New Labour, New Hype?
Before the election, Labour courted the queer vote with promises of gay law reform. Peter Tatchell says that since winning power, Labour's record has been mostly a succession of delays, u-turns and half-baked reforms.
The election of a Labour government last May was a moment of celebration for many lesbians and gay men. Most of us were delighted to see the Tory perpetrators of Section 28 get their come-uppance.
In the post-election euphoria, almost everyone had high expectations of the new Labour government. Optimism was the norm. Stonewall was bidding for full equality by the year 2000.
Now, only eight months later, the hopes of May 1997 are already fading. While Tony Blair continues to reiterate his opposition to homophobic discrimination, Labour has failed to deliver any concrete reforms that will significantly improve the lives of gay people. The long-promised free vote on the age of consent has been consigned to some unspecified future date between now and late 1999, and Labour has dropped its commitment to end the ban on lesbians and gays in the military. How did it all go so wrong so quickly?
During the campaign, Labour presented itself as a friend of the gay community. Senior party members spoke out in support of homosexual equality. At a Stonewall meeting in the House of Commons last February, Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, pledged a free vote on the age of consent and the repeal of Section 28. Shortly afterwards, he confirmed Labour's determination to allow lesbians and gay men in the armed forces.
Although these promises were not the comprehensive programme for equality that many of us wanted, they were a start - offering the prospect that more reforms might follow once Labour won power.
These hopes were soon dashed. Within days of Blair sweeping into Downing Street, a Labour spokesman warned that the new administration had no plans to equalise the age of consent; it was only committed to a free vote and, no, it could not say when this might happen. A week later, government officials announced they would seek to uphold the exclusion of homosexuals from the armed forces when the ban is challenged in the European courts. As for Section 28, its repeal has disappeared off the political agenda. We are now told it will be scrapped "sometime in the next five years". Labour is unwilling to give a precise timetable for this or any other reform.
Disillusion with the government is already evident. Early returns in the Gay TimesReaders Awards 1997 show strong voting for Labour in the'Shame On You' category.
But political commentator and former Tory MP, Matthew Parris, is more conciliatory. "These things take a little time", he cautions. "After only a few months, it is a bit early to complain that nothing has happened".
Home Office Minister, Alun Michael, who is also Labour's spokesman on gay matters, agrees: "We have come into office with an enormous range of issues which we are committed to deal with, and there is a hierarchy of priorities".
In terms of government pledges on gay equality, Michael says the age of consent is "the most important issue". If that is the case, Labour's vagueness and hesitation on the consent issue casts a pessimistic shadow over the future of law reform.
It was not always like this. In 1985, 1986 and 1988 the Labour Party conference voted by huge majorities for "full legal equality", including a reduction in the gay age of consent to 16. It committed a future Labour government to introduce legislation to equalise the consent laws. This remained the party's official policy until shortly before the age of consent vote in parliament in 1994 when, in defiance of conference policy, the leadership downgraded its commitment to a "free vote". That meant no three-line whip on Labour MPs. They could vote for or against an equal age. This new policy was, claimed Labour officials, the best way to ensure cross-party support and victory. In fact, it contributed to defeat, as some of us had long feared.
Thirty-seven Labour MPs took advantage of the free vote to oppose 16. Their actions scuppered the equality amendment, which was lost by only 27 votes.
The free vote fiasco prompted renewed questions about the seriousness of Labour's commitment to lesbian and gay human rights. Issues of discrimination affecting women and black people are never left to a free vote. All Labour MPs are expected to endorse equality. Why should the human rights of gay people be relegated to the whims and fancies of individual MPs?
Labour is unmoved by these concerns. The next parliamentary debate will also, it insists, be a free vote. This doesn't matter so much now. With Labour's massive majority and a new intake of younger, more gay-friendly MPs, victory is assured. But when?
Ministers are promising a free vote on the age of the consent "at the earliest opportunity". However, the government still refuses to sponsor legislation itself, stressing that it must be a back bench initiative. This stance has been criticised by the Liberal Democrat MP, Dr Evan Harris: "The government will need to explain why it does not feel able to legislate itself on this critical human rights issue. If (it can) legislate on racial violence and is not asking a back-bencher to do it for them, I don't see why the human rights of gay men and lesbians should be different".
