Saturday, June 22, 2024

Liberal Democrat candidate for Reading West and Mid Berkshire

Our Democracy Reporter, Niki Hinman, has invited all the candidates in the Newbury and Reading West & Mid Berkshire to answer her questions. We will be publishing the candidates responses as they are received.

Yes, I’m trans.  But I am just a person who buys the milk and puts the bins out’

‘I want to do more for education than I do for equality’

Helen Belcher wants to be the next MP in the new seat of Reading West and Mid Berkshire.

She already has a prominent perch in the political menagerie.

She’s a well-known activist and campaigner for trans rights.  In fact, she was awarded an OBE for her efforts to improve trans people’s lives this year. She’s an active councillor on Wiltshire Council and also sits on Corsham Town Council. And on top of all that, she has twice run to be the MP for Chippenham.  And twice lost to Conservative Michele Donelan.

Now she’s heading back east, and back to her roots in Burghfield Common and Reading to stand as the Lib Dem candidate for the newly-formed constituency of Reading West and Mid Berkshire.

Local Democracy Reporter Niki Hinman went to meet her.

Helen Belcher is the aunty version of avuncular.

Charming, gently spoken, but with a steely glint in her eye, and on initial contact, someone you would want to have a cup of tea, a slice of cake and a good natter with.

We meet halfway between Trowbridge and Reading – in a coffee shop in Hungerford.

I am pleased she has ordered a buttered scone with her cappuccino, and greets me with a big, friendly smile.

Helen Belcher was born in Battle Hospital in Reading, and moved to Burghfield Common aged seven. She went to Reading School as a boarder – but was horribly bullied.

“It was awful,” said Helen.

“I was a small kid, academic and not sporty.  A funny surname.  But you feel guilty because your parents are paying.  I learned to hide in the library.”

She went to university in Leeds to study maths and computing – leading to working in and setting up a business in IT years later.

“I trained to be a teacher and taught for two years, but I left teaching as I couldn’t cope with the politics – which is ironic isn’t it!”

Helen transitioned in 2004, and was already married with children.

She is still married.

“I am still with my wife and have my family around, so I wanted to help people like me more.  We are just people and have to go and buy the milk and put the bins out.

“You are always trans,” she explains. “There is a difference between knowing, and then being able to do something about it.

“But 2003/4/5 was a tough time. I was unemployable for a few years as no one would take on this weird-looking person.”

“I am lucky, but realised many others are not, so I set about trying to improve the lives of other trans people.”

Helen has been featured in The Independent on Sunday’s Rainbow List for her work on LGBT issues, particularly those affecting the trans community.

In 2010 she co-founded Trans Media Watch, a trans-awareness charity.

In 2012, Belcher gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, an investigation into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. She gave evidence again in 2015 for the Women and Equalities Select Committee‘s inquiry into trans equality and in 2017 for the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Human Rights’ inquiry into free speech.

There are 23 trans or non-binary people listed in political positions in the UK on Wikipedia.

But only one MP.  Jamie Wallis, the Conservative member for Bridgend.  So Helen won’t be the first, if she wins.

But Helen, 60, says she is ready for a bigger stage now.

The party is clear that the fight for the new seat  – in between Newbury MP Laura Farris and former Reading West MP Alok Sharma’s old seat – is a “two-horse race” after this May’s local elections, which made the Liberal Democrats the largest party across Berkshire.

The Tories have yet to front someone up, but rumour has it that will happen in January.

Further rumour suggests Labour may not contest it.

“I got involved initially to help make trans peoples lives better.  Now I think we are in such a state that everyone’s lives need to be better. That’s what I want to be as an MP.

“I have a whole bunch of campaigning experience I can bring from my trans activist work, talking to MPs, Peers, journalists and the like. OK a lot of that is because I’m trans but it has been good experience.“

General election dates of April, September and October are being touted in political circles.

“I know Mid Berks.  It’s home for me.  It is an interesting seat, as it’s lost that whole Labour bit of Reading.  David Rendell used to be the Lib Dem MP for Newbury so having Lib Dems in this area is not new.

“Our challenge in the blue bits is to give them a reason to vote for us.

“We have all sorts of issues.  There are no bank branches here for example.

“The River Pang is in a terrible state and we have Burghfield and Mortimer sewage being pumped in at Holybrook.  That’s just wrong.  So we need somebody in there to say ‘oi – sort that out’.

“Education is important to me.  I want to do more for education than I do for equality.  Ofsted is a broken system, the national curriculum can squash teacher’s innovation, things like music and arts are being cut, the funding of schools is a mess.  So as you can see, none of these things are related to me being trans.

“I haven’t defined myself in that way.  Others have.  But I have been effective of taking advantage of that. I concentrate on the issues that matter to people.

“I happen to be trans.  I can’t get away from that but it doesn’t define me.  I want to be elected as a Liberal Democrat.”