This time last year I had a debate with two opposition activists about the Equal Marriage proposals and the passage of this seminal piece of legislation through the corridors of power.
The debate was not about whether we supported the proposal; it was clear that all of us - from across the three main political parties - were cheerleaders of the matter. I from the civil liberties perspective that Equal Marriage was the last great piece of equal rights legislation after almost 15 years of action on social justice from an ostensibly Labour government. They from the perspective that the Coalition was in the centre, had changed, and was proud to be introducing something that Labour didn’t; reflecting middle England and progressive social change.
I warned them both at the time that the Bill would not get through without Labour votes and was universally rounded upon. I warned them both that their local parties did not share their idealistic views about the issue. I was right on both accounts.
Medway Labour locally is a plural and diverse organisation and it is the intent to represent all the people of Medway irrespective of gender, creed, colour or religion. We are a tolerant and outward looking organisation. Our motion at Full Council backing the Coalition on Equal marriage should have got firm support from across the spectrum; it instead descended into a group therapy session for the Conservative Party who to this day have never quite apologised for some of the arguments presented. The Medway Liberal Democrats alas did not support Equal Marriage either; and one activist resigned.
Some younger Tory voters locally have suggested that this solely reflects the dinosaur tendency of the Medway Conservative Council Group and some traditional party members. The vote in Westminster busts that myth entirely with MPs under 40 backing the wrecking amendments just as strongly.
This is not a dig at two of our MPs who backed Equal Marriage; but it is a dig at their party for which they, as members, should accept responsibility as influencers.
Equal marriage was delivered by a Coalition government but it was not delivered by the Parliamentary Conservative Party; who actually backed the wrecking amendment in more numbers then didn’t. After months of dither and delay on this issue – and brutal attacks on Maria Miller from her own side - Cameron announced it was a free vote; knowing full well the scale of discontent. The same man who stood before his party conference when in opposition and made it a totemic issue of his modernising premiership. You know, I didn’t see Tory PPCs turning, talking to the press or running away on issues of religious principle then; and nor do I now. Convictions are strongly held on these issues it would seem; but for Tories to claim they were not pre-warned is just balls.
For those over the age of 25 many recall the Tories as a tribe on LGBT issues, such is the so very recent history to this. Many can recall the opposition to civil partnerships; the voting records on adoption rights; the statements on equal age of consent; the maintaining of localised versions of ‘section 28’ which meant teachers were gagged not to talk homosexuality. I was a product of this education; no education, nothing. The Thatcher speech to party conference code for a party which was happy to play divide-and-rule with the LGBT community. Tories in hindsight claim there was a culture shift since the 1980s yet it was this week, in 2013, a majority of Conservative MPs didn’t back it.
Labour could have backed the Loughton amendment and used this amendment to highlight Cameron’s own weakness. It could have kicked an issue into the long grass and merely added Equal Marriage in its next manifesto for government; I know many were concerned in Labour to this end; and the pressure was I can assure being applied. Instead and rightly the party put the national interest and that of millions of its citizens first. There can be no prouder moment after almost 15 years of changes under New Labour to see full equality in relationships and as a result of our votes.
The Tories have never apologised for the misery caused to millions of our citizens who felt victimised by a right-leaning political culture which only changed with the election of New Labour in 1997. Former Conservative chairman and MPs blaming Equal Marriage for local election failures and lesbian Queens tell you everything. Utterly grubby.
Many LGBT Tory voters will rightly celebrate Equal Marriage and I am the first to lift a champagne glass with them; but it wont remove the pain caused by the Tory party over the last thirty years; and the ignominy of huge numbers backing a wrecking amendment earlier this week or the language used by those on the right. For many younger Tory voters I just say this is why this mob were out of power for 13 years and fought tooth and nail to stop social progress. Your rights as individual citizens were not in there party self-interest to persue.
Have the Tory tribe as a whole really learnt the lesson of opposition and accepted social progress? I don’t think they have.
And yes that really matters because judgement counts on not just issues like this where the majority of Conservatives were on the wrong side of history, but its character judgement on other issues as well; jobs, economy, law & order, health and our armed forces.
A party in touch and in the centre; or one that isn’t. I let you judge.