So where do we go from here? According an agreement in September between Angela Mason of Stonewall and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, there are now two scenarios for reform. One is a back-bench amendment to the current Crime & Disorder Bill, which could result in an equal age of consent by next summer. This looks doubtful. It is thought that an age of consent amendment would fall outside the scope of the Bill. Because the Bill is restricted to the issues of youth crime and anti-social behaviour, an amendment to equalise the consent laws might be ruled inadmissible.
The other, more likely, scenario is a back-bench motion on the principle of equality. Home Office officials say that if an amendment to the Crime & Disorder Bill is not possible, the government will make parliamentary time for a free vote "by the end of 1998". If this resolution on the principle of an equal age consent is carried, the government will then table its own legislation "before the end of 1999 at the latest".
Home Office policy advisers admit this second vote could be as early as next autumn, but possibly not until late 1999, in which case Royal Assent for an equal age of consent might be delayed to the year 2000 - or even later if there is obstruction in the House of Lords. In 1994, their lordships voted 245 to 71 against 16. They could do so again. If this happens, equality may be held up for a further several months until the government was able to invoke parliamentary procedures to overrule the House of Lords.
Undaunted by these potential delays, Chris Smith, Minister for Culture, Media & Sport, confidently predicted there will be an equal age of consent "by November 1998".
Meanwhile, the law continues to have its wicked way. Although there are less than 30 arrests a year for under-age gay sex, many thousands of 16 and 17 year old gay men, and their partners, remain at risk of prosecution.
Does Labour care? Jack Straw was recently asked by OutRage! to declare a moratorium on age of consent prosecutions, pending the outcome of the free vote. He refused.
Nothing symbolises Labour's flip-flops on gay equality more clearly than the abandonment of its pre-election pledge to lift the exclusion of lesbians and gay men from the armed forces. This U-turn came just a fortnight after Home Office Minister, Alun Michael, reassured the gay community that Labour would change service regulations to permit homosexual enlistment.
The warning signs of Labour's change of heart were, of course, evident a year before the party formally jettisoned its policy. When the parliamentary vote to scrap the ban was held in May 1996, Tony Blair didn't attend and he declined to express his support for an end to military discrimination. In a much-publicised Labour "free vote", not much more than a third of the party's MPs backed equality in the forces. Although only eight voted to retain the ban, two of those eight are now Defence Ministers. Most Labour MPs didn't vote at all.
The government's current position is that it will fight attempts to overturn the ban in the European courts. This contradicts Alun Michael's pledge three days before the election. When asked if repeal of the military ban would have to wait until the result of the European court cases bought by dismissed gay service personnel, Michael said: "No, it won't". This clearly implied that seeking to uphold the ban in the European courts was not an option. Now it is more than an option; it's official government policy!
The latest twist in the military saga is that the Cabinet is panicked by the likelihood of a ruling against the ban in the European Court of Justice. This could result in the government being forced to pay up to £1,000 million in compensation to service personnel forced out because of their homosexuality. The cost of the policy is, apparently, more of a worry to Labour than any human rights considerations.
The Observer alleges that the government is now seriously split on the issue, with the Prime Minister's advisers urging no change in policy because, they claim, there is no electoral advantage in lifting the ban. The Ministry of Defence is, meanwhile, pursuing a totally different policy. It is reportedly preparing contingency plans for a Clinton-style'don't ask, don't tell' compromise.
Despite this shambles, Labour's defenders point to its new immigration rights for same-sex couples as proof that the government is delivering reform. Stonewall was quick to pop the champagne corks and hail the "big breakthrough". But the policy contains so many restrictions it will benefit only a small minority of lesbian and gay partners. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants condemned it as "quite onerous".
Under the new rules, foreign partners will be given permission to settle in the UK only after the couple have been living together for four years. But the maximum stay granted to foreigners under the work and study permit systems is usually three years. That will make it impossible for most couples to satisfy the four year cohabitation rule.
Moreover, any application for settlement will be rejected if either the foreign partner or their British lover do not live in accommodation which they "occupy exclusively". Tough if they share a house with others. The application will also be turned down if either partner claim "public funds", presumably including income support, housing benefit, old age pension, incapacity benefit or a student grant. Too bad if they grow old, lose their job, get sick or want an education. New Labour: tough on love and tough on the people who love.
Interviewed on BBC's Panorama programme about gay law reform, the lesbian Environment Minister, Angela Eagle, was sure the government would make "very considerable progress". When quizzed on what this progress might be and when it might happen, she replied enigmatically: "Watch this space". That is precisely the problem. We are watching but all we can see, so far, is the empty space of Labour's legislative vacuum.
Gay Times, January 1998.
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