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that equalised the age of consent, abolished Section 28 (a measure that Cameron has rightly apologised for supporting), repealed the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military, gave same-sex couples the right to adopt, outlawed discrimination in the workplace and in the provision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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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