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Comment: ‘Tory support for gay rights is a victory for Labour’

Tom Copley October 11, 2012
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In a comment piece for, Labour’s London Assembly Member Tom Copley, responds to Ben Howlett’s claims that the Labour Party has lost its LGBT crown.

This week I read two pieces by gay Conservatives about equal marriage on, the first by LGBTory Chair Matthew Sephton, was a measured piece calling for the LGBT community to press parliamentarians of all parties to back equal marriage. He spoke of his pride that David Cameron was bringing these proposals forward and also paid tribute to the huge achievements of the Labour government on LGBT issues.

The second, by Conservative Future Chair Ben Howlett, struck a completely different tone. Howlett eviscerated Labour’s record on gay equality whilst proclaiming the Conservative Party to be the true home of the LGBT community. The entire piece is a work of swaggering inaccuracy which warrants a response.

Like most Labour members I have my criticisms of the last Labour government. But one issue upon which I am proud to say Labour’s record was almost flawless was gay rights – and not just the last Labour government either – let us not forget that it was a Labour government which decriminalised homosexuality in 1967. In fact until now there has been only one instance of an advance in gay rights under a Conservative government – Edwina Currie’s backbench amendment to the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill which attempted to equalise the age of consent, and ultimately succeeded in lowering it from twenty-one to eighteen. It is for that reason that I shall always respect Edwina, despite her regular outlandish outbursts on other issues.

Contrast that with Labour’s record in government: the age of consent equalised, civil partnerships introduced, gay adoption legalised, Section 28 (introduced by the Tories) repealed. A veritable feast of progress for gay people in Britain all achieved within thirteen years. Look me in the eye and tell me that’s not something for which Labour deserves respect?

Howlett also takes a cheap shot at Ken Livingstone for supposedly setting the LGBT community against other groups. Well Ben, the fact is Ken Livingstone was attending gay pride marches before you or I were born. Whilst several then closeted Tory MPs were voting through Section 28 Ken was one of the few high profile politicians at that time who stood up for our community. He too deserves respect for that, whatever you might think of the rest of his politics.

Howlett decries Labour for doubting the convictions of Tory ministers in bringing forward equal marriage. Doubting their convictions? Many of them only seemed to acquire these convictions within the last eighteen months! Take Culture Secretary Maria Miller, who he praises in his article. She has either voted against or been absent from all votes on gay equality since she became an MP. I’m delighted that she’s now a vociferous supporter of gay marriage, but Ben shouldn’t try to rewrite history.

Then, of course, there’s Boris Johnson. A few years ago he said that “we don’t want our children being taught some rubbish about homosexual marriage is the same as normal marriage”. Now he’s recorded an Out4Marriage video. David Cameron too put out leaflets in support of Section 28 during his unsuccessful election campaign in 2001.

What Ben fails to acknowledge, or to understand, is that Labour’s biggest achievement in the field of gay rights was the transformation of the Conservative Party. I’m delighted that Maria Miller, Boris Johnson and others have had a Damascene conversion to the cause of gay rights and equal marriage. I claim that as a victory for the Labour Party.

Howlett bizarrely asks “why aren’t Labour uniting with this government in supporting marriage equality as it goes through parliament?” Yet when the equal marriage bill comes before parliament, Ed Miliband has signalled that Labour MPs will be whipped to vote for it. I hope that they are. David Cameron, on the other hand, has said he will give his MPs a free vote on the issue.

Of course there will be some Labour MPs who vote against it whipped or not, but they will be dwarfed by the number of Tory MPs who will do so, including members of the cabinet. Ben’s going to look pretty silly when his own party’s MPs turn out to be far less united with official government policy than Labour MPs.

I believe in giving credit where it’s due. I believe that David Cameron deserves credit for pursuing equal marriage in the face of stiff opposition from sections of his own party. Ben Howlett ought to give Labour credit too for the phenomenal transformation in gay rights under the last government from which both he and I have benefited enormously.

Tom Copley is a Labour Party London Assembly Member. Views expressed in this article are his own and not that of

Related topics: Ben Howlett, Boris Johnson, Conservative Future, Conservative Party, England, equal marriage, gay marriage, ken livingstone, LGBTory, London, Maria Miller, marriage equality, Matthew Sephton, same sex marriage

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