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Last Updated: Monday, 29 March, 2004, 12:04 GMT 13:04 UK
The battle for the 'pink vote'
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Michael Howard knew his decision to hold a Tory gay summit would prove highly controversial.

He may even welcome that as a way of highlighting the Tory party's new socially liberal and inclusive image.

Michael Howard
Howard is pushing a liberal social agenda

By hosting an event that would once have been guaranteed to send shockwaves through the ranks of grassroots Tories, he is sending out the clearest possible message that he means what he says on this issue.

The old image of the Tories as anti-gay - bolstered by previous policies such as the now-abandoned Section 28, first introduced by the Thatcher government in which Mr Howard served - is to be rejected in favour of one which seeks to represent all sections of society.

And, predictably, the move has indeed sparked controversy.

Pre-election stunt

Former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe has led the criticism from Mr Howard's own side, declaring that the summit sends out all the wrong signals.

Mr Howard was sincere, but had a misguided set of priorities, she said.

Labour is promoting civil partnerships
Where was the family summit, or the marriage summit or the fathers separated from their children summit, she asked.

Meanwhile, as gay rights groups like Stonewall welcomed the move as a step in the right direction, Labour politicians simply dismissed the event as a cynical pre-election stunt.

What seems clear, however, is that all the major political parties now appear to be battling for the so-called "pink vote".

For example, Labour is this week publishing its civil partnership, or "gay marriages" bill and has already abolished Section 28.

Mr Howard has given his MPs a free vote on the bill and supported the abolition of Section 28.

Similar agendas

And the Liberal Democrats, who would claim they got there first, have long supported similar legislation.

Their party conferences have a history of debating and adopting policies on issues such as equalising the age of consent and allowing gay marriages.

None of the parties would claim these were simply aimed at winning votes, but moves born out of their own principles and, at least with Labour and the Lib Dems, traditions.

Yet this is another area where the major parties are now apparently battling on broadly similar agendas.

Clearly, no politician worth his salt wants to deliberately alienate any significant section of voters.

And all want to deny their opponents an open goal.

But what the Tories, more than the other two big parties need to prove is that the new Howard-led party really means what it says on inclusiveness.

The BBC's Jo Coburn
"The conference may not be to everyone's taste"

Tories open up with 'gay summit'
29 Mar 04  |  Politics
Howard seeks new Tory era
09 Feb 04  |  Politics
Tories lose Section 28 vote
11 Mar 03  |  Politics
Tories split on 'gay rights'
04 Oct 02  |  Politics


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