Owen Jones: Cameron was courageous on equal marriage but it could have happened under Labour

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

In an exclusive PinkNews interview, gay columnist Owen Jones praises David Cameron’s “courage” on equal marriage, claims the reform could have happened under Labour, and delivers some tough words to Ed Miliband on the party’s communication strategy.

The influential commentator, who has a column for The Independent, also believes that if Stonewall, Britain’s largest gay rights charity, had begun lobbying for equal marriage much earlier, it may have resulted in Labour implementing the reform whilst it was in office.

When asked if he admired Prime Minister David Cameron for his support on equal marriage, Jones told PinkNews.co.uk: “Well, I think it shows how far things have come, whereby after decades of struggle throughout the 20th century of LGBT people who fought for equality before the law, who in their day in the 1960s and 1970s were demonised, persecuted and spat at in the streets, vilified by the mainstream press and by the entire political establishment virtually.”

“Where you end up going from that to a situation where a Conservative-led government is implementing legalisation which certainly for LGB people is the last legal obstacle to formal equality before the law, to be treated as equal as everybody else … obviously that was part of David Cameron’s detoxification of the Conservative Party as he sees it – then again of course there is no getting around the fact that most Conservative MPs did not want this legislation.”

He adds: “Obviously less than half of Conservative MPs could bring themselves to vote for it.”

In May, at third reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, 128 Conservative MPs voted against the bill, with only 117 voting in favour.

Citing those who opposed David Cameron’s support for marriage equality, Jones says: “He had what remains of the mass membership of the Conservative Party pretty angry about it, UKIP yapping at the heels of the Conservative vote and [they] have tried to capitalise on the gay marriage situation.

“So yeah in some senses of course what he did, did take some political courage”.

Whilst moving on to praise the last Labour government for its role in spearheading LGBT policy by equalising the age of consent, introducing civil partnerships and outlawing homophobic discrimination via the creation of the Equality Act, Jones says the arrival of equal marriage “above all is down to the struggle and sacrifice of LGBT activists throughout history, who for a great cost were vilified and demonised by the press, seen as ‘poofs’ and ‘queers’ and ‘deviants’, who when they marched in the early 1970s were regarded as beneath contempt.”

He says: “It was that courage and determination of ordinary people, most of whom will remain faceless, airbrushed out of existence that got us to where we are today and that can never be forgotten.

“So the fact that it ends up with a Conservative-led government at that last hurdle is testament to that absolute commitment and dedication of so many thousands of LGBT people in this country and elsewhere who often at great cost to themselves fought for equality.”

Asked if some LGBT voters would view David Cameron in a different light because of equal marriage, Jones tells PinkNews.co.uk that the Prime Minister “framed it in Conservative terms his support for gay marriage.”

“Marriage being a traditional institution extending it therefore was somehow a conservative thing to do,” Jones says. “Obliviously the traditional position of the Right is that marriage is only an institution that makes sense between a man and a woman, so whilst using conservative terminology he certainly is going against what that long-standing conservative argument was.”

He adds: “Obviously it’s a real shift because the last piece of homophobic legislation implemented in this country was in 1988.” Section 28 of the Local Government Act introduced under the administration of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools.

Jones says: “We’ve gone from that to a Conservative Prime Minister supporting gay marriage – now obviously that’s a huge result, it’s a huge turnaround. And it is a double-edged … at the end of the day you’re right David Cameron didn’t have to do that – it was a mixed blessing as well because it certainly flushed out some of the more wacky elements of his party and thus reminded people ‘hang on a minute’ there’s large swathes of the Conservative Party who still regard gay people as being lesser human beings, so inevitably it flushed out those people and gave them a national platform.”

Returning to the Prime Minister, Jones says: “But in terms of him there’s no question … it’s a turnaround for him, because originally he did support Section 28 when he stood as a Conservative candidate in 1997, but I don’t doubt his sincerity on [equal marriage] clearly it took a genuine personal commitment on his part to support this legislation in defiance of large swathes of his party – not sure he’ll get much political benefit out of it in truth.”

