Duncan slams Lib Dems in gay rights row

Alan Duncan says the Lib Dems should "eat their words" after criticising the Tories' voting record o

Alan Duncan, the first openly gay Conservative MP, has branded the Liberal Democrats "shits" after the party launched an attack on the Conservatives' failure to support gay rights.

Lib Dems equality spokesperson Jo Swinson last week released a compilation of members of the shadow Cabinet's voting history since 1998.

The figures, disputed by the Tories, suggest that 80 percent of the 25-member team has voted against major items of gay rights legislation in that period. Ninety percent of those eligible voted against the equalisation of the age of consent and 85 percent voted against the repeal of Section 28.

Among Tory MPs, 85 percent failed to vote for regulations passed this year outlawing the denial of goods and services based on sexuality and 54 percent polled this year opposed equal rights for homosexual couples.

"Despite David Cameron's façade of "liberal" conservatism, his voting record, the voting record of the Shadow Cabinet that he appointed, and the views held amongst his party paint a very different picture," it says.

But Duncan, shadow secretary for business, enterprise and regulatory reform, told that the Liberal Democrats’ criticism was out-dated and claimed the Tories were in step with a wider consensus on gay rights issues.

He also said it was unwise for the Lib Dems, whose president, Simon Hughes, ran successfully for parliament in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election against Peter Tatchell as "the straight choice", to criticise the Tories over gay rights.

"There was never such a disgusting and contemptible election campaign as that waged by Simon Hughes against Peter Tatchell, so it's very unwise for the Lib Dems to rake this sort of thing up. They were the last party in Parliament to have an openly gay member within their ranks. They should scurry away and eat their words.

"As Matthew Parris argues, at last, the agenda is largely complete. Homosexuality should be out of politics and just included in daily life. If they want to re-politicise a settled consensus, I have complete contempt for them."

"Historically, the Conservatives have been behind the curve, whilst Tony Blair was very good on the equality agenda. But a piece of research like this isn't constructive. It just makes the Liberal Democrats look like shits. You can quote me on that."

Despite his recent support for the Sexual Orientation Discrimination legislation and civil partnerships, Tory leader Cameron has a chequered record on gay rights, having voted against gay adoption under a three-line whip.

But a Tory spokesman said Cameron had abstained from a whipped vote under former leader Iain Duncan Smith on the repeal of Section 28 and supported gay adoption. In fact, Cameron voted against the repeal of Section 28 passing to a second reading before abstaining on the second reading.

In 2000 as candidate for Witney he told a local paper that the Blair government “continues to be obsessed with their 'fringe' agenda, including deeply unpopular moves like repealing Section 28 and allowing the promotion of homosexuality in schools,” and that “Blair has moved heaven and earth to allow the promotion of homosexuality in schools”.

But a spokesman tried to brush off the comments. "It was only as a candidate. If you know how politics works you'll see why being a candidate is different to being an MP," he said.

“The Conservative Party has campaigned for equal treatment for the gay community and on the 40th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality we should be celebrating what has been achieved since, not playing petty politics with this issue.”

But Swinson claimed the appointment of shadow cabinet members such as Eric Pickles, the new shadow secretary of state for communities and local government who had previously failed to back a single piece of gay rights legislation, called Cameron’s judgment into question.

"Pickle's appointment is deeply concerning,” said Swinson. “It's a question of looking at voting records. We have had a lot rhetoric about change. I think it's important at this stage to look at their extremely poor record."

Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said the Conservative Party was “riddled with old ideas”: “In 18 years in office the Conservatives did next to nothing to advance the cause of gay rights in Britain."

Veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: "It's good that David Cameron in recent years has had a Damascene conversion to gay equality. I hope he's sincere.

“But quite clearly most members of his shadow cabinet and most backbench MPs continue to support anti-gay discrimination. The lesbian and gay community would have good reason to fear the return to power of a Conservative government. Most of their MPs want to keep lesbians and gays as second class citizens."

Tatchell also criticised last month's Tory appointment of 'modernising' Muslim lawyer Sayeeda Warsi to the position of Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion.

In literature distributed during her 2005 council election campaign she accused Labour of “allowing school children to be propositioned for homosexual relationships”, and denounced the “promotion of homosexuality that undermines family life”.

Tatchell said Warsi was unfit to serve in the shadow cabinet: “She fought an immensely homophobic campaign in the last general election in which she made false claims about government gay rights policy. It beggars belief that David Cameron has appointed such a bigoted woman. Her views on gay rights echo the homophobia of Nick Griffin of the BNP."

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis