Philip Hammond taken to task over anti-gay rights record

The Defence Secretary says civil partnerships make the introduction of equal marriage unnecessary, but he didn't vote for them in 2004.

Philip Hammond was one of four cabinet ministers not to vote in favour of gay marriage (he abstained along with Attorney General Dominic Grieve; Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Welsh Secretary David Jones voted against) and the Defence Secretary did nothing to hide his opposition to the policy on last night's Question Time. He said:


This change does redefine marriage. For millions and millions of people who are married, the meaning of marriage changes.

There is a real sense of anger among many people who are married that any government thinks it has the ability to change the definition of an institution like marriage.

Hammond went on to argue that the introduction of civil partnerships had already addressed the "very real disadvantage" that gay couples faced. "There was no huge demand for this [gay marriage] and we didn't need to spend a lot of Parliamentary time and upset vast numbers of people in order to do this."

The Defence Secretary's line -  that the existence of civil partnerships means the introduction of equal marriage is unnecessary - is one often used by Conservative MPs. But as Labour's Chris Byrant pointed out, what Hammond is less keen for the public to know is that he wasn't in favour of them at the time the legislation was passed in 2004 (he repeatedly abstained). Worse, he voted against:

-The equalisation of the age of consent.

-The repeal of Section 28.

-Allowing same-sex couples to adopt.

-The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which removed the requirement for a father and a mother to be considered when taking account of the welfare of a child who may be born as a result of fertility treatment. Instead, the law stipulated the need for "supportive parenting".

Hammond isn't the first opponent of gay marriage to grandstand as a supporter of equality. Conservative MP Edward Leigh, for instance, has argued: "Same-sex couples already have all the rights of marriage in the form of civil partnership. Why must they also have the language of marriage?" Former Tory defence minister Gerald Howarth has commented: "some of my best friends are in civil partnerships, which is fine, but I think it would be a step too far to suggest that this is marriage", while Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who is expected to vote against equal marriage today, has said that the government is "rightly committed to advancing equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and has already taken action to do so by allowing those religious premises that wish to carry out civil partnerships to do so".

But what none of these three will tell you is that they all voted against civil partnerships in 2004. MPs are, of course, free to change their minds and we should praise them when they do. But it's hard not to see their new-found support for civil partnerships as a cynical attempt to prevent the equalisation of marriage. Gay couples might already have a means of formalising their relationships but they wouldn't if Paterson, Leigh and Howarth had had their way in 2004.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond stands in front of a Rapier System ground-to-air missile launcher during a visit to RAF Waddington near Lincoln. 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.