Balloons on the route of San Francisco's Gay Pride parade, 30 June 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny tax breaks for marriage: why should I subsidise other people’s weird lifestyle choices?

There’s no reason anyone should be herded into an archaic arrangement that does not work for everybody.

The right might have lost the battle on gay marriage but its war on sexual freedom isn’t over. In the US, this year’s Pride celebrations have been particularly jubilant as legislation “defending” marriage from those pesky queers was struck down. In Britain, “traditionalists” are furious about David Cameron’s attempt to drag the Conservative Party into the 20th century just as the rest of us leave it behind – so much so, that tax breaks for married couples have been wrestled back on to the policy table.

The world is changing but large numbers of unaccountably powerful people still seem to believe it should be run like a fantasy version of 1950s bourgeois suburbia, all picket fences and patriarchy. The tax allowance being proposed will not benefit every married couple – it is specifically designed to reward and give an incentive to those in which one partner either does no work outside the home or earns very little.

The policy is, in effect, a subsidy for stay-at-home mums. Mothers who have the gall to be unmarried, by contrast, have just had their state support cut still further in the latest Spending Review because this government is more interested in making moral statements than in keeping children out of poverty.

For many traditionalists, marriage isn’t really about love – it’s about money, property and social control. The reason the right to equal marriage for same-sex couples has been so bitterly opposed by these traditionalists is that homosexuals threaten the “sanctity” of the marriage contract and “family values”. The obvious retort – that love between two people of whatever genital arrangement should pose no problems for an institution supposedly grounded on that notion – misunderstands what marriage means to many of the old guard. The idea that it should be based on love, attraction and shared life goals, rather than on principles of property management and hammering people into statesanctioned heterosexual breeding pairs, is a huge threat to the entire set-up.

Traditional marriage of the type that David Cameron now wants to promote has little to do with love and it’s certainly not about sex. Indeed, one thing that may have turned the tide of moderate opinion in favour of allowing homosexual couples to wed might have been the prospect of reducing the amount of gay sex actually taking place.

I’ve heard precisely no sensible arguments against gay marriage from anyone who is serious about treating LGBT people as equal members of society, but, now that we’re agreed on that point, it would be a relief if we could all stop treating marriage as a social panacea. Instead, we should treat it as what it is – a lifestyle choice, just like every other arrangement that diehard defenders of marriage call perversion.

Marriage is now a minority lifestyle choice, which is perhaps a reason why the only social group that has been consistently enthusiastic and tolerant about the practice in the past decade has been LGBT people.

In Britain, as singles and lone parents continue to rise in number, only 47 per cent of households are headed by a married couple and half of those arrangements will end in divorce. Giving tax breaks to married couples amounts to getting the rest of us hard-working singletons, swingers and livers-in-sin to subsidise these people with their strange habits.

There’s nothing wrong with funding minority cultural practices. Clearly, some people enjoy marriage and some of these people are able to make it work as a permanent arrangement, although it sounds exhausting and involves a lot of intimidating specialist equipment. I only ask that subsidies be distributed fairly. We can chip in for their floral arrangements and bathroom sets, they can pay for our three-person dildos and car-park orgies – and maybe then we can all agree to stump up some proper cash for housing and childcare so no parent finds himself or, more frequently, herself making any sort of sexual bargain in exchange for security.

Like any other fringe sexual practice, marriage is best approached with a full and frank understanding of the dangers involved. Because, unlike with such relatively benign perversions as sadomasochism, there are clear risks, particularly for women, and those risks are borne out by some chilling statistics. Every week, two women are killed by an intimate partner. Making it harder for people to leave such arrangements by financially penalising unmarried individuals – even as domestic violence shelters are closing across the country – is no sane policy.

It’s not that I’m prejudiced. The heart wants what it wants, as do the nether regions, and I’m happy for the many couples I know who enjoy the married lifestyle, just as I am happy for the lizard fetishists and leather queens I have met, all of whom have been perfectly lovely people.

I understand that, for some people, the apex of socio-sexual fulfilment is putting on a far-out frock and promising to love, honour and obey one other person for ever and ever. To me, that sounds like a really kinky set-up with dubious roots in historical sexism and the relegation of women and children to the status of property, but if it works for you, hey, let your freak flag fly. All I ask is that that sort of decadence shouldn’t be enforced or made a condition of financial security, because impressionable young people might get ideas.

Just as there’s no reason why any couple should be denied the right to marry, there’s no reason anyone should be herded into an archaic arrangement that does not work for everybody. My greatest hope for equal marriage is that those who were so worried that it would threaten “traditional family values” will turn out to be absolutely right. In the world, there are many different ways to arrange love between human beings in this world and all of them are of value.


Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide