Labour’s decision to allow a “free vote” on equal marriage has caused understandable upset amongst a significant section of Labour supporters. You see quite a few of us feel a bit let down Ed, since on September 27th there was widespread coverage of your plan to whip Labour MPs in favour of equal marriage. You said it would be “wholehearted”, and even mentioned religious weddings in your Out4Marriage video. I understand why Labour’s position is different now – and outlined it here – but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Whether Ed Miliband likes it or not, he looks like he’s flip-flopping on an issue of huge importance to a big chunk of the party. And all, presumably, to stop a couple of ministers (Gavin Shuker and Stephen Timms have been mentioned) from resigning.
The sad truth is that whilst David Cameron has shown leadership on gay marriage, Ed Miliband hasn’t.
That probably sounds like a dreadfully unfair statement. After all both leaders have allowed their MPs a free vote, and a much greater number of Tory MPs will vote against their leader than their Labour counterparts. All of the shadow cabinet are voting for (have been whipped to?) support equal marriage. And yet what’s really important here is to what extent each leader has gone out on a limb to get this done. David Cameron has pushed his party to accept equal marriage as an issue, despite huge internal opposition. Even getting this on the agenda was a huge achievement for Cameron, and took bravery and no little hard work.
Ed Miliband, by contrast, was not even willing to challenge those in his party who consider gay marriage to be a conscience issue to vote with the clear party line. Saying you support something as leader is great. But unless you are willing to push for it then you’re not leading.
And anyway, what exactly makes gay marriage a “conscience issue”? And why did it only become so when discussing marriage in a religious setting? Why is marriages in church the red line? Why is equality considered a conscience issue? For the record – poverty, inequality, disability and war are all matters of conscience as far as I’m concerned. But I’d expect the party to whip votes on them. If gay marriage is where your conscience suddenly kicks in, whilst following whipped votes on all matter of other issues, you might want to take a look at your priorities. And for that matter, your conscience.
As a straight unmarried man, you might think I have little interest in altering the institution of marriage. Except on two levels that’s wrong. Firstly, I have several gay friends I’d like to see have the opportunity to get married some day, if that’s what they choose. And secondly, at some point I’d like to enter the institution of marriage myself, and I’d like to see it strengthened by it being open to many of the loving couples I know, regardless of sexuality. Having them be able to get married wouldn’t dilute the importance of marriage to me – it’d strengthen it. And I’d like to be part of a party that has equal rights for all at it’s core. Even if that sometimes means challenging socially conservative elements within society.
For those reasons, I was pleased to see the brave stance taken by David Cameron to place himself against much of his party on the right side of history. And I’m incredibly saddened by Ed Miliband’s unwillingness to show leadership, and force certain people into some tough choices on the same issue.
Because making people take tough choices is what leadership is about.