Osborne speaks sense on gay marriage

Gay marriage is right and we must support it if we want to win, Chancellor tells the Tories.

George Osborne has always sat on the socially liberal wing of the Conservative Party, so it is no surprise that he is a strong supporter of gay marriage. But given the extent of opposition to the policy within Tory ranks (it is reportedly the top reason for members resigning from the party), it's still notable that he uses an op-ed (£) in today's Times to signal that the government will press ahead with plans to introduce it.

With an eye to Obama's victory last week, the Chancellor rightly concludes that social liberalism is the only electorally viable position. He notes that the Republicans "lost swathes of voters who were on their side of the economic argument" because of their stances on abortion and equal marriage, adding that he wouldn't change "the current abortion laws" (as his voting record indicates) and that he supports gay marriage "on principle".

But, as ever, Osborne, who is both Chancellor and the Tories' chief election strategist, also has psephological considerations in mind. He believes the Tories should support gay marriage not just because it is the right thing to do but because it will help them win in the future. Osborne slightly overstates his case by writing that a "clear majority of the public support gay marriage" (the polling evidence is more mixed, although polls generally show at least a plurality in favour) but his wider point - that support for gay marriage is only likely to grow with time - is spot-on. In an echo of Tony Blair, who Osborne refers to as "the master" for his election-winning abilities, he writes that "Successful political parties reflect the modern societies they aspire to lead". To this end, the Chancellor confirms that the government will "introduce a Bill to allow gay marriage."

Already, however, his comments have prompted a backlash from Conservatives. Stewart Jackson MP tweets that the Chancellor "should focus less on social liberal obsessions like gay marriage & more on outside M25 priorities like jobs, taxes & growth". It is, of course, possible to do both. What Tories like Jackson really mean when they say the government should "focus" on other issues is that they don't want it to ever introduce gay marriage. So long as the Conservative Party continues to boast such figures in its ranks, many socially liberal Britons will feel unable to vote for it.

George Osborne said the government would "introduce a Bill to allow gay marriage". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.