Comment: UKIP is hoist by its own petard because of its same-sex marriage opposition

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Gary Powell writes for PinkNews that UKIP has been “hoist by its own petard” over opposition to same-sex marriage, and flawed arguments about religious freedom and the ECHR.

There are, I have no doubt, many UK Independence Party members and voters who do not have a homophobic bone in their body. After all, LGBT people are able to get selected to stand as UKIP councillors, and can even make it into their senior ranks. The organisation “LGBT* in UKIP” seems to exist fairly happily within the party. The party leadership is even sometimes keen to crack down on its anti-gay crackpots when they break out of their boxes and cause UKIP national embarrassment.

So when I read (with boring regularity) about UKIP candidates saying such things as that homosexuality is an “abomination before God” and that David Cameron is a “gay-loving nutcase”, just as when I read similar racist nonsense from off-message UKIP activists, I can’t help but feel a moment of sympathy for those sane, liberal, truly libertarian UKIP card-carriers who surely find their colleagues’ behaviour a harrowing and frustrating experience.

However, my moment of sympathy does not last for long. It is soon replaced by a consciousness of how UKIP, regardless of the sweet-talk and damage limitation efforts of its libertarian luminaries, quite unscrupulously sold LGBT people down the river on the issue of equal marriage. Oh yes, we still remember that, Mr Farage: even though your party has gone strangely quiet on the issue since the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 became law and ended up achieving significant majority support among the British electorate.

We all recall there were a number of MPs who voted against the Act – MPs from all three major parties but, of course, mostly from the Conservative Party, of which I am a member. Equal marriage is something I strongly support, but I will admit to lacking strong feelings of disapproval towards most of the MPs who opposed it, given that I do not automatically equate such an action with bigotry, (with the exception of the true chauvinistic and religious fundamentalist troglodytes, who have no place in any modern Parliament). After all, just ten years ago, not even the Labour Party – or the leadership of Stonewall – supported equal marriage, which is why we were then given civil partnerships instead. (Which still, of course, represented colossal progress, and was a great achievement by Tony Blair’s Government.)

Just as the Labour Party was probably too nervous about electoral repercussions to introduce equal marriage in 2004, there were, no doubt, a number of jittery Conservative MPs who were wary of what might happen in their own constituencies if they supported the measure. After all, there has been a haemorrhage of members and voters from the Conservative Party to UKIP as a result of David Cameron’s championing equal marriage: a mass exodus of social conservatives and traditionalists, many of whom felt that allowing same-sex couples to marry was a step too far. Some MPs with slender (or not so slender) majorities must have asked themselves whether they wanted to risk their seats, or at least to risk alienating a significant number of local party workers, for the sake of the measure. Some felt the legislation on such an important measure needed more time. There were, of course, other MPs, who, although generally supportive of LGBT equality, found they could not vote for equal marriage for reasons of faith, (such as the thoroughly decent Liberal Democrat MP, Sarah Teather, a Roman Catholic, who had an excellent record on supporting LGBT rights). Calling all those who voted against the Act “bigots” actually devalues a term that needs to be kept sharp and trenchant, because if equal marriage taught us anything, it is that there are still too many real bigots in Parliament.

The word “bigot” brings me back to UKIP. When they decided to oppose equal marriage, the leadership of UKIP were not demonstrating bigotry. They were demonstrating raw opportunism. Here was the opportunity to tap in to the disaffection of social conservatives who belonged to, or had voted for, the Conservative Party, and who opposed David Cameron for championing equal marriage. UKIP’s strategy on this has had a very successful outcome for them so far. Recent research indicates that as many as a third of Conservative Party members are considering voting UKIP in the May European elections: a fraction that could well be reflected in the electorate among those who previously voted Conservative.

As UKIP claims to be a libertarian party, and as it needs to appeal to the mainstream electorate if it is ever to win any seats in Parliament, it needed to find some kind of justification for opposing equal marriage that did not seem, on the face of things, homophobic, bigoted and authoritarian. What UKIP cobbled together in response to this challenge was a dishonest, half-baked pseudo-justification that invoked one of their European bogeymen: the European Court of Human Rights. It was enough to provide less intellectually honest and less intellectually capable homophobes with a convenient anti-equal marriage mantra, and enough to draw hundreds of thousands of socially conservative voters away from the Conservative Party and into the UKIP fold.

UKIP’s public argument was that same-sex marriage would lead to the European Court of Human Rights imposing it on reluctant religious institutions in the UK, on pain of legal sanction. The evidence to contradict these claims of an impending ECHR imposition was, however, absolutely overwhelming. If the ECHR had had any intentions to impose equal marriage on reluctant UK religious institutions on the basis of equalities legislation, then surely it would already have attempted to impose women priests on the Catholic Church throughout the EU. There was not a peep from UKIP about that puzzling inconsistency.

Neither has the ECHR imposed women bishops on the Anglican Church. Or forced the Catholic Church to marry divorcés. Or forced any church or other religious institution to host civil partnership ceremonies. Yet for all the UKIP warnings about same-sex marriage, the ECHR and religious freedom, I never once heard a single UKIP campaigner refer to any of these anomalies.

Furthermore, equal marriage has existed in the Netherlands since 2001, without the ECHR ever forcing any Dutch religious institution to marry a same-sex couple. UKIP has never tried to explain how that could be the case whilst equal marriage in the UK was apparently such a great risk to religious freedom. The legal safeguards that protect religious institutions in EU member states are clearly watertight: but if UKIP ever acknowledged this, it would completely undermine its cynical and disingenuous argument for opposing equal marriage here in the UK.

