Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Not sure of Newsround's reasons, but their web page entitled "Gay marriage to be introduced in Scotland" (see blog on 25 July 2012) was altered to "Same-sex marriage to be introduced in Scotland"

Proposals to amend the marriage laws, and dissent within the Conservative Party was the subject of a report on Radio 4's World at One earlier today.

Martha Kearney: More and more people in Britain are having civil partnerships according to figures out today. Nearly 7000 same-sex couples decided to formalise their relationships last year. The total number of civil partnerships since the [Civil Partnership] Act came into force in 2005 is 53,000 - that's five times more than the Government expected back then. But plans to extend those rights to gay marriage have been causing controversy within the Conservative Party, as our Political Correspondent Chris Mason now reports.

Chris Mason: Rewind the clock almost a year, and here is the Prime Minister at Conservative Party conference last autumn.

David Cameron: Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us - that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and we support each other. So I don't support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative, I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative. (conference audience applause)

Chris Mason: Applause from many in the conference hall. But some sat on their hands. Critics of the idea hope that the Government might just not get round to legalising gay marriage. But then a definitive promise from the Prime Minister last week. He told lesbian and gay groups that gay marriage will be legal by 2015. And those remarks have re-energised the debate among some Conservatives. Emma Pidding is the chairman of the Conservative National Convention, which represents volunteers in the Party.

Emma Pidding: I'm aware of a few individuals that feel very very passionately about this issue, either one way or the other. So to them it is a hugely significant issue. My concern is that we are potentially upsetting our members and activists when I have one goal, and that is to obtain a Conservative majority government in 2015. And therefore anything that upsets any of my members, then you know I don't like to see that.

Chris Mason: For Emma Pidding the debate within the Conservative Party on gay marriage probably reflects the debate in society at large. Some are passionately in favour, some are passionately against, many are relatively indifferent. There appear to be three principal strands to Tory opposition to the idea - moral, religious and political.

Chris Mason: Forty-five minutes from Westminster and the marginal seat of Enfield, Southgate in North London which is represented by Tory MP David Burrowes. Mr Burrowes is the chairman of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and a long-standing critic of gay marriage.

David Burrowes: The issue that is being put forward is one that is vote-defining for many people. Even in my constituency, where they know that I am firmly opposed to the proposal, they themselves would say that if that does go through as legislation then they won't vote for me. And that must concern me. I know it concerns many other colleagues, particularly in marginal seats, that whilst there are a lot of other issues to be getting on with; we have coming on the blind side - because it wasn't anything that was in any election manifesto - they see this issue that's come up which many constituents, I understand, more than any other issue are saying, we're gonna vote purely on this issue, whatever else happens.

Chris Mason: David Burrowes case is that for opponents of gay marriage, this introduction would, on its own, be enough to put them off voting Conservative. But for those in favour it wouldn't be enough to tempt them to back his party. Both Mr Burrowes and fellow back-bencher Mark Pritchard support civil partnerships. Mr Pritchard says he'll be keeping a keen ear on what the Prime Minister has to say on gay marriage at this year's party conference.

Mark Pritchard: He may be tempted to reiterate some of what he mentioned in his speech last year, or even go further. I think that in the desire to so-called decontaminate the Conservative brand, there are those that might end up damaging the Conservative brand with our natural supporters and voters in the country, and most importantly our grassroots who support us financially and deliver leaflets day in day out around the land. And we need those people, and we shouldn't take them for granted.

Chris Mason: David Burrowes agrees. The Conservative conference in October will be a useful forum for critics of gay marriage, and, he says, offer a telling local lesson.

David Burrowes: The Conference may well be a time when this issue comes up. We're going off to Birmingham, and I know for a fact that in Birmingham it's a representation of diversity - of different faiths. Talking to, and understanding from Birmingham City councillors they are greatly concerned by this issue, because it's those very communities that we want to reach to, that are really concerned about this particular proposal. And so I think it's a challenge.

Chris Mason: The Government says it'll respond to the consultation on gay marriage by the end of the year. And Conservatives have been promised a free vote on any legislation. It could go through with Labour and Lib Dem support. But at what cost to harmony within the Conservative Party?

Martha Kearney: Chris Mason reporting. Well Scotland could become the first part of the UK to introduce gay marriage, after the SNP government announced plans to make the change. So should that be extended to the rest of the UK? Well Matthew Sephton is the chair of LGBTory, a group that works to promote equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people within the Conservative Party. And we heard a fair range of opposition there, didn't we, among Conservative grassroots?

Matthew Sephton: You know, absolutely. There are significant numbers, significant minority numbers, I would say, who are being extremely vocal in their opposition to the Government's proposals. But you only have to look at the latest YouGov polls, produced in conjunction with Stonewall, where 71% of the general public are shown to support the Government's commitment to same-sex marriage.

Martha Kearney: There are different results though if you look at polling within the Conservative Party. A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times found that 30% of Conservative voters said they backed the plan, 43% said they didn't.

Matthew Sephton: Well I think you'll find that, within the Conservative Party, we know that there are other priorities. There are economic priorities, which are extremely important at the moment. We've got a lot to sort out in the economy. I think that there's almost too much fuss being made about this. This is actually a straightforward thing to get through. And as one of the speakers earlier said, don't take the activists for granted. There are a huge number of LGBT activists within the Conservative Party as well. And it's also the case that they shouldn't be taken for granted too.

Martha Kearney: But then we heard the head of the National Convention - the woman who's in charge of the voluntary party - all those people who go out putting leaflets through letter boxes for you - and she said she was very worried about upsetting them.

Matthew Sephton: Well, you know, I mean I'm one of the people who goes out and campaigns regularly and puts leaflets through people's letter boxes, campaigns every week on a regular basis - along with lots of other people who, I know, are totally in favour of the Government's proposal. As I say, I do think it is, that we have got a vocal minority at the moment who have been perhaps too vocal and I know that we, who believe in the Government's proposals, need to be more vocal as well. You know, because at the end of the day, as David Cameron himself said on Tuesday, we need to be on the right side of history. And I think the Government's proposal to introduce same-sex marriage will put us on the right side of history.

Martha Kearney: Matthew Sephton from LGBTory, many thanks.

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