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.