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Tuesday 22nd May 2012 | 10:53
In the days and weeks following the Coalition’s overwhelming pasting in the local elections, many on the discontented Conservative Right argued for a refocusing on ‘bread and butter’ issues of jobs and the economy. House of Lords Reform and, more overtly, gay marriage were denounced by these MPs as anti-conservative distractions for a Government that, in the words of Peterborough’s Stewart Jackson MP, should “stop fixating on the agenda of a liberal clique”.
YouGov, however, has produced figures showing the public do in fact want the Government to push ahead with its plans for same-sex marriage, 51% to 35%. People who voted Conservative in 2010 are opposed to the idea by the same margin, 35% to 50%, while those who voted Labour and Liberal Democrat are 60% to 29% and 66% to 24% supportive respectively.
Many have made the contrast with Barack Obama’s landmark announcement on ABC News that he was (personally, in theory, if left to the states) supportive of equal marriage. Indeed, perhaps the most prescient statement made in the President’s announcement was the idea the issue was generational, that to his young daughters, gay relationships were perfectly normal. He commented that for younger voters, the issue cut across party lines, declaring that “sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to... sexual orientation, that they believe in equality.”
So too in Britain, it is likely the driver of support for same sex marriage is age: while pensioners oppose the measure 54% to 33%, those aged between 25 and 40 back it by an eye-watering 69% to 18%. The same poll showed Labour’s lead among the latter age group at a similarly staggering 21 points. This can’t simply be a question of policy but of the ongoing issues younger voters have with the Conservative brand.
For Conservative modernisers, the issue reaches far beyond marriage. To them, it seems obvious that if gay voters or, more importantly, voters with gay friends feel that the Conservative Party brand is in some way prejudiced against same sex couples they are far less likely to be able to support it. Voters under 40 are far more likely to have grown up around gay people, have gay friends, work colleagues and neighbours than older voters who were grown adults at the point of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Chronology plays a far greater role in these perceptions than party or even religion.
In May 2010, Labour had a 34 point lead on ‘seeming rather old and tired’. Two years later, the Conservatives have taken a 4 point lead on this metric. Similarly, just after the last general election, 37% of voters felt that the Conservative Party had ‘succeeded in moving on and left its past behind it’ – now this figure stands at just 15%, just points behind Labour.
Comments like those of Wellingborough MP Peter Bone that he wanted to “throw up” when listening to David Cameron’s speech endorsing gay marriage seem unlikely to help. For many voters under 40, large numbers of whom may be supportive of the Government’s policies on the economy, welfare or public service reform, it makes him sound all too similar to Little Britain’s Maggie and Judy, feeling physically ill at the idea of a changing world.