Liberation Generation: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality beyond 2000

Chapter 5

New Labour – same old story


given an opportunity at the European Court to stand up for equality in Lisa Grant's case against South West Train's anti-gay employment discrimination, New Labour defended South West Trains


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Labour's track record

AFTER 18 years of anti-gay policies and legislation from the Tory government, great hopes were vested in New Labour's apparently more 'modern' outlook. Surely under their huge majority, which included initially three out gay MPs, anti-gay laws would fall like a house of cards.

But a quick look at their chequered track record would have led us to not expect too much.

When gay rights activist Peter Tatchell stood for Labour in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, after first trying to disown him, Labour turned to defend him only by denying his sexuality.

In 1986, only a short time before the gay community began preparing for battle against Section 28 becoming legislation, a letter from Labour's headquarters urged constituency parties to distance themselves from gay rights issues in order to win elections. Jack Cunningham as shadow spokesperson at the time stated that there was nothing objectionable in the bill containing Section 28.

Margaret Beckett expressed "reservations" about fostering children with gay or lesbian couples, revealed in her letter to the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights. In 1992 she persistently dodged a Pink Paper survey about the Labour leadership's attitudes to lesbian and gay equality.

In government, education minister David Blunkett and then leader of the House of Commons Ann Taylor initially voted against and then absented themselves from the vote on whether to equalise the age of consent for gay men.

Where Labour did make some positive difference to the gay community was through a few left-wing councils in the 1980s, before the rise of New Labour.

These councils, under pressure from lesbian, gay and bisexual activists in the trade unions and Labour Party, developed policies, which promoted equal opportunities. The limited funds that were made available assisted the gay community's efforts to develop self-help initiatives. These services bolstered efforts to break down the isolation of gay people, in particular, helping to build the confidence of a new layer of activists who promoted the battle for gay rights within workplaces and community.

This was during the Thatcher government's era - a government which, while carrying through vicious anti-working class policies, attempted to build support for itself by harping back to the 'golden era' of Victorian social and economic ideas. Part of this appeal to 'traditional' values was to play on anti-gay bigotry, which was used to great effect in undermining left-wing Labour councils.

Unfortunately, these councils played into the Tories' hands by not linking their more progressive social policies to mobilising a struggle against Tory local government cuts. The Tories played one against another, blaming local government cuts on Labour funding of minority, including gay, community services.

Actually very little was spent: left-wing Haringey council had only spent £127,000 on minority groups and Camden only £133,000 up to that point. But Section 28 was designed to play on anti-gay prejudice, giving a pretext for curtailing council spending. Meanwhile, the lack of fight to defend services generally let the Tories get away with branding these councils and their pro-gay policies as 'loony left'.

Section 28 was a prime example of how prejudice can be manipulated to send up a smokescreen behind which wider attacks on working-class living standards can be made. The Local Government Act 1988, into which Section 28 was written, represented the biggest attack ever on council finances and housing.

New Labour in power

MANY PEOPLE expected New Labour to blaze a trail to redress the balance of government action in favour of working-class people and to counter the years of bigotry and reactionary ideology from the Tory era.

Certainly their acceptance of openly gay MPs and ministers represents a major change in government attitude but what matters more is their policy towards the rest of the gay population.

Instead of prosecuting their expressed intention to "end unfair discrimination" they have equivocated and delayed, at times even defending anti-gay policies.

Their policies and outlook stem from three main influences.

Lost roots

TO MAINTAIN themselves in power, New Labour attempts to face in all directions at once. Their 'modem' liberal face sits uneasily with their attempts to placate traditional right-wing groups in the Commons, Lords and gutter press and their 'moral panic' philosophy.

As immigration minister Mike O’Brien said: "The government makes no commitment to making any changes to the immigration rules for lesbians and gay men... we were worried about the tabloid newspapers ranting on about floods of gay and lesbian immigrants coming into the country"

So the tabloid press, dominated by a handful of billionaires, decides whether or not Labour will carry out their promise to end unfair discrimination".

In Blair's 1998 Labour Party conference speech, after stressing the importance of policies to strengthen the heterosexual family, he makes a peace offering: "The sexual revolution won't be replaced by a new Victorian era. Women won't give up the chance for a career as well as children. Gay people aren’t going to go back to the days when everybody knew about it but nobody admitted it and we called it morality."

But prejudice is not necessarily fuelled by head-on bigotry. In promoting the traditional family as the 'norm', the 'bedrock' of society, by implication all other personal arrangements are not the ‘norm’, are not 'desirable'. Taking it one step further, these alternative ways of living can become scapegoats for the failings of society to provide a stable and secure life.

