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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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