Stonewall, the UK’s main gay and lesbian equality charity, only announced its support for equal marriage in October 2010 – five months after Labour left office. Jones subscribes to the view that lobbying efforts from key LGBT stakeholders began relatively recently. When asked if the Labour Party regrets that it didn’t introduce equal marriage during its last period in government, he replies:

“You didn’t have a massive lobbying campaign on the part of Stonewall or other organisations to support gay marriage. There was this argument that there wasn’t the appetite out there amongst LGBT people. I mean I have to say I’m not known to be one of New Labour’s greatest champions, but I don’t think we should take it for granted all the things that did happen in those 13 years for LGBT people because it was emancipatory in lots of ways. [For instance] the equalisation of the age of consent, the right to have adoption, the right not to be discriminated against, it was a whole range of measures which stopped a situation where gay, lesbian and bisexual people were seen as inferior in as far as the law was concerned.

“Now I think when it comes to equal marriage all of that was to do with pressure from below, as I said huge pressure from below over many, many decades and that was just a culmination of all of that and the fact attitudes had changed. In the early 1980s the social attitudes survey found over two thirds of Britons thought homosexuality was wrong – it’s less than a third today – and again that’s to do with all of that struggle, it’s to do with people who went out and changed other people’s attitudes.”

Returning to Labour’s record, Jones tells PinkNews.co.uk: “But the fact [Labour] got so much under those 13 years for LGBT people – was a product of all of that.

“I think if they had won the election [in 2010] they would have got round to gay marriage bearing in mind all of those measures were staggered over 13 years, they didn’t happen in the first term.”

In the run-up to the 2010 general election, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown was the only party leader to explicitly rule out marriage equality in a question and answer session with PinkNews. At the time, Nick Clegg told PinkNews that he supported same-sex marriage, while David Cameron said he was “open” to introducing marriage equality.

“There was certainly a faction in the old Labour leadership [who weren’t keen on equal marriage]. I’m amazed at ones today actually who aren’t keen on equal marriage,” Jones says to PinkNews.co.uk.

128 Conservative MPs voted against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill at the third reading – along with 14 MPs from Labour and 4 Lib Dems.

Former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Labour MP Stephen Timms, was one of the most high-profile Labour figures to oppose the bill.

In February, the Catholic MP said the main reason behind marriage was procreation.

Mr Brown voted in favour of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill at third reading in May.

When asked to clarify if he was referring to Labour activists or ex-ministers in his remarks about certain Labour figures being uncomfortable with equal marriage, Jones says: “Obviously you will get a certain… if we look at the polls most people support equal marriage and Labour supporters are more likely to support equal marriage than Tory voters are clearly by quite a distance.”

He adds: “There has always been a socially conservative section of the Labour Party, smaller than the Tories, but it has always been there which has opposed equal marriage.”

Jones continues: “The majority of Muslim Labour MPs voted in favour of equal marriage in direct contrast to some of these white Christians in the Conservative Party who didn’t and I thought that was an interesting development and that confronted a lot of people’s attitudes.”

With the government’s flagship equality reform now enshrined in law, many including Jones are worried that politicians and also LGBT campaigners may be less inclined to do anything else significant at a policy level in the run up to the 2015 general election.

“And that’s why we can’t have complacency and that is a really important point,” Jones tells PinkNews.co.uk. Yes, we have won the battle for formal legal equality, I mean in lots of way that is the significance of gay marriage.” But he believes introducing civil partnerships for heterosexuals should have happened alongside the reform.

“There’s always been a small radical section of the gay rights movement which has said [marriage] is a heterosexual institution ‘we don’t have to accept hetronormative patterns of behaviour’ – fair enough don’t get married then – but that’s not the point, really above all else, yes it’s about the right of getting married but it’s also to have total, formal legal equality, that you will no longer be treated any differently before the law whether or not you are gay or straight.

“One thing I would like to see changed as soon as possible is for straight people to be able to get civil partnerships, because there are lots of people who don’t like the baggage that comes along with marriage – my brother being one of them – he’s had a civil partnership in France with his girl friend but he can’t get one in this country and again I think that has ramifications for LGBT people because it’s still the point we are not being treated equally so in a sense that is the last legal hurdle to allow straight people to get civil partnerships.

