We’ve all been there: a conversation over drinks or during dinner suddenly turns into a stand-off. Some piece of entirely irrelevant trivia becomes the most important of truths. We dig in. We make loud claims about our opponent’s lack of intellectual heft. Phones are produced, Google – or, if you are inclined to hairshirt socialism, Bing – is consulted, and: disaster! We’re horribly, humiliatingly wrong.
That’s what happened to the prime minister in the House of Commons yesterday. For Tory modernisers, the pursuit of marriage equality was meant to symbolise that David Cameron’s Conservatives were no longer the moralising curtain-twitchers of years past, but like an iPhone produced in haste at a dinner party, it did exactly the opposite. We saw yesterday that real change isn’t a superficial and tactical commitment to marriage equality. The prime minister’s rightwing opponents like to compare him to Edward Heath; but Heath cast Enoch Powell into the outer darkness after he spread race hatred on the streets of Wolverhampton while Cameron promoted Chris Grayling after he called for a colour bar for homosexual people.
This week, we’ve seen the Conservatives’ true face: and we saw that Cameron is unwilling and unable to change it. Now it’s the Labour leadership’s moment to show us who they really are. Labour’s Neanderthal tendency is, thankfully, an endangered species, but they don’t deserve special protection from Ed Miliband or anyone else. Marriage equality isn’t complex: it isn’t the question of the state and the church, or an issue of conscience. It hinges on the same question that Roy Jenkins asked in a little-read pamphlet in 1959: is Britain civilised? And the question of whether or not Labour should have a whipped vote on marriage equality isn’t about tactics or strategy. It’s nothing less than an existential question about what Labour is for.
Marriage equality isn’t a distraction or a side issue. It’s at the heart of who we are, of what it is to be socialists. Labour, if it is for anything, must be an unending and unrelenting fight to ensure that no one’s horizons are limited by birth. That means that every child born today should have the chance to stand outside Downing Street and promise to serve the country, and it also means that every child should be able to stand inside a church, pledging to spend their life with someone.
The answering response is that an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs will back gay marriage anyway, and that, thanks to the votes of Labour MPs and Liberal Democrats, gay marriage will make its way onto the statute book regardless of the wishes of Tory backwoodsmen. After all, the difference between a civil partnership and a marriage is little more than words, certainly not worth a public fight over. Whether a marriage or a civil union, a whipped or an unwhipped vote: these are just words. But a promise between two lovers – which is ultimately all a marriage is – is just words anyway, so the words that those people are allowed to use about each other matter a great deal.
Unlike sexuality, commitment to equality is binary: you either are, or you aren’t. There are politicians who have done great things for the labour movement who believe that an uncertain or hostile response to gay marriage is compatible with a commitment to equality. They’re wrong. You can’t have a new Jerusalem if only some people are allowed to use the temples. Miliband should hold his party to a ‘Yes’ vote for equal marriage.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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