Defining marriage

On the purpose of this voluntary union, the Book of Common Prayer is correct on one of three counts.

Who "owns" marriage? The Archbishop of York thinks that he does, or at least that the church, rather than the government, is its custodian. "It is set in tradition and history and you can't just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are," he warned ministers in an interview with the Telegraph last month. Lynne Featherstone, the equality minister, hit back at the weekend with a piece of her own in the Telegraph. Marriage, she asserted, is owned by "the people"; and that therefore the government, whose job is "to reflect society and to shape the future", has a perfect right to extend the scope of legally-recognised marriage to gay couples.

It's significant that traditionalists are now making what looks like a last stand on the word "marriage" itself, having largely accepted the existence of civil partnership, a phrase invented partly to convince traditionalists that the new status was not the same as marriage. In fact, the distinction is largely a semantic one. There are, perhaps, genuine fears that if the word "marriage" was used, clergy would find themselves faced with legal action if they refused to officiate at gay weddings. But that doesn't seem to have been what Sentamu had at the forefront of his mind when he accused reformers of "trying to change the English language".

Appealing to the "naturalness" or "universality" of exclusively heterosexual marriage, as Dr Sentamu did, is a clever rhetorical strategy, once used by defenders of slavery or racial discrimination. But in truth, the mainstream modern concept of marriage as the romantic union of one man and one woman is neither natural nor universal. It's a fairly modern construct, dating back not much further than the middle of the last century. Rather than being immutable and God-ordained, it is an artefact of developed capitalist societies.

Of course, all known societies have had something that anthropologists recognise as marriage, and in almost all known cases it is a heterosexual institution. The religious conservatives are right about that at least. There are a few exceptions that prove the rule. In some parts of Africa, for example, a woman may take on the attributes of a man, including a wife. She becomes a "female husband" and the legal father of any children born to her wife. But such arrangements are mechanisms to preserve family property (typically when there is no male heir) rather than romantic unions; both partners are expected and indeed encouraged to take heterosexual lovers to satisfy their physical needs.

This points to the reason why legally-defined marriage has, until very recently, been an exclusively heterosexual business. What distingugishes marriage, anthopologically speaking, from other forms of attachment both heterosexual and homosexual is not the relationship of the couple (assuming that they are "a couple") but securing the legitimacy of children.

In most societies, marriage also has an important secondary function of creating bonds between wider kinship groups. In an agricultural society, where land forms the basis of the economy and there is relatively little mobility, either social or geographical, marriage has been the bedrock of society for entirely practical reasons. And these practicalities have produced forms of marriage that romantic modern Westerners, brought up on the myth of the couple, tend to look upon with suspicion or horror: polygamy, arranged marriages, child marriage, levirate (the automatic marriage of a widow to her late husband's brother), dowry systems and so on.

How we got from there to here is a long and complex process. Christianity certainly played a part in it, so it's worth looking briefly at how the church traditionally defined marriage.

According to the Book of Common Prayer there are three purposes for marriage. They are, in order (presumably) of importance: children, sex and companionship. Marriage provides a legitimate and secure setting to raise the next generation, "to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord" as the marriage service has it. This has always been conservatives' favourite argument for preserving the special status of marriage. Nevertheless, a high proportion of children are now born to cohabiting couples and the social stigma on births outside wedlock has largely gone. As for the second reason, ("a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication") I would only observe that the number of people who insist on marriage as the only proper setting for sex is now fairly small, and the number who rigorously practice such an ideal is considerably smaller still.

Instead, the stress now falls heavily on the third of the traditional marriage service's stated aims, companionship, what the Prayer Book rather beautifully describes as "the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity." Marriage is now less about creating a family than about celebrating and cementing the relationship of the couple. It is about love and commitment; and it is about two people (or, in an increasing number of cases, about the two people and the children they already have).

Marriage is now an essentially voluntary union that expresses the couple's commitment to one another, to sexual fidelity (usually), to children (optionally), to their religious traditions (sometimes) and to social expectation (decreasingly). To conservatives, marriage serves as a source of stability. The individual commitments of couples still form, they would argue, the basis for a stronger society as a whole. But that is not because the couples are heterosexual; it is because they are couples. And the past few decades have revealed, to the surprise of many, that gay couples can be as traditionally-minded and conventional as straight ones. Why else would they want to get married?

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Lessons for Tooting: how to be a by-election candidate

Prepare for microwave meals, enormous piles of ironing, and visits from helpful MPs. 

Last week I visited Tooting, where the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London has led to a by-election. It was my pleasure to go out campaigning with our Labour candidate, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan and, as the product of a by-election myself, we found that we had many things in common. Both of us worked in the NHS, Rosena as an A&E junior doctor and myself as a clinical scientist. Both of us had children and both of us were local Councillors.

Talking with Rosena and seeing the tough campaign that she had embarked upon made me reflect on my experiences as a by-election candidate in 2014. Being a parliamentary candidate in a by-election is an intense, exhausting and totally disruptive experience. I was elected as MP for Heywood & Middleton in a by-election in October 2014 following the sad and sudden death of the highly respected Jim Dobbin, who had held the seat since 1997.

Nothing can prepare a candidate for the relentless pressure of a by-election campaign. Before I submitted my CV to the Labour Party for candidate selection I led a fairly busy life as an NHS scientist, a workplace Unite Rep and a local councillor, not to mention looking after a home and family.

Just five days after I’d submitted that CV I’d been down to London for interview, taken part in a gruelling hustings with the other shortlisted candidates and been selected as Labour’s candidate for Heywood & Middleton. Everything happened incredibly quickly, the hustings were on a Monday evening and on Tuesday I found myself back at work in the lab, explaining to my manager about my sudden change in circumstances and the fact that I was about to be plunged into a by-election campaign.

As being a candidate is a full time job, I took unpaid leave from work in order to devote myself to it. I worked with a great campaign team and we quickly established an office in Heywood which was to become my second home for the duration of the campaign. It was a short, relentless campaign, squeezed into just four weeks.

My days became one long round of doorknocking, appointments, phone calls, visits and the dreaded media interviews. I do actually enjoy campaigning and the best part of the by-election for me was talking to people on their doorsteps, listening to their concerns, fears and aspirations and hoping, if elected as their MP, that I would be able to represent their views effectively in Parliament.

Maintaining a home and family took a back seat for the duration, the pile of ironing just got higher and many microwaved meals were consumed. At one point I did consider paying someone to do the ironing but rationalised the whole issue on the grounds that if I did get elected, that my family would have to get used to me not being around for part of the week, so effectively this was good preparation for them.

But on the subject of food, one piece of advice I would give to any by-election candidate is to make sure, when you are handed your packed daily schedule, that it includes meal breaks. It’s easy to get immersed in the relentless pace of the campaign and with all the pavement pounding and rushing around it's important to keep energy levels up. During the four week campaign I managed to lose about a stone simply due to irregular hours, snatched meals and running around.

Another piece of advice I’d give is to take some time off if you can. No-one is indispensable, not even the candidate, and you won’t be missed from one doorknocking session if what you really need to do is take a break and recharge your batteries. The campaign juggernaut will carry on without you for a while. I didn’t realise quite how stressed I had become until I managed to hit the school bus whilst dropping my son off, causing a huge amount of damage to my car yet minimal damage to the bus. It was at that point that my campaign team decided that I needed someone to drive me around; it certainly relieved a lot of the pressure and it was some consolation to talk to other by-election candidates afterwards and find out that they’d had similar experiences during their campaigns.

Quite simply, the by-election experience is extraordinary, so don’t expect to carry on with a normal life whilst in the midst of it.

Another issue to cope with is the media interest that by-elections generate. There you are, relatively unknown one minute, then suddenly you’re being doorstepped by journalists and MediaCity in Salford becomes all too familiar. Also, because my seat was being targeted by UKIP there was an additional amount of media interest, and whilst I had dealt with local press and radio before in my role as a trade union rep, this was on a completely different scale.

However, I soon learned which journalists to trust and which ones to give a wide berth and that knowledge has certainly helped me in my subsequent career as an MP. 

My UKIP opponent and his seemingly all-male team subjected me to a relentless campaign of harassment via Twitter, using hashtags like #labourscum and generally trying to undermine me personally, professionally and in terms of competence. When I became the MP for Heywood & Middleton, I spoke with a senior Labour MP about social media harassment and her words have resonated with me ever since.

She said to me “Don’t take any social media criticism personally – they don’t know you. As a woman, they will always question your competence. That’s the tactic they use to undermine you but just remember they know nothing about you.” I wish I’d had that conversation during the by-election rather than afterwards but it’s good advice and has certainly helped me since to rise above the usually unwarranted criticism and abuse that social media can generate.

One thing that the by-election candidate gets used to pretty quickly is the visits from other MPs. At first I was quite star struck and couldn’t believe that heroes of mine like Dennis Skinner were turning up to Heywood to help me campaign. It really was a great morale boost for everyone, including the campaign team and all the volunteers, to get so much support from Labour MPs. My partner still likes to tell the story of giving Liam Byrne a lift to Castleton station in his little red van and it was great to have visits from Harriet Harman, Caroline Flint, Yvette Cooper and Gloria De Piero, amongst many others.

Ed Miliband visited the constituency a couple of times and it really did give the campaign a boost to have the Labour Party Leader out on the streets of Heywood and Middleton. Residents were coming out if their houses to say hello and to ask questions and the majority of them were very excited to see him. I remember doing an event about access to healthcare at one of our community centres with Ed and just before he was due to go out and speak he asked if anyone had any mints. I was able to supply him with a couple of extra-strong mints and remember him saying approvingly “A candidate who comes prepared”. So further advice for would be candidates – always carry some mints with you as you never know who might ask you for one!

I did get to the stage with so many MPs turning up of just asking unfamiliar faces what their constituency was. I found it was safer to just assume that unknown volunteers were MPs, as that way no-one would be offended. However, some good friendships were forged in those campaigning days and it helped when I arrived in Parliament that many faces were already familiar and were there to welcome me.

One of my favourite moments from the campaign was when Jim Murphy arrived with his infamous Irn-Bru crates and his microphone, which he installed in Middleton Gardens, standing on his crates and taking questions from shoppers and passers-by. I saw a master in action, taking on hecklers and gradually working them round to common ground and areas that they could agree on. Jim also gave me some advice when I arrived in Parliament, which was basically “Don’t listen to any advice”, useful up to a point because, as a new MP, I was feeling bombarded and quite overwhelmed with information.

It is quite a special thing, turning up in Parliament as the product of a by-election. No first day at school bonding with all the other new kids, which MPs elected in a General Election enjoy. No, being a by-election MP is like that time your parents moved house mid term and you suddenly ended up at a new school where everyone knew everyone else and you were most definitely the newbie. Which isn’t to say that people were unfriendly, far from it, but having seen the influx of new politicians following the 2015 General Election and the way that they supported and encouraged each other I realised what a different experience I’d had.

Such is the very special nature of being a by-election MP that there was even a small group formed by the time I arrived, of MPs elected in by-elections. It was good to have this small group for support in Parliament and to feel that there was a group I belonged to, having been denied that “Class of 2010” label and that particular sense of identity.

Since my by-election in 2014 I’ve welcomed the “Class of 2015” and also by-election MPs Jim McMahon, Gill Furniss and Chris Elmore. I hope soon to be able to welcome Dr Rosena Allin-Khan as the MP for Tooting. No doubt there will be more over the course of this Parliament and we will all share that common bond of having survived the frenetic, hectic hurly-burly of a by-election. Maybe it’s time to resurrect that by-election group of MPs.