Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Jack Straw Is My Darling

In all the fuss over the Comprehensive Spending Review, in which Alistair Darling surprised pundits expecting his speech to be written by Gordon Brown by having large chunks written by opposition parties too, it’s easy to miss that the infamous Minister of Justice has done exactly the same thing. While announcements on air charges, inheritance tax and scrapping capital gains tax relief seem spookily familiar to followers of Liberal Democrat policies, and while Mr Osborne squeaks ‘You’ve stolen the policies I stole from the Lib Dems! But that’s – that’s stealing!’ Jack Straw is also stealing a Lib Dem policy.

Through the last three General Elections, the Liberal Democrats have argued that incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation should be a crime, in the same way that incitement to racial hatred is illegal. I have a particular interest here: I proposed our policy on hate crime on one of its numerous times coming before Liberal Democrat Conference; and I was the member of the Federal Policy Committee who ensured that the policy on incitement to hatred appeared in our 1997 and 2001 Manifestos. Well, Jack Straw has now caught up with the Liberal Democrats, a mere decade later, and has announced ‘Plans to outlaw inciting gay hate’. Good for him, I say through gritted teeth: Jack has form on hypocritical Lib Dem-smearing, but, after all, I wouldn’t want to have him arrested for peddling hatred on grounds of belief. But I have to admit, because of my own background on this policy (though I wasn’t its initial author, and lots of other people have worked on it along the way), my instinctive reaction is ‘That’s my policy you’re nicking, you git!’

As with the shamelessly snatched tax policies, and as ever when Labour does the right thing for the wrong reasons, we’re caught between selflessly rejoicing that they’re implementing changes that’ll be for the good of the country and feeling rather cheesed off that they’re taking the credit for something we did all the work on – and, of course, took all the flak for at election times (including, repeatedly, from the Labour Party). And, just as lifting half our tax package will mean more hard work in identifying more cuts to make to Mr Brown’s bloated bureaucracy so it’s not so complex that only the very wealthy can afford the advisers to use it to their best advantage, we’ll have to work to think up new policies to appeal to the gay community.

The Liberal Democrat Record on Freedom and Equality

The Liberal Democrats have by a very long way the best record on supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality – including sticking our necks out back when doing so was a major political risk. The 1992 General Election was the first in which I was old enough to vote, the first in which I was politically active and the first during which I was an out gay man. The Tories shamelessly used homophobia to drum up support; Labour kept as quiet as they thought they could get away with; and the Liberal Democrats were such staunch advocates for equal rights that we came under heavy fire for it.

When Paddy Ashdown was cross-examined by Jeremy Paxman for his most aggressive interview of the 1992 Election, gay equality was one of the three ‘ludicrous, extreme and unpopular’ policies on which the sneering Mr Paxman hammered Paddy and on which Paddy stood firm (I’ve forgotten one of them, but the other was green taxes – again, long before anyone else supported them). Just about the only positive press coverage on the issue was in a London-based free gay paper of the time. Capital Gay’s front page after the release of the three parties’ manifestos was one of my defining political memories, and one of the very few times in life when the number of inches really did matter. The front page consisted of three columns, printing what each party had committed to on gay rights: the Tory column was empty; the Labour one had a small, embarrassed sentence; the Liberal Democrat one was full, with the largest commitment any party had ever made at a General Election.

By the 1997 General Election, I was both a member of the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee and a Parliamentary candidate. The Manifesto draft presented to the FPC included similar words to those of 1992; I was determined to set the bar higher, and proposed additions that meant we stood on a platform of twice as many commitments. Labour fell silent; the Tories stayed that way. The Daily Telegraph spoke up, and picked out our gay policies in their Leader Column the day after our Manifesto was launched as the vilest things in there to fulminate against (you have no idea just how proud that made me). And I was one of only two out gay candidates the gay press could find from my party: yes, you’re right. I was gobby, and they weren’t looking very hard.

The Labour Government Inaction

Despite their having no balls at all in the run-up to the election or during the election itself, it was generally expected that Labour would act on gay rights once they got into office.

(sound of tumbleweeds going past)

Funnily enough, I said at the time that they’d be just like the Tories, but most people expected better: virtually all the gay people I spoke to; certainly all the gay press; even quite a few Liberal Democrats. Michael Howard had been famous as a bullying, authoritarian, minority-scapegoating Home Secretary for the Conservatives, with the joke at the time that there was only one person in the country more illiberal than he was, and that was Jack Straw, his Labour shadow (in so many senses of the word). Everything Mr Howard said, Mr Straw shrilled that it was too soft and called for something worse. Not to worry, most people thought; it’s just an electoral pose, so we’ll hold our noses and he’ll be better in office. Well, in office he earned the soubriquet of Jack ‘Boot’ Straw, and was infamously rebuked for his ‘child curfews’ by John Redwood, who announced “Even I’m not that right-wing”. Mr Straw and the newly elected Labour Government were quick to boss people around, and slow to tackle discrimination. Mr Straw, then, was scary at the time – but looking back, it’s scarier still to realise that he was the high water mark of New Labour ‘liberalism’. He took Mr Howard’s title as the most bullying, authoritarian, minority-scapegoating Home Secretary in living memory, but he was only the nastiest Home Secretary ever until the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Still, the Liberal Democrats thought they might be pushing at an open door on gay rights, at least: in Parliament over the next few years, Lib Dem MPs and Peers proposed an end to discrimination in the armed forces, in work, in housing, in sexual offences law, in the age of consent, through abolishing Section 28… And what did Labour actually do? Well, you’re expecting me to say zilch, nada, not a sausage, but that isn’t quite true.

