I have come across Tory Margot James before when she was the Conservative candidate for the seat I lived in at the time of the 2005 general election. As the first openly lesbian Conservative candidate, her selection caused a certain amount of media comment.
Since then, Ms James has been on an upward trajectory, having been appointed as party vice-chair with responsibility for women’s issues by David Cameron and being selected as the Tory candidate for Stourbridge. Whilst in every respect apart from her gender and sexuality Ms James is the archetypal Conservative candidate (privately educated, self-made advertising millionaire), it is still commendable that the Conservative party has reached the position where an openly homosexual woman can move on from a candidacy in an unwinnable inner London seat to a highly competitive marginal (Labour majority 407). Splendid stuff, but my eye was caught this morning by an article on the BBC News website, illustrated with a picture of Ms James, headlined ‘Gays ‘have a duty to vote Tory”. A duty? Really? Surely you mean ‘opportunity’, or ‘right’? The only people I can think of who have a duty to vote for any party in a democracy are those who owe that party their living. This article deserved reading.
The BBC news piece is based around a speech that Ms James gave to a fringe meeting organised by Stonewall at Conservative Party conference. According to the article, Ms James told the meeting:
“I have yet to meet another (gay) woman I regret to say – but we do have a marvellous number of gay men. It is astonishing to me that some of these Conservative branches in very rural communities or suburban, Midlands constituencies are selecting gay people to stand as candidates because I don’t believe they would have done so five years ago.”
This is not without truth: there are a lot of high-flying gay men in Conservative Party politics. Indeed, it has been suggested that being a gay man is fast becoming the ‘accepted minority’ within the Tory party, with similar equality of treatment not being afforded to other groups, including women. The case quoted in support of this is that of Boris Johnson’s administration at City Hall, which has a sizeable number of openly gay men within its senior positions, yet with not a single woman at that level, despite there having being five in the previous administration. Boris has appointed just one female at director level, on a salary of £80,000, compared to her male counterparts’ average of over £107,000. This suggests that it isn’t just lesbian women who are discriminated against in the Conservative Party, but women in general.
If Ms James has not met any other openly lesbian female Conservative candidates (and I’m assuming that given her vice-chair position she would have met most if not all female candidates), this doesn’t say much for a representative party. Working on the most conservative definition of a lesbian, then they account for around 1.3% of the UK population. With the Tories contesting now planning to contest 650 (or maybe 649) seats at the next general election, then a truly representative party would be looking at around 8 lesbian candidates, rather than one. Not that I’m convinced that my own party does much better, although Labour does have openly lesbian minister Angela Eagle, who has been in the news recently for all the right reasons.
OK, so we might be partially convinced by Margot James’ first claim, but lets move on:
“There has been a huge change – not just among some of the MPs – also in the country in our associations, among the 60 to 70-year-old average members of our associations.”
Unsurprisingly, I’m in no position to comment on whether the attitudes of Tory party pensioner members are as enlightened as those of the inhabitants of Llandewi Brefi, but it is probably lucky that she qualified her statement by saying that ‘some of the MPs’ have experienced an attitude change. We could spend page after page here identifying unfortunate unreconstructed statements about gay rights, but let’s content ourselves with just one, from the time of the Commons vote on civil partnerships:
“This is going to further undermine marriage in my view. We’ve moved in a space of a very short number of years from it being socially unacceptable, which was in my view wrong, to a situation where they are demanding parity. I think that is a very serious issue. It seems to me that there is an over-representation of these different lifestyles in public life, in politics and the media. I don’t come across this in other walks of life. It’s not longer a question of it being tolerated. It’s now a question of demanding parity, demanding rights. This move has taken such a pace forward.”
Thank you, Mr Gerald Howarth MP, now Shadow Minister for Defence. Is he amongst the ‘some’ or not? Skipping deftly over the antediluvian voting record of so many Tory MPs, Ms James claims that on the whole:
“the real barriers that used to exist for Gay people voting Conservative have now been removed.”
By ‘real barriers’ I assume Ms James is referring to creation for and support of Section 28, opposition to civil partnerships and opposition to gays and lesbians adopting, alongside an attractive history of bigotry and intolerance, amply demonstrated by red-faced Tory peers who seem a little too fond of fulminating about ‘buggery’. Now presumably these latter are in the process of dying out, so that didn’t take too much intervention, but on the other points, I assume that in her full speech Margot James fulsomely thanked the Labour government for removing these barriers for the Tories? Didn’t she? And that by making LGBT rights one of the few areas where the government has moved the public discourse in a leftwards and progressive fashion, the Labour party effectively steam-rollered the Conservatives into one huge u-turn on these issues after another?
But let us move on, finally, to the passage of Margot James’ speech that provided the BBC with its headline. And yes, it really is as ridiculous a statement as the headline suggests:
“Gay people are net contributors to public services through their taxes, because very few of them have children. I think gay people have got more angst on this issue than anybody else because gay people are paying in, through their taxes and actually using far less of the NHS because they tend not to have families, less of the education system for the same reason and all the more reason to be angry with this government for the waste of their taxes. […] There is so much wrong with this government’s policy, gay people should not just vote Conservative, they have a duty to vote Conservative.”
It is really quite hard to know where to start in taking apart this particular piece of arrant nonsense. So, how about the start? ‘Gay people are net contributors to public services through their taxes’ – what, all gay people? And the Tories make whinging claims about left-wing politicians making sweeping generalisations about particular groups in society and their concerns?
The reality, of course is that most people of any sexuality are, using a basic definition, net contributors. Of course, it all gets a lot more complicated if you want to work out something more than simply (Value of NHS care received+value of little Jemima’s state education+pension received+benefits received) – Taxes paid = Net contribution/receipt. What about the government subsidy for the roads and railways you travel on, the increased value of your house due to there being a police force to keep crime down or the higher salary that you receive because you work in a country with universal primary and secondary education? Or any of a thousand other ways that your tax pounds are returned to you in means other than cash.
If it was possible to produce a real breakdown of receipt and contribution, I would not be surprised if every person in the UK was in fact a net recipient. How is this possible? Because the receipt and contribution sides are not equal: the economies of scale mean that government can, for example, provide an education system at a much lower cost than its market ‘value’. Leaving aside the fact that at face value James is suggesting that for gay people the provision of the NHS and schools is a ‘waste of their taxes’ – not a view I would imagine many childless people of any sexuality hold, the simple fact is that the sums she is talking about make up a relatively small part of the UK’s public spending. According to Department of Health statistics released in 2006, maternity care makes up less than £3bn of spending from an English primary care trust budget of £63bn.
So Ms James is almost certainly wrong: but let us for a moment pretend she is right. What is the end point of her ridiculous argument? It must surely be that gay people should be offered some kind of tax rebate, because they allegedly don’t get as much back in return. I’m sure she would be generous enough to extend this rebate to all those without children and people who reckon they’ll be dead before the benefit of something their taxes is paying for emerges. So, that’s the entire principle of general taxation thrown out with the bathwater then.
And presumably, Ms James’ claim that there is some kind of gay ‘duty’ to vote Conservative must, by extension of her argument, fall on all who don’t have children, myself included. The duty of the childless masses must be to rise as one with our LGBT brothers and sisters and to march with steely resolve to the ballot boxes in order to cast out this rotten Labour government that has had the temerity to waste our taxes on education, maternity care and pediatric services.
I wonder what the punishment for dereliction of duty will be? Just wondering if I can take the risk, that’s all…