5 March 2009

For all our progress, Labour must not take the gay vote for granted

Over at CentreRight this week Graeme Archer writes, in what Iain Dale describes as “a beautifully written article”, why he believes that gay people in the United Kingdom are naturally conservative.

The article is focused around the introduction of legislation to protect homosexuals from incitement to hatred, a move that Archer strongly opposes.

The argument that gay people are naturally conservative is a strange claim to anyone who is familiar with Labour’s record on gay rights. His argument is based on the pretext that, in facing discrimination and prejudice throughout life, homosexuals will learn to become self-reliant individuals. “You're fine. You're OK. It doesn't matter what they think about you, or write on some website: you're OK. You either develop that ability for yourself, or you will suffer. No amount of legislation will alter that, still the first and most important lesson any gay person has to internalize”.

He goes on to add that “the words of the people who hate us are real things, with power, in the universe, and I regret them. But their words are less powerful than our own quiet, confident existence”.

Of course he is right in the respect that the prejudice and intolerance that gay men and women face is real and vicious. But he seems to equate being gay and being a conservative with the development of some form of bunker mentality, where we develop coping mechanisms to deal with a world that would rather we did not exist.

I have clearly been under the false impression that campaigning for a free, open and tolerant society was the calling of those who face discrimination. Apparently, however, we are all to accept our fates with mute suffering.

His notion that legislation can not help eradicate discrimination is also somewhat of a mystery to me. Public attitudes do not magically liberalise over night. The Sun does not take a decided step away from antiquated homophobic attitudes because it realises the error of its ways.

Quite simply, legislation does matter and legislation does change public attitudes. Civil partnerships were a watershed moment in the gay rights movement; it was a moment where relationships could step out from the shadow of stereotypes of gay promiscuity and be celebrated in public. What the conservatives don’t seem to realize is that the progress we take for granted now did not happen by accident or because inequality was meet with dignified silence. It happened because of the consistent dedication of activists and campaigners, both within the Labour Party and within the LGBT community more broadly.

The primary thrust of his argument is that gay people in Britain are ‘small-C’ conservatives, but he can’t help but claim that homosexuals are “just as desperate for a Tory administration as our heterosexual friends”.

Now this is the bit that really perplexes me.

We only need to look at the Conservative Party’s recent record on gay equality to realise that David Cameron’s ‘shiny happy people’ façade runs no further than Notting Hill.

The Liberal Democrats have claimed that, since 1998, 80 percent of the 25-member shadow cabinet team has voted against major items of gay rights legislation and that 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 outlawing the denial of goods and services based on sexuality and 54 percent polled in 2007 opposed equal rights for homosexual couples.

When David Cameron was a 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”.

Cameron’s new party Chair, Eric Pickles has never voted on gay equality and Sayeeda Warsi, his Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action, has accused Labour of “allowing school children to be propositioned for homosexual relationships”, and went on to denounce the “promotion of homosexuality that undermines family life”.

Now I do not believe that that Cameron will walk in to No.10 and drop any pretence of a ‘modern Conservative Party’ in order to set about systematically dismantling gay rights legislation. But when he finds himself struggling for Tory support for his flagship policies we can expect him to use gay bashing politics as ‘red meat’ for backbenchers, buying their votes and undermining rights that have been won.

The real lesson from this article though is that Labour must not make sweeping generalistions of the political leanings of the gay community or take their support for granted. Despite the progress that has been made in the previous decade we simply can not take the ‘pink vote’ as a loyal homogenous voting group; we may be gay but we are also homeowners, businessmen and women, motorists, commuters and parents and we, as a party, will ultimately be judged on our entire record at the next election.

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