Labour Lord Alli: We won the equal marriage vote but there is still a long way to go

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Writing exclusively for, Labour peer Lord Alli, the first openly gay peer to be appointed, says he was stunned by the House of Lords decision to support the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill with such an overwhelming majority, and has paid tribute to Conservative peer Lord Jenkin for his powerful equal marriage speech.

This week’s overwhelming vote for marriage equality in the House of Lords was far greater than I had dared to hope for. It showed that a clear majority not just across the country but also in both Houses of Parliament who believe that who we love should not determine the rights we enjoy.

I don’t think there are many pundits who would have bet that us peers would have delivered a larger majority for the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill than MPs did last month. It is a timely reminder of how far we have travelled.

When I arrived on the red benches in the summer of 1998 I was the first openly gay appointment. I was also the youngest ever life peer. The Tony Blair years were an exciting time for equality campaigners such as myself, but they were also a time of blatant prejudice and discrimination.

Looking back at the records of those debates now, the language is still shocking. Regularly peers felt free to label homosexuality as “not natural”, “dangerous” and “a perversion”. Gay man were casually mentioned in the same breath as paedophiles or described as predatory.

These were the last days of the hereditary peers, the backwoodsman, who clung to values the public had long ago rejected. Thankfully, the Blair years also reduced their number and made the terms of debate in the Lords a fairer fight at least.

But the equalisation of the age of consent only made it through by the use of the Parliament Act, a device that has only had to be used a handful of times in the last 70 years; its purpose to ensure that the will of the elected House of Commons cannot be endlessly blocked.

Thankfully as my first decade in the Lords went on we saw further progressive changes as the Labour government legislated to allow same-sex couples to adopt, lesbian fertility rights, civil partnerships, the Equality Act for the delivery of goods and services, and my own amendment to the Civil Partnerships Act to allow them in religious premises for those that wanted to be able to hold such ceremonies.

All of which brings me to the here and now.

In my speech on equal marriage I praised Tony Blair for the seismic shifts in lesbian and gay equality we saw during his time in office. But as a Labour politician, I was also happy to praise the personal courage and leadership of David Cameron on this issue.

Lord Tebbit’s rant about lesbian queens received much publicity, as did other speakers who predicated the end of the world as we know it and asked in fearful tones “whatever next?”

But I am really touched that it is the contribution to the debate from Lord Jenkin – who served Mrs Thatcher in three big cabinet jobs – that has caught the public imagination. Nobody was expecting a politician from the era of Section 28 to speak so simply, beautifully and powerfully. To hear a veteran Conservative in his ninth decade say “I was taught that condemning a homosexual is the same as condemning someone with red hair” gives lie to any idea that only the young care about equality.

We won the vote, but there is still a long way to go. The further stages of the bill will see opponents deploy every tactic and wheeze to try and scupper the legislation. I am grateful to all of you who have put so much effort into supporting marriage equality, lobbying peers and delivering that fantastic 390 – 148 we saw on Tuesday.

But we can’t stop now. The bill comes back in committee the week commencing 17th June, it will have its report stage 8th July and third reading on the 15th July. We need all our supporters with us every step of the way. Please write to those who voted for the bill to thank them. Say how much this legislation means to you. And urge them to be there for the crucial votes that are still to come.

Growing up lesbian and gay in Britain is still tough. The levels of homophobic bulling in our schools are shocking. By passing this bill we can show today’s kids that they are equal before the law and their relationships don’t need to be hidden away but can be loved and cherished. And maybe, just maybe at last everyone will come to think the same way as Lord Jenkin.

Lord Alli became a Labour life peer in July 1998