“But more broadly than that the battle that still has to be fought is for social acceptance because being LGBT is still stigmatised in society – particularly for transgender people obviously – LGBT people are far more likely to be bullied, there is a pandemic of homophobic bullying in playgrounds in this country, we have homophobic bullying in work places and local communities, you have the fact that LGBT people are far more likely to suffer with mental distress, more likely to tragically take their own lives, we still have people tragically be beaten up and even killed in this country because they are LGBT.

“So you still need a very pro-active stance on behalf of the government to have a proper campaign against homophobic bullying, to educate people when they are young about these things – that should be included in sex education from as early age as possible. So we can’t be complacent, until you can hold hands with your partner who is the same gender as you anywhere in this country without fear of intimidation or abuse then the battle still has to be waged – and that still has got a long way to go.”

The Tories and UKIP in 2015

The passage of same-sex marriage through Parliament caused the Conservative Party to lose a significant amount of support and goodwill from its traditional grassroots base, but Jones believes the issue is unlikely to feature significantly as a reason for disgruntled Tories to vote for the UK Independence Party – who do not support equal marriage – in the 2015 general election.

“I think if UKIP benefit in 2015, if they do well, it will be because of much bigger reasons [such as] issues like immigration and so on.

“Now clearly a few months ago David Cameron seemed to be in quite a lot of trouble. You had the local elections where the Conservatives did badly, UKIP obviously had a bit of a breakthrough. You had chaos over lots of issues, a sense that he wasn’t conservative [enough], committed to issues like the EU, and gay marriage exasperated that, it was seen as a sign of contempt that his leadership had for the party because most of the party grassroots – or a lot of them – have this contempt to what they see as this socially-liberal Notting Hill set, who have metropolitan values which aren’t in line with traditional conservative views and gay marriage for them summed that up.”

But the political weather for the Conservatives has changed in recent months.

“Things have moved on,” Jones says to PinkNews.co.uk. “Obviously they have got a sense of unity because unfortunately the Conservatives have quite a clear message at the moment.” Citing their pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership by 2017, Jones describes this as a “fudge” to placate Eurosceptics and believes it has “stored up” trouble for David Cameron at a later stage – in the event he remains prime minister after the 2015 general election.

Jones offers the following advice to Ed Miliband in order to bolster his Labour leadership, telling PinkNews.co.uk:

“What the Tories do is they have their messages and they hammer away incessantly. ‘We’re cleaning up Labour’s mess’, ‘We’re in this mess because they overspent’, ‘union barons’, ‘welfare is out of control’, [if] you say those things over and over again they go into people’s heads – even if they are based on myths – and Labour needs clear, sharp messages which are the same, which do that and they don’t have them at the moment.”

When asked if Labour needs someone again like Alistair Campbell to deliver the party’s communication strategy, Jones laughs: “I wouldn’t go that far no … I don’t think having a clear message depends on one particular spin doctor I think it’s common sense. I think the problem with Ed Miliband’s approach is that he often thinks one speech sorts everything out: he does a big set piece speech on immigration or social security and he thinks ‘job done’ – but it doesn’t work like that because most people haven’t listened to the speech outside of the political bubble – I mean who the hell is sitting at home during the day and watching that? No one apart from me and you, and a few other political hacks, that’s just the reality.

“You have to keep saying a message over and over and over again.” Jones believes Labour currently has failed to do this, saying: “They let these myths like overspending just enter the public consciousness, end up being so embedded it’s very difficult to take them on now, ends up with people like me, who are left-wing critics of New Labour having to defend its record against its own supporters by taking on [these] myths about public spending: it’s ridiculous.

Jones concludes: “So it’s just about having that clear message, saying it over and over and over again, until people are tearing their hair out because when I hear ‘we are clearing up Labour’s mess’ it drives me to distraction but it works because it does enter into people’s consciousness!

“So that’s what Labour has to do, it’s not doing it at the moment, and unless it does that… most people when you ask ‘what does Labour stand for?’ You get a pretty blank expression.”