Equal marriage could only threaten gender roles if it magically turned everyone gay

The modern basis of marriage is partnership and equality rather than innate difference.

One of the favourite arguments of those opposed to same-sex marriage is the idea that the institution of marriage embodies the "complementary" nature of men and women. Just as (they would say) marriage and civil partnership are "equal but different", so are the genders. The fact that the argument invariably comes from those espousing what they like to call the "Biblical" view of marriage (conveniently skirting over all those polygamous patriarchs in the Old Testament, but never mind) is apt to raise suspicions that what they really mean is that women belong at home in the kitchen while their husbands are out winning the bread in appropriately manly ways. But I doubt it's necessarily as reactionary as that, at least not in the minds of many of those putting it forward - liberal Anglican bishops, for example.

Speaking yesterday in the House of Lords, the Bishop of Leicester offered a superficially convincing modern twist on the idea. 

I could not help noticing in the debate in this House on International Women's Day the underlying assumption that women bring a special quality to the public square and that the complementarity of men and women is what encriches and stabilises society. Yet, in the realm of public discourse, assertion of sexual difference in relation to marriage has become practically unspeakable, in spite of the fact that it is implicity assumed by most people in the course of everyday life. Equal marriage will bring an end to the one major social institution that enshrines that complementarity.

He's got a point. Not, I think, about the threat that equal marriage would allegedly pose to "sexual complementarity": inasmuch as that matters, it matters to the individuals concerned, so that equal marriage could only threaten "complementarity" if it magically turned everyone gay. Where the bishop might just be on to something is in his identification of the importance that society still, indeed increasingly, attaches to gender difference. There does indeed seem to be an "underlying assumption" that men and women are essentially different beings, and arguments for expanding the role of women do often come down to enumerating the unique gifts that women are said to bring. "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus," as the ever-popular relationship manual assures us.

In the Church of England itself, the case for appointing women as bishops has been made not just on simple grounds of equality (here are some excellent potential bishops who just happen to be women) but by stressing the special qualities of women - the "maternal" quality of their pastoral care, for example. The same is true of politics and the world of business, where it has become commonplace to blame macho attitudes for wars or the banking crisis.

And what special qualities do women bring? Invariably, they turn out to be the very attributes that have always been considered quintessentially feminine and that were once trotted out as reasons why women's proper place was in the home. The contribution of women is celebrated, even by many feminists, on grounds of difference (though it is a difference disguised as superiority) - women are assumed to be more consensual, less competitive and aggressive, more concerned with nurturing and supporting others. One side-effect of such thinking is that women who are none of these things (the late Baroness Thatcher springs to mind) are apt to be denigrated as un-feminine.

The potency of the idea of sexual difference is remarkable, given the speed with which women have joined professions once considered a male preserve, from the legal profession to the military, where they operate increasingly (though not yet fully) on equal terms. Barely a day goes by with out some new scientific study confirming the existential difference between men and women, where a statistical correlation is interpreted as an iron law of biology and the interplay between biology and culture is never examined. Women may have more economic independence than ever before, but that hasn't prevented the increasing commercial and cultural enforcing of gender norms, with Tesco categorising chemistry sets as boys' toys and Disney reimagining the tomboyish Merida as a slim-waisted princess. Gender binaries rule.

So the bishop of Leicester really has very little to worry about. In the days when a woman had to promise to obey her husband and all her property became his the bishop might have had a stronger case. Such an institution would indeed have provided a most inappropriate model for same-sex relationships. The modern basis of marriage, on the other hand, is partnership and equality rather than innate difference. Far from being the sole redoubt of sexual "complementarity", in a world seemingly more convinced than ever that men and women come from different planets marriage has in fact become a challenge to it.  

Would same-sex marriage pose a threat to "sexual complementarity"? Photograph: Getty Images
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.