“Grayling out!” The sound of people – especially young people, which at least half of them were – chanting for the sacking of the Shadow Home Secretary right outside Conservative Campaign Headquarters in Millbank Tower this afternoon suggests that old-fashioned issue-based gay rights activism is not dead. And beyond that, it raises a question: how successful have the Tories been at decontaminating their brand?
First what happened today. Over 200 people* gathered to protest today over the twin trigger events of Chris Grayling’s remarks about gay couples and David Cameron’s difficult Gay Times interview, which have both unexpectedly thrust LGBT rights into the spotlight of election campaign. But talking to the protesters, their concerns went to the heart of Conservative policy, or lack of it as they see it.
The protest took the form of a “kiss mob” – i.e. a flash mob where people kiss each other. As well as “Grayling out”, there were repeated chants of “I’m never voting Tory” and “come out David” (not that he was in the building; he was in Birmingham on campaign). One o the speakers was Anastasia Beaumont-Bott, founder of a Conservative gay rights group, who’s gone from Cameron torchbearer to (literally) shrieking denouncer of him in a short space of time.
One young lady who took part told me: “I was brought up Tory. I would’ve voted Conservative but they have no policies [on gay rights]. He’s just stuttered on every single policy.” Her kissing partner, who voted Conservative in the 2005 election, said: “The fact they don’t have any Conservative Party line as to how people should vote is a huge problem. David Cameron’s voting record is a huge problem.”
This last comment refers to the vote in the European Parliament censuring Lithuania over a Section 28-style law, which Tory MEPs refused to support – leading to the tricky interview above.
Complaints over lack of policies came back again and again. One protester and blogger, Scott from Vauxhall, south London, says: “They need to set out some actual things rather than be vague. Having some action and saying ‘this is what we’re going to do’. Another, one of those behind an anti-Tory Twitter and Facebook campaign, complains of what he calls the Tories’ associations with hard-right parties in the European Parliament and that vote. “What would change his mind? “If they actually come up with actual policies to support what they’re saying in the press.” He also said he wasn’t seeking to support any other party through the campaign.
Veteran gay rights protester Peter Tatchell went in search of the policies – he was invited to a meeting this morning with shadow chancellor George Osborne, shadow womens’ minister Theresa May and shadow environment secretary Nick Herbert. He was not impressed: “We couldn’t get any clear commitment”. Asked about allowing gay marriage, he sys Osborne offered to look at it, but stopped short of promising a formal review. This isn’t a party political point: Labour has also refused to change the law to allow it, as he pointed out. Osborne also stuck close to Labour in refusing to comment on the National Blood Service ban on gays giving blood.
The Tories did offer a commitment to tackle homophobic bullying in schools and to quash some convictions under repealed sexual offences laws. But Tatchell said these were “vague promises” and didn’t go far enough.
What’s interesting about this protest – apart from that it seems to have got a few young people interested in politics – is that it suggests David Cameron’s attempt to purge the Conservatives of their ‘nasty party’ image hasn’t entirely worked. Even one of their latest policies, tax breaks for married couples (and civil partnerships) was seen as discriminatory because it doesn’t apply to everyone else. Could it be, more than anything else, a testament to the power of the Internet to channel information (Grayling’s comments, Cameron’s Gay Times interview), radically reshape opinion, and be used as a campaigning tool? If so, this election campaign is getting very slippery. And we’re only on day six.
*Full disclosure: Including two friends of mine – three if you count Peter Tatchell. I didn’t interview the other two.