by Kevin Meagher
Putting aside the question of whether same sex marriage is a modest extension of equal rights for gay and lesbian couples or the handcart society will be pushed to hell in – and judged purely as an exercise in policy-making – this week has been a disaster.
The refrain that the measure was not in any party’s manifesto at the last election and didn’t even make it into the coalition’s programme for government is no less important given the frequency with which it’s cited as a grievance by opponents of the bill.
Neither, for that matter, was there a green paper to allow proper deliberation; just a rushed public consultation, which saw a significant majority of respondents strongly opposed to the idea. And as it now stands, the legislation is lopsided with the failure to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.
Moreover, the law of unintended consequences means most religious communities who opposed the encroachment of the state into their affairs are left with threadbare assurances they will be unaffected by the change. Case law will in due course ensure that they are.
The church hall test will see priests and vicars forced to defend a policy of letting heterosexual couples use their premises while barring gays and lesbians. Meanwhile the charitable status of religious organisations who do not readily accept this new definition of equality will be endlessly challenged. The culture war will rage long after this week passes.
But behind this inexorable fallout lies the basic failure to quantify the need for legislation. Why has same sex marriage become such an urgent cause? After all, the numbers of gay and lesbian couples entering into a civil partnership – which accords all the main legal benefits of marriage – has been in decline pretty much since the measure was first put on the statute book.
There were 15,437 civil partnerships in 2006, the first full year that the measure was in place. This dropped to 8,728 in 2007 – a 44% fall in the first year – and the last available figures for 2011 shows it falling still further to just 6,795 – a 56% drop in just five years.
Of course this could be because gay and lesbian couples are boycotting civil partnerships as they don’t feel the measure offers them true equality, but this is not a point campaigners have made.
Same sex marriage is not, in the vernacular, evidence-based policy-making.
Upholding the principle that gay and lesbian relationships are fully equal is a fair enough cause, but is the main purpose of our parliamentary process satisfying the frustrations of campaigners with the existing law, regardless of the scale of the grievance?
If same sex marriage is an issue of general public importance then surely it should be discussed openly during an election campaign, put in a manifesto, voted on and then enacted (assuming majority consent), with the weight of public acceptance put behind it?
None of this has happened and whatever side of this particular issue you come from, it is clear there is a vocal and passionate lobby which holds a diametrically opposite view. There is little public consensus and we are left with one side of public opinion legislating over the heads of another.
This is never an ideal situation, but is usually managed by those who are seeking change, of whatever kind, obtaining a clear electoral mandate to do so (as was the case, for instance, with Labour’s fox-hunting ban).
Indeed, with coalition government possibly becoming the norm, how can voters make sense of who to support when parties not only break their commitments (the Lib Dems and tuition fees springs to mind) but embark on significant legislative change which seems to materialise out of the ether?
The left should be particularly concerned about the precedent set by this week’s manoeuvrings.
What if the next Queen’s speech contains measures to dramatically erode workplace rights, or to curtail environmental protection, or to scrap the minimum wage, none of which are in the Conservative or Lib Dem manifestos?
In such a scenario it is worth bearing in mind that Labour frontbenchers would automatically reach for exactly the same accusation that opponents of the SSM bill did this week: “You have no mandate from the electorate.”
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut