needed. Some of that we could do with a better relationship with our European neighbours because we lost a lot of NHS workers who came from the EU. They decided because we weren’t being very friendly towards them that they’d go back home where they were valued. So we have to change our attitude. 

T.S - So you’re running for MP in the Reading West and Mid Berkshire constituency, which is a new constituency. In this area around the uni you’ve got Reading West and Mid-Berkshire, Reading Central, and Earley and Woodley which encompasses most of the campus area. So the student population will be split between those. Some of your campaign material looks at the local district elections held this year and the results of those. I guess with the new constituency boundaries it’s a bit harder to tell, but do you think that within your constituency the Lib Dems are the only party that can beat the Tories in the next election?

H.B - Yes, in the Reading West and Mid-Berkshire constituency. If you look at the real votes cast in the 2023 local elections the Conservatives got 35%, we got 34%, and Labour got 20%. Now that tells its own story. The new seat is not Reading West - Reading West had a whole chunk that went right into the middle of Reading. So those Labour wards are no longer in the seat. Instead, you’ve got a whole bunch of Conservative and Lib Dem villages to the west. Some of whom have not seen a Labour candidate in fifty years. They won’t vote Labour. They don’t have a history there. Some people might, but they’re not used to it. Newbury, the old constituency which used to go all the way to where I lived in Burghfield, had a Lib Dem MP from 1997 to 2005. So we have that history. I can remember back in the 70s that Newbury was one of the few seats that Liberals almost won. So there’s that history there. Again, if you look at the number of councillors we have in that seat - we have eleven and the Conservatives have nine. We have almost the same number of votes. How many councillors have Labour got? I think four. We’re finding people who are quite excited as they’ve always voted Labour tactically in the past to keep the Conservatives out and now they can vote for a Lib Dem candidate with a real chance of winning. Personally, I haven’t come across that many Labour people. What I say - that I hate saying because we should have a better electoral system - is that if you vote Labour it’s just one less vote the Conservatives need to get to win. If you want the Conservatives out - we don’t know who their candidate is yet - if you really want them out then vote for me because I’m the viable alternative. What we should have, we haven’t so we have to play the game, is an electoral system where people can vote for what they want. To do that we need a proportional system, we need seats to match votes in a much better way.

T.S - I think that some people talked about the Electoral Calculus forecasts for your constituency but, ultimately, they’re just predictions.

H.B - Electoral Calculus is just a mathematical model, and they will make certain sets of assumptions. Electoral Calculus publishes what they predict for wards. You look at Aldermaston ward, right in the heart of the seat, it returns a Conservative councillor. It’s got a high Labour vote apparently, I’m not sure how they worked that out because they haven’t had a Labour candidate in years. They put Labour as a close second - really? It’s only as good as the data you put in and the assumptions you make. I used to be in computing - a computer program is only as good as the set of data you put in and the set of assumptions you make. I think there was one recent Electoral Calculus model that had Labour winning Lib Dem seats all over the place.

T.S - Yeah, I think 2017 - or one of the predictions a few years back - was a really awful year for their predictions. It happens sometimes.

H.B - Yeah, and there are much better ways to look at things. Actually looking at socioeconomic profiles and then looking at how those profiles are likely to vote actually gives a better understanding. Reading West and Mid-Berkshire is actually quite an affluent seat, there’s quite rich people in it and lots of very educated people in it. And the more educated you are the more likely you are to vote Lib Dem actually. It would be quite remarkable if Labour came through to win the seat - I can’t see how that could happen. They’d have to work from a 20% vote share in a quarter of a seat - you can’t win a seat from that. 

On the topic of strategic voting...

Tactical voting.

T.S - Tactical voting, yeah. Voting basically against Tories. I know a lot of students, myself included, have voted like that in the past.

H.B - It’s a shame because you’re having to try and vote out what you don’t want - and that’s not how politics is supposed to work.

T.S - It’s not. It’s a cynical way of viewing things. So, to move away from that and more towards voting for what you actually want as opposed to what you don’t want; what positive changes do you want to see in your constituency specifically that will affect young people?

H.B - Okay, good question. We have a lot of new housing in the seat, and a lot of new housing potential within the seat. We do need more housing, but what we need is housing that people can actually afford. I was talking to someone this morning and we were both saying that we don’t think we could afford the modern prices to buy the houses that we have - so how are young people supposed to do that? We need much, much better means of getting appropriate housing built. It needs to be energy efficient, it needs to have good access to public transport, and it needs to cope with how people live their lives now not how people lived their lives fifty, sixty, seventy years ago. So I would like to see Reading Borough Council and West Berkshire Council starting to cooperate on where to put these housing developments because at the moment they’re being squished into quite a narrow space. And how we can either work with developers or put pressure on them, change the law, so that you have to take into consideration the social impact of the communities you are building in. So that’s one. 

In terms of employment, actually Reading is quite a good centre for employment - there’s lots of employment potential here. The issue is the cost of living here which is, again, driven by the shortage of housing but also our proximity to London. We only address that by promoting other areas for development. We had the discussion on the weekend about HS2 and the North. I lived in Leeds for ten years and in Glasgow for five. I’m aware of what these places are like and what we could be doing to promote places other than London for industry and business. Especially with modern technology - with the pandemic you had Zoom and, yes, video conferencing has its limits but you can do an awful lot working from home. So it's about making sure that we have appropriate and proper economic opportunities for young people around the country.

In terms of environment, we need to put much more investment into renewable energy and start looking at alternative forms of renewable energy - tidal, hydro, and so on. But also we need to be protecting our environment. When I was growing up in the 70s here the River Pang, we were taught about it three years running, was a rare chalk stream with only around 160 in the world and we have one right on our doorstep. Therefore it needs to be protected. It has been devastated, there hasn’t been appropriate regulation of our public utilities. We’ve been paying lots of dividends to shareholders and then we’re expected to pay again? Hold on, that’s what the money was meant to be used for in the first place. So we need much more effective regulation of our utilities, we need to persuade and invest in green energy, and actually we have a lot of intelligence in our area that should help us do that. Reading’s history as a university is as an agricultural specialist. When my mum came to Reading she worked in Shinfield for the university. There’s things that we can do to encourage universities’ research in those areas. The University of Reading does a pretty good job in those areas and working with local businesses but there are other ways we can encourage that.

Transport is always a problem. We have Purley, for example, which is a terminus on the bus route. So if you want to go from Purley to Pangbourne you have to either get a taxi or go back into Tilehurst and catch a train. If you’re infirm, if you have mobility problems, there are no lifts at Tilehurst station so you can’t do that. So why are the buses stopping in Purley? Why can’t we get through buses?

We don’t have a bank branch in the constituency. There’s a number of businesses in Tilehurst, and Pangbourne, and Theale. It would be useful to have some sort of banking hub if we can’t get a physical bank. But there’s something about reminding banks of their roles in our society, that they aren’t just profit machines, so I’d like to see much more emphasis on the corporate-social responsibility and ensuring that businesses know they have a role to play as well. Is that enough?

T.S - Yeah, no, that’s a great answer.

H.B - I’ve got to work on getting it down to two minutes.

T.S - Yeah, well you can try now I guess. So I’d just like to give you an opportunity to end with a closing statement, maybe end with a really catchy tagline or something. So, yeah, just in summary, in like thirty seconds - why should people vote for you?

H.B - Oh you’re going for the voting one, okay. So, vote for me because I will be a distinctive local voice who understands the area, grew up in the area, still has close links throughout the area, and wants to see it succeed - but wants to see it succeed along with the rest of the country. We need innovative solutions - my background is as a systems analyst and a teacher - so education, and listening, and getting things across is absolutely core to my heart - it’s the core of me. I’d love the opportunity to serve the communities I know and love. 

T.S - Thank you, what a great way to end it.


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