Saturday, 27 August 2011

Class, the UK Labour Party and a Lesson in Legal Reform

MP's are there to represent the will of the people, right? Well, I've just finished reading the excellent latest volume of Chris Mullin's diaries based on the years 1994-1999 (they 3 volumes have been published out of sequence) and I was struck by an entry on Monday 25 January 1999:

'At ten o'clock there was a free vote on equalising the age of consent for heterosexuals and homosexuals. I voted in favour, which will go down badly with most of my constituents'

Mullin was the MP for Sunderland South between 1987 and 2010 and although he was to eventually make the ministerial ranks, he really made his name as a justice campaigner to free the Birmingham six. He is a happily married man with three kids and often regarded as something of a left winger.

Whilst the New Labour history has been written as being a government and party generous in the reform of gay rights, Mullin's dairies reveal that the left wing MP's did not represent their left wing heartlands. Whilst gay rights has often been cast as a left/right issue, it forgets the working class left-wing ('old Labour') voters who are actually quite homophobic. Mullin makes a calculation that his constituents in working class Sunderland South would not want their MP to vote for this early gay rights measure -but he did anyway. This raises questions about class and whether MP's do and should represent their constituents. If - as Owen Jones - has recently argued, the Labour Party had better represented the views of their constituents, rather than the views of the middle classes and metropolitan elite, they would surely have voted against this measure. I'm doubt that Jones would have wanted that end result, but this diary entry is reminder that truly pioneering reform often comes from ignoring the people. For a democrat, that's an uncomfortable truth to accept.

Despite Mullin's efforts (the Bill was passed with a majority of 207 votes), the House of Lords fought the Bill and it was not until the passing of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act in 2000 that the age of consent was equalised.

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Elly said...

I like Chris Mullin.

I don't feel the need to frame the age of consent legislation in terms of 'gay rights' though I think it is too narrow. The age of consent affects anyone who has sex. Many men who have sex with men, and who have been criminalised for having sex with men, are not, or were not 'gay'.

I think 'gay rights' discourses end up appropriating people and activities that do not wish to be included in the term 'gay'.

You have quite a lot of power as an academic to form the discourse. I say use it carefully.

Elly said...

..and I don't just say this in a picky, theoretical or political way. I have some very direct experience of the issue of the age of consent for men who have sex with men, from before the law was changed.

And it for me has nothing to do with 'gay rights'.

Elly said...

And, it was a Tory woman, Edwina Currie, who in 1994 tried to pass an amendment to lower the homo age of consent to 16. But failed.

But do gay rights activists acknowledge their Tory supporters?

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