A restaurant in central London. Photo: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
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If you want to know how socially conservative Britain still is, go to a restaurant

Lesbians have been asked not to kiss because “this is a family restaurant”, and a woman having afternoon tea at Claridge’s was told that she wasn’t allowed to breastfeed her baby. We aren’t always as liberal as we think.

When I was about three, my mum explained the rules of restaurant-going to me. You stay in your seat. You use cutlery. You say your pleases and thank-yous. You, preferably, don’t have a tantrum. In adulthood, I like to think I’ve remained true to these instructions. One restaurant rule she failed to mention though is that, if and when I grew up into a great, honking dyke, I should probably put the kibosh on my sexuality until after dessert.

This week, a lesbian couple in a branch of Canteen on London’s South Bank broke that rule. And, horror of horrors, they made their sexuality known to their fellow food-eaters and restaurant staff by briefly kissing. The two women were asked by a member of staff to stop showing each other the most basic human affection, because “this is a family restaurant”. Translation: “Your sexuality is rude.”

Even in the UK, where same-sex marriage is now legal and legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination is in effect, these sorts of stories are all too common. Sometimes it’s hotels, sometimes it’s restaurants and sometimes it’s Sainsbury’s – on a fairly regular basis, gay couples are asked to either tone down their gayness or leave.

Why is it that in so many cases, every time we go for a burger we’re entering Victorian Britain? And it’s not just the queers who break the rules, and fall under the scrutiny of any given establishment’s selective prudishness. Also this week, a woman having afternoon tea at Claridge’s was told that she wasn’t allowed to breastfeed her baby without pitching a kind of linen tent around the entire situation. According to this batshit, backwater restaurant protocol, getting out a tit for a hungry baby (literally the most innocent thing a person can do) is the equivalent of getting up and having a wee all over the table. Pissing should be done in private, and so, according to restaurants, should feeding babies and being a homosexual.

A restaurant is somewhere you can get a decent idea of just how socially conservative British culture still is. Many gay Londoners, myself included, see the South Bank as a kind of safe haven. It’s an artsy area, full of people in creative industries, which usually translates as – “here be a buttload of queers”. This makes Canteen’s recent homophobic moment even more telling. Even in the areas that LGBT people have come to trust, deep down, we’re not welcome.

London in particular is somewhere in which gentrification is eating into the gay scene. Venue after venue is shutting down with Madame Jojo’s in Soho and Hackney’s legendary gay club, the Joiners Arms, most recently getting the chop, to make way for “nicer” (read: less gay) things. As a result of this, it’s more important than ever that essentially heterosexual spaces become gay friendly.

As the Canteen incident has proven, same-sex couples are still forced to be careful about where they choose to kiss or even hold hands. Most non-heteros will know just how draining it is, having to consider warily when and where you show your partner even the slightest affection.

As for self-described “family” restaurants like Canteen, someone badly needs to let them know that the definition of “family” is changing.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.