Why Labour is now offering MPs a free vote on gay marriage

The party decided to hold a free vote after the government agreed to allow ceremonies in religious buildings.

Ahead of today's statement by equalities minister Maria Miller on gay marriage, there has been some confusion over Labour's position. The party previously indicated that it would impose a three-line whip on its MPs (in favour of the bill), but now appears likely to offer a free vote. However, as one MP explained to me, there's been no U-turn. "The three-line whip only applied to civil ceremonies. Now the government has agreed to allow gay marriages in religious buildings, we will hold a free vote."

Although less numerous than those in the Conservatives, there are some in Miliband's party who are hostile towards gay marriage. Roger Godsiff, the MP for Birmingham Hall Green, has said he will oppose any law "redefining the current definition of marriage", while his parliamentary colleague Austin Mitchell tweeted yesterday: "Gay marriage is neither urgent nor important.It's also a moral issue therefore a free vote on which basis it won't pass". Three other Labour MPs, Jim Dobbin, Joe Benton and Mary Glindon, have signed the Coalition For Marriage petition against the proposal.

The Lib Dems have yet to say whether their MPs will be whipped in favour of gay marriage, but it's worth noting that Nick Clegg has previously criticised David Cameron's decision to offer Conservative MPs a free vote. He told The Andrew Marr Show in May: "My view is that in the same way that the civil partnerships legislation that was introduced under Labour was a whipped vote, I personally don’t think this is something that should be subject to a great free-for-all because we’re not asking people to make a decision of conscience about religion."

Update: The Coalition for Equal Marriage has pointed me towards three other Labour MPs who oppose gay marriage: Brian Donohoe, Paul Murphy, and Stephen Pound.

Ed Miliband records a video for the Out4Marriage campaign in favour of equal marriage.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.