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 newstatesman.com 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."

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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