Gay marriage: Cameron's battle begins

Determined to secure a legacy, the PM has picked a fight with his own voters.

The coalition's long-trailed consultation on gay marriage finally begins today. And the outcome, it appears, has been largely pre-determined. As Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister, who is leading the consultation, tells today's Independent, "The essential question is not whether we are going to introduce same-sex civil marriage but how." Elsewhere, in an op-ed for today's Times (£), Theresa May becomes the latest senior Conservative to declare her support for the proposal, making the sound argument that marriage, a social good, should be extended to as many people as possible.

With the support of so many cabinet ministers, it's hard to see gay marriage not becoming law by 2015. For David Cameron, desperate for his government not to be defined by deficit reduction alone, this is a chance to effect lasting social change.

But he will face significant clerical and parliamentary resistance. The government has already agreed to give Conservative ministers, some of whom are prepared to resign over the issue, a free vote in the Commons. Defence minister Gerald Howarth, for instance, has already clumsily declared his opposition to gay marriage: "Some of my best friends are in civil partnerships, which is fine, but I think it would be a step too far to suggest that this is marriage".

Then there's the church. The government has already ruled out making it compulsory for religious organisations to host gay marriages but that hasn't placated the faithful. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leader of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland, has shamed himself by comparing same sex marriage to slavery, while Rowan Williams has argued that the law cannot be used to impose cultural change, and cannot run ahead of public opinion.

Williams is right: more of the public are opposed to gay marriage than in favour of it. But the gap is not as great as some imagine. As I noted earlier this week, according to a recent YouGov poll, 43 per cent of voters support gay marriage, with 47 per cent opposed [32 per cent of whom support the current alternative of civil partnerships] and 10 per cent undecided. Worryingly for Cameron, however, while 51 per cent of Labour voters and 53 per cent of Lib Dems support same sex marriage, just 30 per cent of Tories do. I know of one pro-gay marriage Conservative MP who missed church on Sunday for fear of being accosted by parishioners. The concern among some Tories is that UKIP, explicitly opposed to gay marriage, will provide a welcome home for any would-be defectors.

And should Cameron change the law, he may not receive much credit for doing so. The YouGov poll I mentioned earlier revealed that 63 per cent of votes think that the PM supports gay marriage for purely "political reasons". Only 21 per cent think that he "genuinely believes that is the right thing to do". The greatest challenge for Cameron, then, is to convince the public that he is acting out of principle, rather than political expediency.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.