Andy Burnham, the frontrunner for the Labour leadership. Photo: Getty Images
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Andy Burnham has questions to answer on LGBT rights

We wouldn’t accept this voting record from a Tory leader. So why should it be OK for a Labour leader? 

The final four for the Labour leadership have their nominations, and we can now get on with having that “broad debate” everyone seems to want to talk about. At this stage the four don't look fantastic, frankly, but they are faintly interesting.

Andy Burnham is clearly the frontrunner. He's campaigning as the "heart of Labour"; the unity candidate. And he seems prepared to make some pretty bold statements on the campaign trail.

But there are some serious question marks about statements Burnham has made in the past, and seems unwilling to change his mind on. PinkNews, Europe's most read LGBT news source, reported that Burnham had the worst voting record on LGBT issues of any candidate when he first tried to be elected leader. Things are no different this time round.

In 2008, Burnham twice voted in favour of amendments that sought to discriminate against lesbian couples. He backed proposals that would have blocked lesbians from accesing IVF - because he believes children must have a named father figure. He also abstained on three votes about same-sex adoption.

It’s clear Andy Burnham, for whatever reasons, has an issue with gay couples parenting as freely as he can. It’s great that Labour are having a broad debate – but should gay and lesbian rights really be up for discussion?

LGBT equality was one of the great legacies of three terms of Labour government. At the time it far from had cross-party support - quite the opposite. Passing an equal age of consent, adoption rights and workplace protections took moral leadership. Section 28, which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities, took repeated attempts before it was finally voted down. Only Britons aged 23 or younger went through an education system without the the ban.

I was one of those young people, starting secondary school in 2003. To those who aren’t gay or lesbian it can be hard to describe, but having a Prime Minister - in Tony Blair - who unambiguously showed his support for equality was hugely empowering. That’s why it scares me that the Labour party could elect a leader who puts caveats on those rights.

How will the argument go when Burnham is asked to defend the Human Rights Act - as whoever is elected Labour leader should - and he talks of the right to a family life? Will he nuance his argument with his belief that women in loving relationships should be excluded, unless they can find a man to help do the job for them? Must single mothers find a man to fit his requirement for a father figure?

Burnham is a dedicated Catholic, something he has said led him instinctively to the left, as I’m sure many Christian socialists in the party agree. It’s this outlook which he generally cites for his belief in the necessity of a father figure. The Labour party is, of course, a broad church, and our windows are tinted many different shades of red. But that should never be at the exclusion of some people’s fundamental rights. And many Catholics would dispute that their religion and the right to lesbians to bring up children are at odds.

This isn’t about religion, it’s about a worrying outlook on equal rights.

Tony Blair serves as prime example. He ‘came out’ shortly after leaving office - as a Catholic, that is, not as a lesbian. When I interviewed the former Prime Minister late last year, to discuss ten years since civil partnership legislation, he saw no such conflict between faith and equality.

As Blair told me, you can be dedicated to a cause or a religion without being willing to sign up to every cross and dot of their views. The Catholic church needs to re-think “entrenched” views, he has argued.

"If you went and asked the [ordinary Catholic] congregation, I think you'd find that their faith is not to be found in those types of entrenched attitudes,” he hs said.

We have big questions to answer about the sort of party we want to be. There remain, though, basic principles of why we’re Labour - and equality is one of them. New Labour made mistakes - and Andy Burnham should know, he was a cabinet minister during the period - but LGBT and women’s rights were not one of them.

The three other frontrunners don’t share his views. Yvette Cooper has been an outstanding shadow home secretary steering the success of the Equal Marriage Bill. Liz Kendall made her commitment to gay rights one of the first announcements of her campaign. And Jeremy Corbyn has been arguing for equality since long before it was ‘fashionable’.

The truth is that if these big moral questions come up again - and they most likely will - we need to have a leader who throws their weight behind progress without nuance. Not one who votes to involve men in lesbian parents' lives.

We wouldn’t accept this voting record from a Tory leader. So why should it be OK for a Labour leader? 
 

Benjamin Butterworth is a journalist and commentator. He tweets as @benjaminbutter.

Kevin McKeever, an openly gay activist and Labour candidate, has written a response here

 

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage