Marriage Guidance

The debate on same sex marriage has so far been dominated by its opponents.

More than half a million people have now signed the Coalition For Marriage's petition against the government's proposal to permit same-sex marriage.  For a campaign that didn't even exist a few months ago, it's an extraordinary achievement.  A rival petition supporting the equalisation of the marriage laws has attracted barely a tenth the number of signatures.

There have been signs in recent days that the campaign to prevent what had seemed a fait accompli is beginning to scent victory, at least in the battle for public opinion. The government remains committed to the reform, but in the wake of the coalition parties' poor showing in the local elections there has been a notable lack of enthusiasm for it, especially on the Tory benches.  Nadine Dorries spoke for more of her colleagues than usual the other day when she described same sex marriage the other day as a policy "pursued by the metro elite gay activists" that needs to be "put into the same bin" as Lords reform. "Gay marriage" has become a symbol of everything that the Conservative right hates about the coalition and about David Cameron's modernising agenda.  

There is, in fact, a persuasive logic to Cameron's conservative case for same-sex marriage.  With its history and moral weight, the word "marriage" has a magic that the newly invented status of civil partnership lacks.  To invite gay couples to participate in the institution is not only to offer them full acceptance (the "progressive" part).  It is also to ask them to embrace the traditional, and conservative, moral obligations of marriage.  At the same time, opening marriage to same-sex couples might give it new appeal to younger, liberal-minded heterosexuals currently suspicious of its historic baggage.

But the case has not been well made.  It doesn't help that the proposals themselves are illogical and badly thought-through, and would raise more anomalies than they solve.  By closing down options, for example refusing to countenance allowing heterosexual couples to enter civil partnerships, the March consultation document missed an opportunity for a genuine national debate on the nature of marriage and the state's role in registering it.  Declaring the policy already decided also generated a predictable backlash.  The impression of arrogance was not helped by Lynne Featherstone, the Lib Dem minister responsible, offering a "cast-iron guarantee" that the change would be introduced before the next election (a promise she repeated yesterday).  

Instead, opponents of changing the law have dominated the discussion.  Their greatest success has been in portraying the government's proposals as involving a fundamental redefinition of marriage.  Concentrating on the word rather than the substance presents the change as more radical than it actually is (from a practical point of view, the introduction of civil partnerships represented a much greater advance in the state's acceptance of same-sex relationships).  It also leads to some fairly reactionary arguments.  The Coalition For Marriage  states, for example, that marriage "reflects the complementary natures of men and women" -- a position not far removed from a demand that men go out to work while women stay at home looking after the kids.  The same suggestion was made in a letter from the Roman Catholic archbishops that was controversially circulated to Catholic schools.

Ironically, such an argument is itself an attempt to redefine marriage, or at least to return to an older definition.  Even understood as a relationship between one man and one woman, marriage has changed profoundly during the centuries, from being an institution based on the exchange of property and securing the legitimacy of children to one based on the mutual relationship of the spouses.  US Vice President Joe Biden encapsulated it well when he came out in support of same sex marriage at the weekend.   It was, he said, "a simple proposition -- who do you love?  And will you be loyal to the person you love? That's what all marriages at root are about."  This hasn't always been the case.

Rooting marriage in the difference between the sexes rather than their equality, as the Campaign for Marriage does, looks like an attempt to set the clock back.  This is why the issue of same sex marriage should not merely be of concern to gay people.   Opening marriage to homosexual couples isn't just a recognition that they are now a full part of society.  It's also a logical expression of the modern understanding of marriage as a partnership between equals.  


Same-sex statues on top of a wedding cake. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.