Whatever they do, right-wing parties will lose out from the equal marriage debate

As the issue of same-sex unions finally turns into a parliamentary debate on both sides of the Channel, it is becoming more and more obvious that the Conservatives and their French counterparts have little to win and a lot to lose.

In the past few months, Britain and France have both faced the question of gay marriage – the French took to the streets, as it’s what they do best, and the Brits discussed it at lengths in pubs all around the country. What these countless conversations, columns and blog posts revealed was something quite peculiar: one side of the political compass had got caught in bitter infighting. For once, it wasn’t the Left.

When David Cameron announced in November that he was backing plans to allow gay marriage, he was faced with one of the biggest backlashes since the beginning of his leadership. The Daily Mail called it “the biggest Tory party rebellion in modern times”, but for once was barely exaggerating: by early December, 118 Tory MPs out of 303 had expressed their opposition to the proposal. A week later, a group of 19 cabinet ministers and other senior figures, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, wrote an open letter to the Sunday Telegraph, saying they were supporting the Prime Minister’s decision. Meanwhile, 64 per cent of voters are still against the proposed law.

Not that it’s any easier for the Union for a Popular Movement (the French leading centre-right party): their situation is fairly different, as they’re currently in opposition, but it’s far from simple. The official party line is to actively refuse any legalisation of same sex unions, but well known party members are heavily encouraged to keep their personal opinions to themselves. It is rumoured that 10% of MPs are actually in favour of it, but no one dares to speak out, which not only dampers the image of the party, but drove several important figures to leave.

Ex-MP Chantal Jouanno is one of them: when announcing that she was joining the UDI, a centre-right coalition created by Jean-Louis Borloo (himself a UMP renegade), she made it clear that she was pro-gay marriage and against her former party’s authoritarian stance on social issues. While seemingly anecdotal, this event tells a lot about the current state of the French (not-so) moderate right: though Sarkozy was criticised for flirting with the National Front’s extreme right, the recent election of the more radical Jean-Francois Coppé as a new leader shows a completely unashamed shift to the right. And this does not please everyone: the day he got elected, dozens of grassroots militants and (mainly young) voters cancelled their memberships, and posted pictures of their UMP cards cut in half on social media. By trying to reconnect with the people who chose the NF at the last elections, the UMP gradually losing the support of the centre and centre-right.

In a way, what’s currently going on in France is the opposite of what has been troubling the Conservatives recently. When he won the leadership bid, David Cameron promised to try his best to get rid of this ‘nasty party’ image, and regain some grounds on the centre. His strategy seemingly was to become more liberal on social issues regarding ethnic minorities or homosexuals, in order to appear like a more human and modern PM. This failed on several levels: when asked in October, 40 per cent of people thought that the Conservatives still were the “party of the rich”, and a third said that they were not sufficiently handling the NHS and other public services. Yet, the more right wing of the party feel that Cameron is not doing enough on traditional Tory issues - like the EU - and several backbenchers have threatened to defect to Ukip.

And things are not about to get any better: even if the Prime Minister and most of his cabinet ministers have publicly announced that they would vote in favour of a gay marriage law, well over a third of his MPs will oppose the legislation. Compared to the 80 per cent – at least - of Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs expected to support the bill, the Tories will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Remarkably, this still remains Cameron’s best case scenario: it’s still difficult to imagine that, even if he were to whip, or simply encourage his party to vote in favour, it would do much for his tarnished public image.

At least the UMP doesn’t even have to face a similar conundrum: with Jean-Francois Coppé having already admitted that he was not only against but “hostile” to the proposal, any sort of U-turn would be out of the question. Instead, the choice the UMP will have to make is whether to continue actively opposing the reforms – like they have been doing so far – or giving up and realising that the more vocal they are about the issue, they more irrelevant they’re beginning to appear. Seeing as the Socialist Party will almost unanimously vote for the legalisation of gay weddings, and that both centre-left and centre-right parties will give their MPs a free vote, it is almost certain to assume that the project will become law.  

So, in the great contest of right wing parties versus gay marriage, who will become the biggest losers? Will it be the Tories, when David Cameron finally realises that on top of being hated by the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and most of the public, he’s also managed to become out-of-touch from the core of his own party? Or will it be the UMP, when the ashamed moderate-right joins the UDI instead, and the bigoted hard-right defects to the National Front? 

Two men kiss during a demonstration in support of the legalisation of gay marriage [Photo: Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty Images]

Marie le Conte is a freelance journalist.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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