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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.