Tony Blair sent a message of support to last summer’s Pride Festival pledging Labour’s commitment to “build a new Britain free from discrimination”. But since then, Labour has flunked and fudged on lesbian and gay equality.
Despite the furore over the Bolton 7 prosecution, the government will not support moves to scrap the offence of “gross indecency” which criminalises consenting gay sex. It may allow an amendment repealing this law to be debated at the Committee stage of the Crime & Disorder Bill, according to Stonewall, but on the understanding it will be voted down.
“The government does not have a commitment to changing the law”, says Stonewall’s Director, Angela Mason, who recently met Home Office Minister Alun Michael. “They haven’t thought it through”.
This unwillingness to back the repeal of blatantly discriminatory legislation is the latest in a series of Labour fudges on gay equality. While campaigners realise the government has lots of other important issues to deal with, its resistance to gay law reform has left many of Labour’s most loyal gay supporters feeling battered, bruised and betrayed.
There was widespread dismay last year when the new government opposed Lisa Grant’s appeal to the European Court of Justice, which sought to overturn South West Trains’ policy of refusing spousal benefits to the partners of lesbian and gay employees. Labour justified its stance with the claim by Employment Secretary, David Blunkett, that it wanted to bring about equal rights through “legislation, not litigation”. But where is the evidence of Labour’s intention to legislate? The government has no draft Bill and no timetable for workplace equality. Is Blunkett’s claim just another empty promise?
During the recent campaign to save the Bolton 7 from imprisonment, Labour revealed its true colours. Despite being lobbied by both Stonewall and OutRage!, Home Office Minister, Alun Michael, and Home Secretary, Jack Straw, declined to express any sympathy for the men. Indeed, in response to a letter from OutRage!, Mr Michael said: “Until the law is changed it remains in force and enforceable”.
In Labour-run Bolton, the party hierarchy distanced itself from the defence campaign. Only one of the town’s three Labour MPs – Brian Iddon – spoke out in support of the defendants. His fellow Labour MPs, Ruth Kelly and David Crausby, refused to criticise the prosecution.
According to Ian Wilmott of the Bolton 7 Defence Campaign: “It is disgraceful that Bolton’s Labour councillors have not condemned the conviction of their gay constituents. None of them attended the public meeting or the candlelight vigil”. Wilmott says he wrote to 35 north-west MPs, seeking their backing for the Bolton 7. Most of these MPs are Labour. Only a third offered any encouragement or support.
Anger with Labour looks set to grow during the parliamentary vote on the age of consent, which is now expected in May. It is feared that some back bench Labour MPs might attempt wrecking amendments, possibly under the guise of protecting young people. This could muddy the waters, making a vote on 16 less than plain-sailing.
Donald Anderson (Swansea East) has made clear his desire to block equality, arguing it threatens “many vulnerable young people” who will be “manipulated” to “move into a lifestyle which is not their own”.
His Labour colleague, Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) – not a well known supporter of gay rights – is contemplating an amendment to make 18 the age of consent for both gays and straights. “There doesn’t seem to be a problem with gay consent at 18”, he argues. “There’s a case for raising it for everyone”.
Another Labour MP who voted against 16 in 1994, Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw), plans to put down an amendment forbidding people in positions of “authority, influence or trust” – such as teachers and social workers – from having sex with a person under 18 in their care. This restriction would apply to both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
Ashton’s proposal has won sympathy from Health Secretary Frank Dobson and Employment Secretary David Blunkett. The Home Office told Gay Times it is considering proposals along the lines put forward by Mr Ashton, although Home Office Minister Alun Michael said he regards it as a separate issue from the age of consent.
But if Labour is committed to equality, why does it back the discriminatory provisions of the Sex Offenders Act? Under this Act, a 20 year old man who has consenting gay sex with a 17 year old man is categorised as a dangerous sex criminal, on a par with rapists and child abusers. Equivalent straight sex is not penalised. The government shows no willingness to remedy this inequality, which recently resulted in two of the Bolton 7 being forced to sign the Sex Offenders Register after they were convicted of consensual sex with a youth aged seventeen and a half.
Meanwhile, Labour’s current legislation on hate crimes is outrageously biased. The Crime & Disorder Bill stipulates tough new penalties for racially-motivated assaults, but totally ignores violence against lesbians and gay men.
Last December, OutRage! submitted a draft amendment to the Home Office, widening the Bill’s scope to increase the sentences for all crimes motivated by prejudice (including prejudice against sexual orientation, HIV status and transexuality). Four months later, the government has still not indicated whether this amendment will be accepted. As the Liberal Democrat MP, Dr Evan Harris (Oxford West & Abingdon), observes: “Homophobic violence is every bit as deserving of harsher sentencing as racial attacks”.
Labour does not, unfortunately, accept that racism and homophobia are comparable. Alun Michael told Gay Times last November that the need for action against racial violence was a long-standing Labour commitment, but the case for similar action against homophobic attacks was not yet proven.