Side-stepping the problem

LINKED TO this is the deliberate sidestepping of the greatest cause of instability in society - social and economic inequality.

Rather than recognise that social disintegration, crime, drug abuse and violence are rooted in the poverty caused by previous Tory, and now New Labour, pro-big business policies, Blair's administration blames the 'disintegration of the traditional family'.

In his speech to Labour Party conference 1997 (echoed in later statements), Blair argued: "We cannot say we want a strong and secure society when we ignore its very foundation, family life." Trying to distance himself from the Tories' approach, he added: "This is not about preaching to individuals about their private lives. It is addressing a huge social problem. Attitudes have changed... But I am a modern man leading a modern country and this is a modem crisis.

"Nearly 100,000 teenage pregnancies every year. Elderly parents with whom families can't cope. Children growing up without role models they can respect and learn from. More and deeper poverty. More crime. More truancy. More neglect of educational opportunities. And above all more unhappiness."

But rather than finding the resources to carry through a vital expansion of jobs and publicly provided social support services, and implement a decent minimum wage, they blame 'irresponsible' single parents, family break-ups and 'good-for-nothing’ parents.

The focus falls on policies designed to push heterosexual couples to stay together at all costs. The government's 1998 'family' policy makes divorce harder - if children are involved it could take up to three years. They have ignored calls to scrap the Child Support Act which forces lone parents into financial dependence on their child's father. At the same time, they attack lone parents' benefits.

This focus on the traditional heterosexual family as the 'salvation' of society is a strong factor in staying their hand towards conceding full equality to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Some in the liberal establishment argue that the government should avoid continued alienation of the gay population by allowing gay marriage or equivalent partnership agreements and equality in terms of housing, parenting, pension rights etc.

But many others from society's elite share the thinking of Baroness Blackstone who, in explaining why New Labour would not back the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Bill, said: "We recognise the central value of the family and marriage. For generations, marriage has provided for millions of people a strong and stable base for the bringing up of children in a rapidly changing world. The Bill goes to the heart of that issue. It invites us to treat same sex couples as the equivalent of a family unit. What we must do is to tread a careful path between taking account of social reality and at the same time ensuring that we do not undermine the family."

In hock to big business

ANOTHER FACTOR that stays New Labour's hand against legislating for gay rights is their cosy relationship with big business. If employers squeal that equal rights will cost too much, their interests are put first.

New Labour had an opportunity to include the principle of gay equality when they incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, but failed to do so.

Given an opportunity at the European Court to stand up for equality in Lisa Grant's case against South West Trains for anti-gay employment discrimination, New Labour defended South West Trains. Backroom whispers that the case would fall because of the financial implications for other employers were borne out.

Another argument cited by Baroness Blackstone for the government not supporting the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Bill was that it might have costly implications for pension schemes.

As the economic crisis deepens and employers seek to make savings at their workforce's expense, it will take even more pressure to win non-discriminatory employment rights.

Despite this, there has been progress in securing equal opportunities policies that include sexual orientation in a number of companies. But, as the South West Trains case shows, that does not necessarily mean that they will be put into practice.

When Lisa Grant took South West Trains to the High Court in Britain, (this case ran concurrently with a case that Lisa also took to the European court) she was told that equal opportunities policies are not contractually binding. So it will still take strong workplace trade union organisation to enforce equal opportunities where they have been agreed.

Resources needed

MEANWHILE NEW Labour's public spending policies will continue to block acceptance in society of a diversity of family relationships, including gay relationships. To do so would require that those aspects of life for which the system relies on the traditional family, would be backed-up by well-run and resourced social and community services.

This would mean a massive shift of resources towards comprehensive social provision of child care, care of the elderly and other dependants, economic independence for those requiring benefits and jobs for all. These are things a socialist plan of production and organisation could achieve (see below), but will not feature in the pro-capitalist thinking of the New Labour government.

Even while there has been economic growth, New Labour has pursued public spending cuts and a further dismantling of the welfare state. They seek justification for this by shifting the responsibility for welfare provision onto the traditional family. In parallel, they turn a blind eye to the £23 billion owed by big business in corporation tax and cut their taxes.

What hope is there that this will change during recession when the government will squeeze public spending and the living standards of working-class people even more?

IN THESE complex ways, anti-gay prejudice is structured into capitalist society. Yet, people are constantly struggling against the restrictions of choice placed upon them. Perpetual propaganda aimed at denigrating lone parents has met with little success because it contradicts the reality of too many people's lives. Similarly, significant headway has been made against the barrage of anti-gay prejudice.

But progress in this battle will not be smooth - we must prepare ourselves for an almighty struggle.

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