Not so ‘gay friendly’ New Labour

THIS IS an important week for gay rights activists. On 1 July tens of thousands will gather for Pride. Three days earlier, representatives from 34 trade unions assemble for the Lesbian and Gay Conference of the TUC (LGTUC).

Lionel Wright, Socialist Party Lesbian Gay & Bisexual Group & MSF Delegate to LGTUC (personal capacity)

In May 1997, along with millions of workers expecting a reversal of the Tories’ attacks, many hoped a ‘gay-friendly’ Labour government would implement gay rights legislation.

Three years on, there has only been one substantial change. The ban on lesbians and gay men serving in the military ended in January. But Labour only lifted it after opposing European legal proceedings by people sacked from the armed services.

It was a similar story with employment rights. Labour opposed railworker Lisa Grant’s European action, and then blocked a Bill which would have given lesbians and gays more rights at work.

Since then the government has proposed a voluntary ‘code of practice’. But this will depend on the goodwill of employers.

The TUC’s ‘Straight Up’ campaign for anti-discrimination legislation is an important initiative. But the campaign should be widened and as a first step, unions still affiliated to Labour must demand that sponsored MPs support statutory protection.

The TUC general council failed to act upon last year’s conference resolution calling for a national demonstration against racism, fascism and homophobia in the wake of the Soho and Brixton bombs. But in the same year that trade union membership rose for the first time in a generation, racist attacks multiplied. The trade union movement ignores the threats of racism, and all divisions between workers at its peril.

Against this background, both an equal age of consent and the repeal of Section 28 have been undermined by right-wing counter-offensives. But, as a motion to the LGTUC puts it, Labour’s “half-hearted” approach has helped produce this backlash.

On Section 28, we face the prospect that when it goes in England and Wales as well as Scotland, repeal will only lead to new difficulties for gay people.

After 12 years campaigning for gay youth to enjoy equality in sex and relationships education, Labour’s post-Section 28 policies in Scotland and in England and Wales makes statutory requirements for teachers and others to emphasise marriage as the most ‘desirable’ form of personal relationship.

The gay rights lobby group Stonewall has deteriorated into a mouthpiece for the New Labour government instead of a fighting organisation. On every key issue, like the abuse of trust ‘safeguards’ to the age of consent, the watering-down of the repeal of Section 28 and the voluntary code ceiling on employment rights, Stonewall has traded away our just demands.

Long before the Blair government and its Scottish counterpart surrendered to the family values brigade on Section 28, Labour had spoken of “ensuring that we do not undermine the family”.

This is the ‘joined-up thinking’ of Blair’s political programme of shifting responsibility for social provision away from the state to individuals. Pensioners, single parents and students have all been targeted for cuts to protect the market system.

Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people should join a union and its gay section – and help set one up if necessary. Gay activists should link their campaigns with the working class to mobilise a force for change which no anti-gay tycoon or evangelical caucus can block.