'It's not a conscience issue': LGBT Labour on gay marriage

Written by EB: How did LGBT Labour feel about the government consultation on equal marriage? on 1 February 2013 in Diary
In advance of next week’s vote on the Same Sex Marriage Bill, Emma Burnell interviews James Asser – co-chair of LGBT Labour

JA: There was a whole process around equal marriage – partly driven by the Lib Dems who wanted to say “We’re going to do equal marriage, we’re going to get it through nice and easy and Labour funked it in government”. This led to quite a lot of irritation about there being a consultation with an attitude of “why  not just get on with it?”.

But we were happy to support it because we knew this was not going to be easy. As we’ve now seen, it hasn’t been easy and it won’t be. Civil Partnerships wasn’t easy. The consultation helps allay some of these difficulties.

But we were annoyed with how long they delayed the consultation for. We were sceptical as to whether it was ever going to happen. But we contributed to the consultation, and we think it has been helpful in getting us to the point where legislation can be done. But I think people have learned that this isn’t something that can easily be done at any time under any government.

We hope the legislation will pass. We are confident it will pass the Commons. Labour and the Lib Dems will support it about 90:10 in both cases. It’s harder with the Tories, but Nick Herbert said he thought it would be about 50:50, which is more than enough to pass.

The House of Lords is really difficult to say. All the Parties have worse records there. You get Peers who were MPs from less enlightened times who haven’t caught up. On the plus side, Jan Royall and Steve Bassam [Labour leader and chief whip in the Lords] have both said that they think it will pass and that there is a progressive majority for it. So we’re optimistic, but it’s going to take some work. We’ll be lobbying to make sure the yes votes turn out on the day.

EB: All three Parties have decided not to whip their MPs on this vote. How does LGBT Labour feel about this?

JA: With the Conservatives we’re unsurprised. They would never be able to; they have too many people opposed and would have lost Government ministers.

The Lib Dems have done a u-turn. Nick Clegg made it quite clear that not only would he be whipping, but it was terrible that any other party wasn’t. He’s discreetly changed his mind on that because he has a problem with some Lib Dems rebelling which they aren’t particularly talking about.

Labour is disappointing. This is a step backwards from where we used to be. We whipped on Civil Partnerships. It doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority – we expect over 90 per cent of Labour MPs – will vote in favour. But we think it sends the wrong message. We get very annoyed by this idea that LGBT rights is a “conscience issue”. We wouldn’t say that about any other area of equalities legislation. That really causes a lot of anger.

In fact the decision not to whip has cause more anger than anything I’ve seen in my seven years with LGBT Labour and my twenty years as an equalities rights campaigner. I’ve never seen so much reaction from Party members.

EB: It’s been rumoured that Labour decided not to whip because a handful of shadow ministers said they would resign. Do LGBT Labour take a line on that?

JA: The word was that two or three junior shadow cabinet ministers had threatened to resign if it was whipped. We know some other MPs were unhappy about whipping. As I’ve said the decision not to whip has cause enormous upset and anger.

The current position is that the shadow cabinet will in effect be whipped and will all vote in favour, but there will not be a whip for junior ministers or anyone else. We know of three shadow ministers who are not supporting it: Stephen Timms and Robert Flello who are voting against and Gavin Shuker who has said he will abstain. Obviously we’re still contacting them and trying to persuade them otherwise and we encourage others to do so.

I think it’s a very strange position for a Labour shadow minister to take. To say the one thing they have a big objection to is an equality measure; the one thing that makes them unable to stay on the front bench is an equality measure.

This is the Labour party. Fairness and equality is fundamental to what we are about and LGBT equality has been a key plank of that work we did over our 13 years in government. The last Labour government made more changes to LGBT rights than any other government in history.

EB: So you believe that around 90% of Labour MPs will vote in favour. What has been the reaction of the wider party?

JA: It’s mainly been positive. The majority of MPs support it and the majority of members support it. There are a few who are against – a few vocally – and it’s usually for religious reasons.

But the vast majority of members have been really supportive. They’ve been keen to talk to their MPs, we’ve seen councils passing motions in support. If we took this to a vote of party members, we’d get an overwhelming yes vote – we always do on these issues.

EB: What will the relationship between LGBT Labour and those Labour MPs who will be voting against and/or abstaining on the Bill be like from here onwards?

JA: We haven’t discussed it yet – though our members are keen to do so after the vote. We want to have that conversation once we know who has voted what way. Our focus now is on passing the Bill.

We don’t want to spend our time second-guessing people. As we’ve seen during this campaign, some MPs have changed their minds. Barry Sheerman is a good example. He wasn’t sure, he listened to the argument and now he’ll be voting yes. Lindsay Roy said he was going to vote no, he’s now reconsidering after he was contacted by lots of members.

So our message to Labour party members is this: If some MPs are saying no, contact them – some of them will change their minds. If you’re in a position where you don’t feel confident doing this yourself, contact us. We’re trying to gather people’s stories and reasons for doing this. The Party’s front bench have been really great in using these to help their case too. If you can meet you MP and explain your situation, do that too. It’s much harder to vote against these things when they have a face and story attached to them.

EB: Are there any particularly egregious examples of Labour MPs who are voting against?

JA: The no camp is small but mixed. We have people like Jim Dobbin and Joe Benton who always vote against these things and there is nothing we can do to change their minds.

I would raise a question mark about Robert Flello, the shadow justice minister. He says he’s voting against because (and I quote) “he is very religious”. There are an awful lot of people who are very religious who are happily voting for. LGBT Labour has a lot of members who are also religious, the two things aren’t mutually exclusive. The late David Cairns was a Catholic priest before becoming an MP. I imagine he was at least as religious as Robert Flello, but he was also a proud gay man.  

I think those MPs who say they are listening and consulting and haven’t yet made up their minds, need to listen a bit harder to some of their constituents and local Party members. Lots of MPs claim their vote is about their “conscience” but MPs aren’t elected to examine their consciences. They are elected to represent their constituents and members. Given that, perhaps they should be examining their consciences just a little bit more closely! 

Tags: Emma Burnell, Gay Marriage, James Asser, Labour, LGBT, Same-sex marriage

Share this page

Add new comment

More from Total Politics