The Gay Marriage Vote – A BBC Analysis

voterTuesday 5th February 2013
Mark Forrest BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[G]RAHAM BARNARD: Government plans to allow gay couples to marry have cleared their first Parliamentary hurdle, but it’s thought many Conservative MPs voted against the Bill. MPs voted this evening by 400 to 175 to support same-sex marriages, a majority of 225, but the large number of No votes suggested that many Tory backbenchers took advantage of the free vote to register their opposition to the proposals. The Conservative MP Tim Lawton insisted the No vote wasn’t a revolt. (TAPE)
TIM LAWTON: Let’s just put this into perspective. This is not Conservative Party policy. It was a free vote, and therefore MPs are free to vote as their conscience leads them, accountable to our own constituents. This is not a rebellion against the Government, against the Conservative Party, or even really against the Prime Minister. This is a clear body of concern on this specific issue.

[M]ARK FORREST: It must be the most talked about vote to happen in Parliament for months. Some are calling the vote on gay marriage a “landmark moment”. We’ll speak to our political correspondent live in Westminster on events tonight in the House of Commons.

[M]ARK FORREST: MPs have backed David Cameron’s plan to legalise gay marriage by a margin of more than two to one. But it’s thought more Conservatives opposed the idea than supported it. And the measure only went through with the help of Labour and Liberal Democrats MPs. The Prime Minister says it’s a step forward for equality, but his critics say the proposal threatens traditional marriage. We’re joined from Westminster now by BBC Local Radio’s Political Correspondent Paul Rowley. So what does this vote mean?
PAUL ROWLEY: Well paradoxically David Cameron is a winner and a loser. He’s managed to convince the Commons to back this idea by a pretty hefty margin, 400 votes to 175. But yet he hasn’t convinced his own party. It’s thought 132 Conservatives backed the Prime Minister, but 139 voted against him. And there’s estimated to be another 30 abstentions in the Tory ranks who aren’t happy with this. Four Liberal Democrats also opposed the move, some of them on religious grounds, and a small number of Labour MPs as well. It’s a free vote as they call it Mark. It’s seen as a conscience issue. So those who are seen to have rebelled today, they won’t be disciplined. Those in favour argue it’s only fair that gays and lesbians are allowed to marry. Those against, many hold pretty staunch religious beliefs, say it’s wrong on the grounds that marriage is traditionally a sacred vow between a man and a woman. But the measure has passed what’s called its Second Reading, so effectively Mark it’s the first staging post on the way to becoming law.
MARK FORREST: So with those figures of Conservative MPs, 132 For, 139 Against, 30 Abstentions, if he couldn’t and he knew he couldn’t get the support of his MPs, why would the Prime Minister have pushed ahead with the vote?
PAUL ROWLEY: Because he believes in it. I know it’s terrible old-fashioned, but he thinks it’s only fair to extend the institution of marriage to gay couples who at present are allowed to hold civil partnerships as they’re called, but they’re not technically weddings or marriages. That was introduced when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. This goes that extra step. Part of the calculation is David Cameron sees himself as a progressive who is in tune with modern Britain, although clearly this is alienating him from a large chunk of his own party. Tend to be traditional Conservative, tend to be older, and don’t like change. But there are safeguards here Mark. It won’t mean you’re going to get gay weddings in churches for example, or in mosques, or in temples. Both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are against the idea, so these ceremonies will largely be held in registry offices, although a lot of critics made the case today in what was rather a passionate debate I have to say that once this becomes law, there could then be challenges in the courts on human rights grounds, which could well be successful. And that’s why you’re seeing such vehement opposition from a large section of the Conservative Party.
MARK FORREST: And for David Cameron himself, the fact that he hasn’t been able to convince his party to agree with him, does that leave him stronger or weaker?
PAUL ROWLEY: Well his critics would say it leaves him weaker, because he’s at odds with many in his party, and he’s leading a divided party. So they would say his authority has been undermined. He doesn’t see it that way. He would like to portray himself as a social reformer, leading his party kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And to be honest with you, he didn’t have to do this. This was not in the Conservative’s manifesto. He sought this fight. And it reminds me a lot of Tony Blair when he first became Labour leader. His ratings went through the roof when he took on his own side, when he took on Arthur Scargill or Ken Livingstone. So in the short term yes, David Cameron will be bruised by this, with many Conservative activists have been threatening to leave the Party and warning this is going to cost them votes for the next election. I think the Prime Minister takes a different view. He knows if he wants to win that election outright this time, not in a coalition, he needs to appeal beyond the Tory base. This is an issue he feels that could .. the phrase they use is “detoxify” the Party of what Theresa May, now the Home Secretary, used to be the Tory Party Chairman, she said ten years ago the Party had a “nasty” image. So that’s a deliberate attempt I think to try to change the Conservative Party, often against its very nature. So frankly I don’t think David Cameron will lose too much sleep over this Mark. Frankly I suspect privately he’s rather relishing the fight.
MARK FORREST: Well he might have one, because if you think about it that vote’s gone through with a 225 majority, but think back to similar votes on abolition of Section 28, equalisation of the age of consent, didn’t they all come to a bit of a stumbling juddering halt when they went to the Lords?
PAUL ROWLEY: They did, and I suspect there will still be problems in the Lords. But again I suspect this ultimately (will) go through. Yes there are varying stages. It now goes to what’s called its Committee Stage, then the Report Stage and Third Reading in the House of Commons. There may be amendments along the way. There are already safeguards that have been introduced to pacify those who are rather concerned about this. Yes it will go to the House of Lords. There will be opposition. I’ve no doubt though Mark this will be law within the year. There are safeguards as I say. And it was a rather emotional debate I have to say. One MP claimed he was the subject of death threats for opposing the measure. Another called for a referendum on the issue. David Cameron’s calculation? I think like David Steel back in 1967 when he introduced the Abortion Act, got a lot of flack for that, it is law and people now accept it. Similarly Roy Jenkins that same year with the legislation on homosexuality. Again he got a lot of criticism within his own party. That is now accepted. So I think that’s the view of David Cameron. He’s thinking long term. You don’t often find this with Prime Ministers, party leaders or even football managers. They tend to think of the next day’s headlines, the next result. But certainly, despite that, I’m told tonight David Cameron is not only a relieved man, he’s pretty pleased at the result in the end that it wasn’t worse for him within his own party. At least he’s got it through the Commons.
MARK FORREST: Just before I let you go, just a quickie Paul. I said in the introduction that some were describing it as a bit of a landmark moment. You’re there. Did you get a sense it was quite important, this vote? Was that how it was perceived by MPs?
PAUL ROWLEY: I think in history you don’t tend to notice it while it’s happening. I think today, when people look back, this is the start of a change. And maybe there is a calculation politically for David Cameron. He has to change his party. He’s got to win votes from younger voters. He’s got to win votes from Northern voters. He’s got to win votes from women. And I think he needs to reach out beyond his Conservative base. A lot of activists won’t like that. They may even resent that. But I suspect he’s made a step today. I think genuinely he does believe in this particular issue. It’s fascinating, and we shall see whether or not this goes down as important, as I say, as the Abortion Act and the Homosexuality Acts of 1967.