The workplace, where you go to work, learn, live, and occasionally love, was in the spotlight this morning at LGBT charity Stonewall’s annual Workplace Conference, as shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper gave a frank speech about the overwhelming need for “celebration of diversity” in the workplace.

Her speech refused “tolerance” and “respect” as the ultimate goal to achieve in attitudes towards gay people in the workplace – where 800,000 have witnessed physical homophobic bullying in the past five years and two million have witnessed verbal homophobic bullying – further calling for “the celebration of diversity that makes us strong as a country.”

And shrewdly, Cooper, who is also shadow equalities minister, sharply shot the fox of those with fingers poised over the ‘hypocrite’ button, by admitting early on in her speech our politicians’ need to put their own house in diverse order as well as advising the private sector, and rest of the public sector.

She revealed to a room of almost 600 delegates, many of whom were representatives from big corporate firms, that in the greenroom beforehand, Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill had been challenging her about Parliament’s own record on this conference’s subject.

“We don’t have enough openly lesbian and gay MPs,” she told the hall, “we don’t have enough being selected to run for Parliament. We have a lot of work to do.”

Cooper also admitted that increasing representation in Parliament is a “long journey” and championed Labour’s use of a women’s shortlist to promote more women into Parliament in 1997. Yet she emphasised the importance of “the issue about how you get people into Parliament in the first place, and to get more gay people to come forward and stand as candidates and councillors,” and said the Labour Party is working on this, particularly LGBT Labour.

“It’s [Parliament has] long been an un-family friendly place,” she remarked, “When I was first elected, there was a gun club, but no nursery!”

There was spontaneous applause at her example of the abolition of Section 28 as a big achievement in politics regarding this subject, as it was “so damaging for teenagers” as well as “the impact it had on teachers and fears they felt – not being able to come out or answer pupils’ questions.” She also listed allowing openly LGBT armed forces members and supporting in Parliament the “important piece of legislation that we are debating now on equal marriage.”

Summerskill also had to answer for his own workplace, giving us some statistics on how far Stonewall’s workforce has come in increasing representation:

“We now have almost 55% women staff, up from 30% in 2005, 17% disabled staff, up from 5% in 2005, and 26% heterosexual staff, up from zero… If you’re thinking of employing a member of heterosexual staff in your workplace, they can be very good!”

Cooper’s speech targeted the audience of delegates from big companies by focusing on the “value” a happy and confident workforce can add to a company: “The workforce is one of the most important assets an employer has…[they] need employees who can get on and do the job.

“It’s far more than discrimination, it’s about positive confidence… It’s about who you can recruit and it’s about value in the workplace too.”

A smartly practical conclusion to draw on an emotive subject. Let’s see if Labour brings this business-like approach to the continuing gay marriage debate.

Tags: Diversity, Gay Marriage, Stonewall, Workplace, Yvette Cooper