Why we have Labour to thank for gay marriage

It was the dramatic advances in gay rights delivered by the Blair government that made the introduction of equal marriage possible.

As a Conservative backbencher in 2003, David Cameron voted in favour of the retention of Section 28, the law that banned schools from "promoting" homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship". It is a mark of how much has changed since then that he now leads a government that has brought forward a bill for the introduction of equal marriage. 

Much of this change is due to a dramatic shift in social attitudes, particularly among the young, one seen across the western world. But while governments reflect the culture of a country, they also help to shape it and on the day that MPs vote for the first time on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, the role of the last Labour government in advancing gay equality deserves to be recalled. 

It was the Blair administration that equalised the age of consent, abolished Section 28 (a measure that Cameron has rightly apologised for supporting), repealed the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military, gave same-sex couples the right to adopt, outlawed discrimination in the workplace and in the provision of goods and services, and established civil partnerships. It is a record that Ed Miliband has rightly described as "proud". Change may have come under a Conservative government but it would not have been as swift or as deep. 

It is because gays and lesbians have already achieved equality in so many other spheres of life, that the extension of marriage to them now seems entirely natural. Cameron's bill is but the cherry on the wedding cake. 

Had the last Labour government not devoted so much time and effort to promoting gay rights, it is doubtful whether the Conservatives would now be introducing equal marriage. So, while Cameron deserves praise for defying the opposition of so many of his MPs, all who support gay equality owe a debt of thanks to Tony Blair today. 

Tony Blair's government introduced civil partnerships in 2004. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.