By using the ECHR as an excuse for opposing equality in this dishonest and cherry-picking fashion, UKIP was, in my view, guilty of deliberate disinformation. Shameless distortions of the truth, as well as deeply flawed arguments, were peddled by UKIP during the campaign for equal marriage in England and Wales. UKIP’s objective was to present itself as a welcoming new home for former Conservative members and voters who opposed equal marriage, and to become a magnet for social conservatives. For a party that describes itself as “libertarian”, UKIP became very authoritarian on the issue of opposing equal marriage, and sacked its libertarian youth leader, Olly Neville, after he had given an interview expressing support for the policy of same-sex matrimony.

Being (predominantly) a libertarian Eurosceptic Conservative, one might have expected me to feel a fair degree of affinity with UKIP. But I don’t. This is because its leadership’s behaviour over equal marriage has exposed them as dishonourable. What I find particularly obnoxious about UKIP is their casual willingness to make LGBT people the fall guys by attacking equal marriage for the sake of greedy and opportunistic vote-grabbing among social conservatives, reactionaries and homophobes, whilst disguising their dishonesty with a transparently selective and misleading reference to UK religious rights and the ECHR.

For instance, has anyone else noticed the deafening silence from UKIP on equal marriage since the Act was passed? If, prior to the Act, UKIP was genuinely concerned that outraged churches, mosques, synagogues and temples would have same-sex marriage imposed on them by the ECHR, then where has this concern gone in the meantime? Why is UKIP not now warning us of the impending human rights atrocity from the ECHR that they had predicted? If religious leaders are now genuinely cowering in trepidation as they await the arrival of the gay wedding planners, shouldn’t UKIP be loudly pledging to campaign for the repeal of the Act, at least until they bring about their planned withdrawal of the UK from the ECHR? Or are they hoping no-one will realise this is a case of “the boy who cried wolf”, and that their opposition to same-sex marriage will be quietly forgotten?

It is as though UKIP is no longer sure what to do with regard to this key policy, now that the Bill has become law, and now that, according to a recent Ipsos MORI poll, even 54% of UKIP’s own intending voters support equal marriage. The shambolic way in which UKIP is trying to find a way out of the mess this policy has landed them in found expression in the statement Nigel Farage issued to Pink News in March this year with the exclusive revelation that UKIP would no longer campaign to abolish same-sex marriage: a statement that caused uproar among UKIP’s anti-equal marriage supporters, and that was then promptly disavowed by Mr Farage the following day and attributed to an internal communication breakdown.

UKIP has been hoist by its own petard as a result of opposing equal marriage with the express purpose of encouraging social conservatives, reactionaries and bigots to support and join its party. Apart from the fact that UKIP’s argument will eventually be exposed as vacuous, the kind of people who have been drawn to the party as a result of this policy are those whose philosophies are at stark odds with UKIP’s self-description as a “libertarian party”. The new supporters UKIP has courted are social authoritarians, and from what we have been seeing in the media for some time, it is their ilk that produces the UKIP crackpots and misanthropes who are now causing the party so much trouble.

Of course, UKIP cannot be both libertarian and socially conservative at the same time, and by trying to play this game for the sake of disingenuous vote-grabbing, UKIP has created a tension in its own party between social liberals and social reactionaries that at some point is going to come to a head. The sacking of Olly Neville was a mere foretaste of things to come. And in the meantime, the bigots whom UKIP managed to lure with its opposition to LGBT equality will continue to chip away the party’s mainstream popularity whenever their crackpottery hits the news. Ukip has brought all this on itself. The surge in votes it will enjoy in the short term is no more than a Pyrrhic victory that will eventually prove to be UKIP’s undoing.

Just how ridiculous a line UKIP is treading in its ultimately futile efforts to alienate neither libertarians nor authoritarians can be seen in its self-description as a “libertarian, non-racist, Eurosceptic party”. It is surely quite an indictment of a political party when it actually has to declare, as a key element of its self-definition, that it is “non-racist”. Surely that is something the electorate should be able to take for granted about any half-decent mainstream party. Yet the choice of the term “non-racist” also begs the question as to why UKIP does not describe itself as an “anti-racist” party. Could it really be the case that too many of its supporters think that avoiding racist comments and actions oneself (at least in public) is quite sufficient, but that being actively opposed to racism in others is going a step too far? Perhaps the LGBT community can look forward to the exciting and joyous prospect of UKIP one day even describing itself as a “non-homophobic” party.

Quite apart from UKIP’s dishonourable behaviour on the issue of equal marriage, it surely makes no sense for Eurosceptics to vote for them when David Cameron has promised a referendum on membership of the EU in 2017, and has said that he will resign if he fails to deliver it. Eurosceptics who vote UKIP instead of Conservative in the 2015 general election will simply make a Labour victory more likely. UKIP has no chance at all of winning that election, and Ed Miliband has said that an EU referendum is “unlikely” if he wins it, so Eurosceptic voters switching from the Conservatives to UKIP will demonstrably decrease the possibility of a UK exit from the EU. It is enough to make me wonder whether the priority of many is to punish David Cameron for supporting LGBT rights, rather than to use their vote in a way that might eventually enable the UK to leave the EU.

In a decade or two, if the UK still remains in the EU (which I hope it will not), UKIP will no longer be able to use the ECHR as an excuse for opposing equal marriage, more countries will have legalised same-sex marriage, and there will be many more younger voters in the UK who oppose homophobic discrimination. In its current form, UKIP will become increasingly out-of-touch with the electorate, with the modern world, and – most importantly – with committed liberal Eurosceptics. Having treated its libertarian, progressive and LGBT supporters, and indeed the UK LGBT community as a whole, with such blatant contempt, UKIP thoroughly deserves the gradual demise that awaits it, as its internal contradictions lead to internal conflicts, and as its reactionary, anti-equality fabulations come home to roost.

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