Does the legalisation of same-sex marriage by a Government led by a Conservative Prime Minister mark a new relationship between the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community and the Conservative Party? Indeed, did such tensions ever truly exist? I met Colm Howard-Lloyd, the Chairman of LGBTory, an affiliated organisation that promotes LGBT rights within the Conservative Party, and marched with the Conservatives at Brighton Pride to learn more about those LGBT voters who are proud to identify with the political right.
In his keynote address to the Conservative Party Conference in 2011, David Cameron spoke of his support for legalising same-sex marriage. “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative,” he said. The change in political discourse over time towards the LGBT community is demonstrated by the shifting position of the Conservative Party leadership. The difference between Mr Cameron’s statement and the content of Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988) passed during the third Thatcher Government, which stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” is stark, and reflects great societal changes. In fact, in the current Parliament, the number of “out” Conservative MPs is larger than all of the other parties combined.
However, the symbolism of Section 28 and the prevalent social conservatism within well-organised sections of the Conservative Party has long been used by political opponents to suggest that the Conservatives and LGBT voters are not compatible bedfellows. Indeed, LGBT Labour’s slogan “Never Kissed a Tory” is testament to the assertion that LGBT Conservatives do not exist, or, at least, do not come out of the political closet. Not so, argues Colm Howard-Lloyd, the Chairman of LGBTory. Noting the effect Section 28 has had on the appeal of the Conservative Party to LGBT voters, he said, “The only stick that we receive in comments is that it’s the party of Section 28. The Prime Minister has spoken about that. You either talk about what it [Section 28] did and didn’t do. For us it’s something that belongs in the past.”
For Howard-Lloyd, even though attitudes towards the LGBT community have changed “massively,” the attraction of the Conservative Party has not: “The Conservative Party has always been very broad in its appeal, and in its politics. The big difference now has come in leadership.” He argues that the Conservative Party has a distinct benefit to certain elements of the LGBT community: “There’s a definite attraction when you don’t have children to a smaller state and a lower tax burden.”
The aversion certain members of the LGBT community have towards the Conservatives was on display at Brighton Pride. Brighton, renowned for being the “Gay Capital of the UK”, hosts an annual Pride which rivals London’s in scale, in a city approximately 50 times smaller in population. Clarence Mitchell, the Conservative candidate for Brighton Pavilion (currently represented by the only Green MP, Caroline Lucas) invited 50for15 to parade with the local Conservative organisation.
As we processed through the city from the seafront to Preston Park, waving rainbow flags and handing out “Never Ed, Kiss a Tory” stickers (an anagram of “Never Kissed a Tory”), the crowd’s reaction was divided. Shouts of “Section 28” were hurled by older members, yet high fives were offered by younger merrymakers as they proudly donned their new stickers. For those wearing “Never Kissed a Tory” merchandise, those marching with the Conservatives were only too obliging to pucker up.
Speaking about the varying degree of support for the Conservatives between different ages, Charley Jarrett, a young Conservative parading with the group in Brighton told 50for15, “The fact that a Conservative Prime Minister brought marriage equality through Parliament is important. I won’t pretend there are hordes of young people who will now vote Conservative who wouldn’t have done so before, although I’m sure there are a few. I do, however, think that introducing marriage equality has opened up the party as an option for young liberal-minded floating voters.” Colm Howard-Lloyd also reflected upon the difference in views younger LGBT voters held toward the Conservatives in the 1990s and today: “When I was 18 it was considered quite odd to be, quite frankly, gay and Tory. It surprises me that now we have big [LGBT presence in] university memberships. Attitudes are changing.”
With around 250 days left to the General Election next year, LGBTory will be taking that fight to the marginal too. With LGBT candidates in Lancaster and Fleetwood (1 of the 50 marginals we will be visiting) and close races in Brighton too, it is clear that the role of LGBT activists will have an outsize impact in the final outcome of the election. So when Howard-Lloyd criticises LGBT Labour’s slogan “Never Kissed a Tory” as vacuous and “not even true mostly,” it appears that the current generation of LGBT voters will not be saving all their affections for the political left.