Defence minister: Equal marriage contributed to Tory local election losses

PinkNews logo on a pink background surrounded by illustrated line drawings of a rainbow, pride flag, unicorn and more.

Gerald Howarth, a junior defence minister who opposed equal rights for gay couples in the armed forces and marriage equality generally says the government’s proposals to allow gay and straight couples equal access to civil marriage were a contributing factor in election losses last night.

In local elections around the UK, Labour made large gains on the Conservatives, gaining hundreds of seats and the control of 22 councils, an estimated 39 percent of the vote over the Tories’ 31 percent, according to BBC figures.

Mr Howarth, Minister for International Security Strategy, told the BBC: “There are issues, for example, like the proposals for gay marriage.

“A lot of Conservatives have written to me saying ‘I am a lifelong Conservative, there is no mandate for this, why is this being proceeded with?’.

“There is the business of trying to change the House of Lords. Do we need to do this at a time when the nation is preoccupied with restoring the public finances?”

A pledge to consider replacing civil partnerships with marriage was contained within the Conservatives’ equalities manifesto before the 2010 election and was covered by mainstream media.

Mr Howarth said in 2005 that giving gay couples in civil partnerships serving in the armed forces equal rights to straight couples was “quite upsetting for families in the married quarters and I am personally very much opposed to it. I am emphatically against homosexual marriage and I voted against the [civil partnerships] bill.

“This is a Christian country and Christian teaching is very clear on these matters and I am extremely concerned that young people today are being bombarded with literature which suggests that a homosexual relationship is the same as a heterosexual relationship, which it is not.”

Mr Howarth supported Edward Leigh MP’s amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to allow cohabiting siblings to enter civil partnerships, an amendment roundly rejected by the Commons. The Christian Institute also backed the amendment, saying civil partnerships were “about rewarding sexual relationships that are morally wrong”.

By 2011, when Prime Minister David Cameron had announced proposals to allow gay couples to marry, Mr Howarth had tempered his position, saying: “Some of my best friends are in civil partnerships, which is fine, but I think it would be a step too far to suggest that this is marriage. I take the view that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. That is what Christian marriage is about.”

The government has subsequently been at pains to point out that the proposals only apply to civil marriages, not religious unions, a move which unpopular among faiths who wish to marry gay couples and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper who wrote on that plans must make allowances for the freedom of faiths to marry gay and straight couples alike.

A ComRes poll commissioned by the Christian Institute and released at the weekend showed the equal marriage question was not enough to sway the majority of voters to or from any particular party.

Figures also appeared to show that potential losses in Conservative voters in a general election would be substantially, though not entirely, made up by voters attracted from Labour and the Liberal Democrats by the commitment to equal marriage, which has similarly been made by those parties’ leaders.

Although extrapolated from a small sample, marriage equality appeared set to win back 10 percent of disenchanted Tory voters and reconfirm 30 percent of the group’s decision to no longer support the party.

Tim Farron, president of the Liberal Democrats, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that more right-wing policies at this point would be ‘bonkers’.

He said: “It was almost amazing that the Tories managed to not win the 2010 general election but the thought that they would somehow build themselves up to a majority by lurching to the right to try and bring back people they think they’ve lost to UKIP – insofar as anyone in the Tory Party should take political and strategic advice from me, can I just advise them that would be bonkers.”

Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “These results, while it is never a good feeling to lose councillors, are well within the normal range of mid-term results for governments.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant said this morning that Tories who claimed marriage equality for gay couples or Lords reform as reasons for the loss were “barking”, and that the Labour boost was down to the state of the economy.