Since 1990, OutRage! has three times requested the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons to investigate anti-gay violence. These requests were not only rejected by Tory MPs; even Labour members of the Committee were disinterested.
After the May 1997 election, Julian Corlett, of the Scunthorpe Gay Men’s and Women’s Group, lobbied the new Labour Chair of the Select Committee, Chris Mullin MP (Sunderland South). Mullin’s response was that pressure of work meant the Committee was “unlikely” to examine the issue of violence against lesbians and gays. This is the same lame excuse given by his Tory predecessors. Despite its burdensome work-load, over the last decade the Committee has found time to produce three reports on racial attacks. Why does violence against black people merit three investigations and violence against gay people none?
Labour double-standards are also evident on the Human Rights Bill, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. As it stands, the Convention protects nearly everyone except queers, offering no explicit protection against homophobic discrimination. Last year, before the general election, Jack Straw told OutRage! he “would be ready to consider appropriate amendments to the Convention itself”. OutRage! is therefore proposing an amendment specifically outlawing discrimination based on “age, disability, sexual orientation and medical condition” (to protect people with HIV). With only weeks to go before the final vote on the Bill, the government still is “considering” the amendment.
Scottish campaigners have experienced similar frustrations. Outright Scotland sought to amend the Bill outlining the powers of the new Edinburgh parliament to ensure that its equal opportunities remit included “sexual orientation or identity”. The Labour-controlled Scottish Office has opposed this amendment, arguing that sexuality is covered by the clause prohibiting discrimination based on “other personal attributes”. Outright Scotland fears that the lack of an “explicit and visible” commitment to lesbian and gay equality could, in future, be cited by the new Scottish Parliament as an excuse for neglecting homosexual rights issues.
Looking at the government’s record over the last year, what comes across time and time again is Labour’s unease at being publicly associated with the promotion of lesbian and gay equality.
The Prime Minister’s wife, Cherie Blair, did not duck defending lesbian rail worker, Lisa Grant, in the European Court of Justice. But after Labour’s election victory last May, she suddenly became the most publicity-shy lawyer ever to take a case to Europe. At the apparent suggestion of Labour spindoctors, Cherie insisted on being smuggled into court by the back entrance. She also refused to be interviewed by the press or photographed with Lisa.
“We’ve never had a case where a barrister doesn’t pose for pictures with their clients”, said the court press officer.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Tony Blair has adopted the same arms-length support. His message to the 1997 Pride Festival was read out by Culture Secretary, Chris Smith. Notably avoiding any mention of the words “lesbian” or “gay”, and offering no specific legislative reforms, Blair confined himself to a bland, general commitment to equality: “The new Labour government wants to build a new Britain free from discrimination”.
Even the lesbian Environment Minister, Angela Eagle, seems to be orally-challenged. At last October’s Stonewall Equality Show, shortly after she came out, her speech was oddly oblique. She thanked everyone who had written to her “after my announcement”, but did not once utter the word “lesbian” and failed to express any support for gay equality. Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, when she outed herself, Eagle made a point of emphasising that she had no desire to be a spokesperson for gay rights.
Peter Mandelson is another Labour big-wig who is remarkably reticent about his sexuality, despite being outed by the News of the World in 1987. He voted for an equal age of consent in 1994, but Mandelson has never given an interview to the gay media, never appeared at a gay community event, and never publicly endorsed any gay rights campaign.
Also disturbing is the party’s attempt to cover up the circumstances surrounding the suicide last year of gay Labour MP Gordon McMaster. Labour’s Chief Whip, Nick Brown, dismissed allegations that McMaster had been driven to kill himself by anti-gay smears. These were allegedly made by McMaster’s Labour opponents in a bid to discredit and unseat him. Labour’s official inquiry concluded, however, that the MP’s suicide was the result of “a depressive illness”. Although one Labour MP was suspended, the party failed to take any disciplinary action against other members who were allegedly responsible for the homophobic whispering campaign against McMaster.
As if all this was not bad enough, there is now an awful whiff of puritanism emanating from Labour. In January, Jack Straw blocked attempts by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to relax the guidelines on sexually explicit films, which would have allowed gay videos showing oral and anal sex to be sold in licensed sex shops. He also vetoed the appointment of progressive-minded Lord Birkett as chair of the BBFC, imposing instead Andreas Whittam Smith, who immediately vowed to crack down on pornography.
Despite Labour’s illiberal twists and turns, Angela Mason of Stonewall remains confident of long-term gains for gay rights: “We are not in a situation where the government is turning its back on us. My sense is that Labour is listening, but it is uncertain how to proceed. Over the five years of this government, there will be substantial progress towards equality. I don’t think they want to oppose us. Compared to other groups, like single mothers and the disabled, you could say we are doing quite well”.
Published as “Labour Watch: Battered, Bewildered and Betrayed” –Gay Times, April 1998.