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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.