Gay marriage could be a defining issue for Cameron

Barack Obama's support for the idea has strengthened Tory liberals' resolve to take on the reactiona

Barack Obama’s decision to support gay marriage has no doubt been timed with careful attention paid to the US electoral cycle. The American Commander-in-Chief definitely did not factor in the political travails of David Cameron on a small rain-lashed island several thousand miles east of Washington. Had he done so, he might have postponed the announcement by a day or two.

It isn’t the biggest story to come out of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, but people who were watching carefully for prime ministerial capitulations to the Conservative right found one in the absence of proposals to give gay couples equal rights in marriage.

As I write in my column this week, this is an issue that has acquired emblematic status in the battle over what kind of a Conservative party Cameron leads. In his speech at last year’s Tory party conference, the Prime Minister made the case for gay marriage robustly:

Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.

The fact that the hall applauded at this point was subsequently held up as evidence of the great strides in “modernisation” that the party had taken under Cameron’s leadership.

But it turns out that the party grass roots are less signed up to this view than Downing Street likes to think. I have heard a number of MPs complain that gay marriage was a “hot button” issue in their constituencies and that it provoked Tory voters to abstain or back Ukip in last week’s local elections. It cost the party council seats, say back benchers. Nonsense, comes the riposte from Downing Street. It’s the economy and weeks of headlines about incompetence that hit the party's poll ratings. The very last thing we should do, say Downing Street aides, is veer off into illiberal reaction.

Both are right up to a point. At a national level it is crazy to think that Cameron’s support for gay marriage makes the difference between a majority in 2015 and another hung parliament. At the same time, at local level, it is plainly a problem when activists are outraged by their leader’s opinions.

The gay marriage issue is currently out for formal consultation, so Downing Street could clearly act on it if it was felt to be important enough. The Lib Dems are ardently in favour and would quite happily probe and provoke Tory prejudice on the subject to remind voters that (as they see it) Nick Clegg leads the modern, caring, tolerant wing of the coalition. For precisely that reason, senior Lib Dems very much doubt that Cameron can change the policy. He wouldn't want to give the Lib Dems such a handy stick with which to beat the Tories. He might, however, want to postpone dealing with it to avoid looking as if he is deliberately antagonising his back bench enemies.

Obama’s move makes that approach that little bit harder. Suddenly, everyone of a socially liberal disposition in Westminster  - in all three parties – is fired up and praising the US President’s brave moral stand, pointing out how it casts gay equality as a contemporary civil rights issue and puts Mitt Romney on the wrong side of history, held back by Republican tea party fanaticism etc. That is not necessarily company Cameron wants to be keeping.

Liberal Tories, meanwhile, have been watching the party’s right wing mobilise in recent weeks and are feeling the need for a counter-attack. As I have written before, joining the coalition postponed a difficult debate about what kind of movement the Tories want to be – what is their model of 21st Century Conservatism? The leadership is not seriously in question. Cameron is personally secure for now. But the party’s soul is still up for grabs. There is a feeling that Tory internal culture wars are brewing. Gay marriage could end up being much more of an issue for Cameron than he expected when he made that speech last year.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.