Under Home Secretary Jack Straw and his successors, the Labour Government not only voted down every Liberal Democrat proposal to end homophobic discrimination, but – when victims of discrimination challenged it in the courts – the Labour Government fought them.

I’ll say that again.

When homophobic legislation and practice was fought in the courts, Jack Straw and his buddies in the Labour Government actually spent millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money (not just heterosexual taxpayers, by the way) defending homophobic legislation at every step of the way. Is it a surprise that I don’t entirely trust Mr Straw’s motives now he’s introducing one of the many proposals he fought tooth and nail to reject?

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrats didn’t just talk about freedom and equal rights at election time. In Parliament, we consistently fought for equal treatment, and in government in Scotland, we ensured the abolition of Section 2A (the Scottish Section 28) and recognised same-sex partners in the Incapacity Bill. At Westminster, Labour could have delivered, but couldn’t be bothered. Labour ran away from the bigots, trying to face both ways with weasel words to the gay press while pandering to homophobia.

Lib Dem Support for Gay Rights; Gay Support for the Lib Dems

Not surprisingly, the 2001 General Election saw a huge surge in gay support for the Liberal Democrats. All the polls among lesbian, gay and bisexual voters suggested that our vote had more than doubled to between forty and fifty per cent, while Labour’s once commanding lead had disintegrated when faced with the reality of their record in Government. Our Manifesto ‘Freedom, Justice, Honesty’ presented an even more comprehensive package of commitments than our 1997 Manifesto; I was then Vice-Chair of the FPC, and even more able to feed in proposals at every stage. It was the most committed programme of equality before the law that any party had ever put forward in an election.

In 2001, we even produced our first ever Liberal Democrat Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Manifesto, ‘Freedom to be Yourself’. Commissioned and published by the main party like all the other mini-manifestos, it was launched in a London gay bar by a team of out lesbian and gay Parliamentary candidates (yes, me again, but this time we had photo-opportunities with Charles Kennedy and two dozen of us), and – to demonstrate that equal rights were not an add-on extra – every single commitment in ‘Freedom to be Yourself’ was taken directly from ‘Freedom, Justice, Honesty’. The rest of the mind-manifesto was made up of background, philosophy, argument, rhetoric… Well, you can guess the sort of thing, because I wrote it, and against the backdrop of Labour’s utter failure, it was an incredibly easy task, with Labour’s apologits reduced to shrilling ‘But the Tories are worse!’

By the 2005 General Election, writing the Liberal Democrat Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Manifesto was a much harder task for Jonathan Wallace (and not, as you may have been told, for some self-aggrandising Tory). The Liberal Democrats remained consistent in our principles and had been staunch throughout that Parliament, but the main Manifesto contained quite a bit less in 2005. In part, that was because the decision had been taken to reduce the word count drastically: compare the 2001 and 2005 tabloid-form programmes and you can see at a glance which is easier to read, so there was a lot less of everything in 2005. In part, though, it was because a lot of the law had changed.

To give the Labour Government credit where it was due, they did finally decide to bring in civil partnerships after years of voting against Lib Dem proposals for them, and that’s probably the greatest single step forward in my lifetime. Being Labour, though, they also shamelessly claim credit where they deserve none at all. The equal age of consent? Equality in the armed forces? Employment discrimination? Transgender rights? Ask a Labour spokesperson today, and you’ll be told they chose to do all of it. The reality is quite different: it was the Liberal Democrats who were at the forefront of all these campaigns before they were fashionable, and on every one of them Labour – far from choosing to act – changed the law only when they were forced to do so by European Court judgements or EU initiatives, and on several they wasted not just Parliamentary time but millions of pounds opposing equality in court. While the Labour Government posed for the Daily Mail, thousands of lives were ruined by their inaction.

Good For Jack Straw. But Why Didn’t He Take Action In 1997?

So, in the last decade, things have got much better for Britain’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens – but Labour deserves very little of the thanks for it. At every stage, they have been cowering behind popular opinion, while the Liberal Democrats have been leading it. Mr Straw said this week that
“It is a measure of how far we have come as a society in the last 10 years that we are now appalled by hatred and invective directed at people on the basis of their sexuality.
“It is time for the law to recognise this.”
No, Mr Straw. It is long since past time, but it’s mysteriously just the time that you might be worried that Labour needs to do something to win back the gay vote that rightly deserted you.

I’m all for rejoicing over a sinner that repenteth, but I only hope that shiny new Minister of Justice Jack Straw will gain a better record of delivery than former Home Secretary Jack Straw, who fought every inch of the way against the very same proposal every time it was ever put to him and showered such hatred and invective against the people who proposed it in the past.

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