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that equalised the age of consent, abolished Section 28 (a measure that Cameron has rightly apologised for supporting), repealed the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military, gave same-sex couples the right to adopt, outlawed discrimination in the workplace and in the provision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
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Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

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