How we can halt Putin's war on gays

Putin’s war on gays is a noxious combination of the authoritarianism of the former USSR and the social conservatism of the Church. And we must keep paying attention to it.

First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist”: so begins Martin Niemöller’s haunting critique of the German intellectuals who looked on while the Nazis rose to power. Who, 80 years later, is speaking out while Russia comes for its LGBT population?

There’s clearly a voice for gay rights within Russia, as harrowing images of bloodied activists are becoming increasingly common. Since Stephen Fry’s impassioned open letter to David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, calling for the fastapproaching Winter Olympics to be pulled out of Sochi, protesters have been piling pressure on the Games’ sponsors to withdraw funding. One online petition, demanding that Coca-Cola speak out against Russia’s anti-gay laws, gained 350,000 signatures in October.

It’s hard to say whether Fry’s letter acted as a catalyst for the ongoing condemnation of Russia’s right to host the Games but his comparison of the crackdown on gay rights with anti-Semitic legislation passed by the Nazis was certainly powerful. Comparisons to Nazism are usually idle and misplaced, but in this case likening the dead-eyed Putin to Hitler couldn’t be more apt.

In Russia, supposedly a progressive democracy, new anti-gay legislation is opening the way for a state in which LGBT people are tortured to death, while the authorities do nothing. In a series of bills pushed through the Duma, Putin has criminalised “homosexual propaganda”.

You need only to Google Putin and take a look at his devastatingly camp shirtless photos to see the irony in this (in Russia anyone who “looks gay” – cough – is committing an arrestable offence). With their perpetrators safe from prosecution, homophobic attacks have become routine in Russia.

Many of these are carried out by neo-Nazi gangs who are leading a campaign called “Occupy Paedophilia”. (Russia has a bizarre history of confusing love between members of the same sex with child molestation; in 1933, Stalin outlawed homosexuality for this very reason. Mind you, this is a man who also thought that Holland and the Netherlands were two separate countries.)

Homosexuality was first outlawed by Tsar Peter the Great in the 18th century. It was decriminalised by Lenin shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, then recriminalised by Stalin. In 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin decriminalised homosexuality for the second time. The common factor in Russia’s intermittent scapegoating of LGBT people is a desire to buddy up to the Orthodox Church – even in the case of Stalin, some historians have argued. Putin’s war on gays is a noxious combination of the authoritarianism of the former USSR and the social conservatism of the Church.

All calls to withdraw the Winter Olympics from Sochi have been ignored and the games are set to open in February next year. When it comes to gay rights abuses, Russia is in effect a truculent toddler being handed a lollipop by a dishevelled and jaded parent. We fought, we lost.

On the other hand, the international movement against homophobia is now more vocal than ever. As Desmond Tutu said, in response to Russia’s legislated gay hate, “I’d rather go to hell than worship a homophobic God.”

Gay rights activists march in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg. Image: Getty

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.