Who was Margaret Roff?

Photo of Margaret Roff in Manchester Town Hall

Margaret Roff (1943-1987) is mentioned several times in this book, so I thought I would collect together her story in a blog post to mark the publishing of chapter 15 (Progress with Equal Opportunities).

On a LGBT History in Manchester timeline she is mentioned in 1985 as being significant for being nominated as “UK’s first openly gay mayor candidate”. I’m not sure that is quite an accurate portrayal, according to Kath’s account, which suggests she wasn’t openly gay when chosen as the mayor candidate and it was the Manchester Evening News that outed her after that nomination.

Due to substantial boundary changes because of changes in demographics, in 1982 it was necessary for the whole of Manchester City Council to be re-elected. The election was on 6 May 1982. Each ward elected three candidates, with the first-placed candidate serving a four-year term of office, expiring in 1986, the second-placed candidate serving a two-year term of office, expiring in 1984, and the third-placed candidate serving a one-year term of office, expiring in 1983. Margaret Roff was the 3rd Labour candidate on the list elected for Rusholme ward, so was up for re-election in 1983. (Source Wikipedia)

Margaret is listed as one of the councillors expelled from the Labour Group in November 1982 when the Right were in control of the Group (see chapter 1 Appendix 1A). She retained her seat on the City Council in the 5 May 1983 election, and when the Left took control of the Council in 1984 she was selected as deputy of the newly created Equal Opportunities Committee on 16th July 1984 (see chapter 5) and she served in that role for 2 years. It’s mentioned in chapter 15 that she stood down from the Council in May 1987.

Sadly a few months after retiring from the Council, in October 1987, Margaret Roff died in a hotel fire in Puerta Cabezas. She had been part of a women’s delegation to Nicaragua and a fire in the hotel in which she was staying led to her death and to serious burns for another member of the delegation, Maggie Walker.

When Committee Room 3 in Manchester Town Hall was refurbished it was agreed to designate it as the Margaret Roff Room and make it ‘woman friendly’ (ie without pictures of old, male lord mayors on the walls). A commemorative picture of Margaret and text is displayed in the room.

The issue about Margaret Roff’s nomination for Lord Mayor is covered in chapter 3, an extract of which is below:

Extract from Chapter 3

At the City Party meeting on 12th November 1985, Margaret Roff was nominated as Lord Mayor for the following year. It was a real surprise to many on the Left that Margaret had put herself forward, since she was a sensitive and private person and the issue was still so high profile. But as the Left were not really interested in the position at all, they were happy to go along with the nomination. The following day the diary page of the MEN covered the decision with a headline – ‘Unknown steps up as city Mayor’ – and went on to say –

“shock waves through the council… little known… not a front runner… full-time councillor.”

The Tories also attacked the decision – ostensibly because she had only been a councillor for three years – but their real motivations, and those of the MEN editor, were suspect.

The MEN reported the issue again on 19th November and inadvertently (or deliberately) outed Margaret with a headline ‘Lesbian rights campaigner to be Lord Mayor’ and said that Winnie Smith might be deputy. This was a personally tragic situation for Margaret as her parents hadn’t known of her sexual orientation before then.

At Council on 9th December 1985, the rules on proportionality were changed (again), so that the Lord Mayor would always be Labour, at least while Labour retained a majority. The MEN reported this on 11th December and made another reference to Margaret Roff taking over the position.

Despite the MEN determinedly sticking to the title ‘Lord Mayor’ and the continued opposition of the Tories to the ‘Chair of Council’ title, the Junior Chamber of Commerce (not noted for its progressive policies) decided to rename their annual parade from ‘Lord Mayor’s parade’ to the ‘Manchester Parade’. They were reported (MEN 19th December) as saying it was “old-fashioned to stick with ‘Lord Mayor’ if the City Council and the holder of the office don’t use the title any more”.

On 20th December, Graham reported again to the City Party on the Lord Mayoralty situation, although he made no reference to Margaret Roff:

“we have to confront the contradiction between the trend towards ‘downgrading’ the status of the position of Lord Mayor on the one hand, and on the other, the gains to be made from a civic head who has some ‘status’ being associated with trade unionists on picket lines, etc.”

Margaret was obviously suffering from all the political attacks from the Tories (and some from the Right of the Labour Party) and decided to back down.

The MEN front page lead story on 23rd December was headlined ‘Lord Mayor bid dropped’.

“Gay rights campaigner will not be next Lord Mayor after all. Cllr Roff … highly controversial choice of the ruling Labour Group… 44 year old Sociology graduate… following the recent deaths of her parents… unhappy circumstances… wants to spend more time with other members of her family”.

On the following day, the MEN reported a claim from the Liberals that:

“Roff [was] forced to withdraw because of hostility within the Labour Party”

But this hostility was from a very small minority of the right-wing.

Editor’s Comments

I am confused by the text above because it says Margaret’s outing in the MEN on 19th November 1985 was the first her parents knew about her sexuality, but on 23rd December there is reference to the recent deaths of her parents. I feel there is more tragedy to this story and I wonder if anyone who knew her can set that record straight.

Further Reading

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