Current Affairs

Interview: Labour leadership frontrunner David Miliband speaks to

Jessica Geen July 7, 2010
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David Miliband is tipped to win the Labour leadership this year. His brother Ed is in second place, while the other contenders trail behind.

We interviewed him this afternoon to find out why he believes the gay community should back his leadership bid, if he agrees with full marriage equality and why he enthusiastically supports the Pope’s UK visit.

His answer to the first question is short and direct: “I’ve got the beliefs and capabilities to lead us back into government and build a more equal country.”

The South Shields MP and former foreign secretary has written for before and has a strong gay rights voting record since being elected in 2005. With this in mind, we wanted to find out more about his views on gay and trans equality.

Labour’s record on gay equality is undoubtedly excellent, despite several blips in the dying days of government over religious exemptions in equality laws and policy on gay asylum seekers.

When asked what he and Labour have left to do for LGBT people, Mr Miliband said: “What still scares me the most is the amount of homophobic bullying going on. But we can’t just change that by bringing in new laws.

“The work to effect the best change is to tackle homophobic bullying in schools and to make sure there is no discrimination in law. For example, the law on inciting homophobic hatred is one area which is outstanding.

“And I’m still concerned about abroad. From my work as foreign minister, I know many other countries are not as far along as we are.”

He would not say which countries, instead citing “Europe and farther afield”.

He continued: “It’s great that we have thousands of civil partners [in foreign embassies] but we still have situations where diplomatic staff’s relationships are not recognised.”

So far, strong start. However, the former foreign secretary was unaware of this morning’s Supreme Court ruling on UK policy on gay asylum seekers and had apparently not heard of the Labour-introduced policy that gay asylum seekers can be returned home if it is decided they can be “discreet”.

He said: “I don’t know about the case. I think the whole point is that [things are done] on a case by case basis.”

When questioned whether Labour had let down gay supporters in this area and in religious exemptions in the Equality Bill, he said: “I think people would say Labour did huge amounts but we can’t be complacent.

“That was done by small and large measures, by local and national leadership. And there is a recognition that you had all these years with Tories with their heads stuck in the ground.”

Unlike during the election campaign, he won’t go on the attack, instead saying: “They’re not trying to roll anything back, as far as I can see. But they don’t have a good record and the Chris Grayling thing [where the shadow home secretary said B&B owners should be allowed to bar gays] was worrying.”

Prior to the interview, we asked our readers on Twitter to submit their questions to Mr Miliband. As with our pre-election interviews with the three party leaders, full marriage equality was the most popular issue.

While the UK allows non-religious civil partnerships, some couples and campaigners believe they are not adequate and are calling for the right for civil marriage, with faiths given the option of performing ceremonies.

Mr Miliband said: “I’ve not got a closed mind on that. Many of my friends who are gay have had civil partnerships. They – and I – think of them as completely equal. I think it’s seen as gays and lesbians are equal.

“The last civil partnership I went to, there was no sense of all of this being anything other than the most complete private and public commitment to devotion.

One reader wanted to ask about the law which forces trans men and women to divorce their spouses in order to be legally recognised in their new gender.

Mr Miliband is at first confused but after his train apparently exits a tunnel he is back on the line with a confident answer.

“My opinion is that we should respect the wishes of the couple and that parliament shouldn’t interfere,” he says.

Mr Miliband is known as an avowed atheist, despite sending his son to a church school. If he eventually becomes prime minister, he will be Britain’s first atheist leader.

We asked whether the government should attempt to strike a balance between gay and religious rights – something that has frequently been in the news in the last year.

He said: “What one’s always got to try to go is… you don’t want to trade off, get into a conflict. It’s like the Grayling case, where the law can’t allow discrimination against one group.”

On consulting faith groups on pro-gay legislation, he added: “I think that when you consult, people should be as vocal as possible. Debate should be open to anyone.”

Despite his atheist views, he is surprisingly enthusiastic about Pope Benedict’s controversial visit to the UK in September.

The pontiff is expected to face protest from gay and secular groups over his views and the Catholic Church’s teachings.

Mr Miliband said: “He’s the leader of the Catholic Church in the UK and in the world. It’s very important he is welcomed in this country and that we make clear that our country has no room for prejudice.

“As foreign secretary, I often had to set out the country’s moral and legal position to all sorts of people. It is a good thing for the country that the Pope is coming here. I say this as a person with no religious affiliation.”

When asked which individual, gay or straight, he believed had made the most impact on gay equality in the UK, he struggled to answer.

After some umming and aaahing, he said: “I’ll come at that question in two ways. In the political world, Angela Mason and Ben Summerskill did an amazing job at never taking no for an answer. That’s important.

“In terms of breaking barriers, when Chris Smith came out as a gay MP, it was a huge thing. It was a very brave thing to do in the eighties and deserves a huge amount of credit.”

He added that the party had to be “more open” to attract gay and lesbian supporters and prospective MPs and praised the party’s gay group LGBT Labour for campaigning after being asked to leave a Westminster pub recently.

Finally, are the candidates – barring the least likely contender Diane Abbott – enough to bring voters back to Labour? The two Milibands, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham are all white , straight, male, middle-class Oxbridge-educated, former cabinet ministers in their 40s.

Mr Miliband won’t comment on why senior Labour women such as Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper refused to join the race.

“You’d have to ask them why,” he said. “I always said the more and merrier and that’s why I supported Diane. I know Ed Balls has spoken about why Yvette [Cooper, his wife] isn’t standing.

“It’s a big responsibility to run a party. We’re a political party, not a debating society. Leadership matters and I think it depends on how the leader leads.”

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