Gay voters go red or yellow -- but never blue

Anti-gay comments by a Conservative candidate in Ayrshire, Philip Lardner, are just the latest stage in the peeling away of the Tories’ gay-friendly façade.

For the LGBT community, the case against voting Tory continues to solidify -- it increasingly seems that, beneath their new, shiny, rainbow-coloured surface, much of the party consists of the Thatcherite homophobes of old.

To paraphrase that old smoothie Loyd Grossman, let's take a look at the evidence: the weird alliance with far-right European homophobes including Michal Kaminsky; the shadow home secretary Chris Grayling agreeing that B&B owners should have the right to bar gay couples; Cameron's major gaffe in an interview in March with Gay Times, in which he seemed to say MPs should be allowed to vote against laws that uphold homosexuality as a human right; the shadow defence minister Julian Lewis saying he was against equalising the age of consent, as gay sex carries a high risk of Aids; the defection of two senior members of the Conservative gay group LGBTory to Labour; Cameron's anti-gay voting record . . . Who would live in a House like this? David Cameron, it's over to you . . .

The latest sorry chapter in the Tories' big gay unravelling came yesterday, as first reported by Pink News, when the Scottish Conservative candidate for North Ayrshire and Arran, Philip Lardner, said that he thought homosexuality was wrong and he -- like the Stagecoach boss Brian Souter ten years ago -- supported parents and teachers who opposed the teaching of gay equality.

On Lardner's website, he states clearly that "homosexuality is not normal" (yawn) and goes on:

The promotion of homosexuality by public bodies (as per Clause 28/section 2a in Scotland) was correctly outlawed by Mrs Thatcher's government. Toleration and understanding is one thing, but state promotion of homosexuality is quite another.

Christians (and most of the population) believe homosexuality to be somewhere between "unfortunate" and simply "wrong" and they should not be penalised for politely saying so -- good manners count, too, of course.

The current "law" is wrong and must be overturned in the interests of freedom as well as Christian values.

Cameron said he moved to sack Lardner "within minutes", but the damage had already been done. He has doubtless reformed the Conservatives' stance on gay issues to a great extent and exorcised much of the latent homophobia from senior levels of the party -- welcoming several openly gay MPs -- but there is no escaping the existence of the prejudiced (and often evangelical Christian) right-wing faction within the party at grass-roots level. It's for that reason that the vast majority of LGBT voters still want to steer well clear of them.

As my colleague George Eaton reported on Monday, support for the Tories among gay voters has collapsed to roughly 9 per cent, down from 39 per cent in June 2009, and justifiably so. The defected former head of LGBTory, Anastasia Beaumont-Bott, described the Conservatives' gay policy as "an elaborate deception":

It feels like there is a different message for every audience. I think we should think about what Mr Cameron's Conservatives stand for . . . A leopard does not change its spots.

Should we be surprised? This is, after all, the party that gave us rabid bigots (there, I said it!) such as Norman Tebbit, who recently made some characteristically compassionate comments about persecuted African homosexuals, and the battleaxe gay-rights opponent Janet Young; that introduced the punitive anti-gay legislation Section 28, and fought bitterly against its repeal, as well as voting against proposals to lower the age of consent.

When leader of the Tories, William Hague, we shouldn't forget, ordered every Tory MP to vote against the repeal of Section 28 in 1999 and viciously expelled Shaun Woodward from the party for daring not to do so (wisely, he crossed the carpet to Labour). Hague recently defended Grayling's B&B comments.

Since 1997, Labour, by constrast, has repealed Section 28; lowered the gay age of consent, first to 18 and then to 16; introduced same-sex civil partnerships; legalised adoption by gay couples; equalised the Sexual Offences Act; made homophobic abuse a hate crime; and given a commitment to work for LGBT rights at an international level. In short, if you'll excuse the neologism, Labour <hearts> the gays.

And how about the Lib Dems? Popularity for them among gay voters has soared, as a joint result of the Tories' blunders and the televised leaders' debates. With an LGBT eqality body, DELGA, that's an official part of the party, their policy on gay rights looks impressive, including tackling bullying in schools, getting tough on hate crime, increasing LGBT representation in parliament, ending the deportation of persecuted gay people to their home countries (something Jacqui Smith was slated for doing), and campaigning for "marriage without borders" -- "for marriages and civil partnerships to be available in the UK to people regardless of gender, and for same-sex partnerships to be recognised throughout Europe and internationally". The last is something Nick Clegg has personally endorsed.

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.