Page last updated at 19:13 GMT, Tuesday, 30 September 2008 20:13 UK

Gays 'have a duty to vote Tory'

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News, Conservative Conference, Birmingham

"We really do have the most amazing number of gay men."

Margot James
Margot James is 'amazed' by the number of gay Tory candidates

Prospective parliamentary candidate Margot James believes the Conservative Party really has changed its attitude to homosexuality - not just in the Cameroonian salons of fashionable Notting Hill but in the rural heartlands as well.

An "astonishing" number of target seats have picked gay candidates, she told a Stonewall fringe meeting at the party conference in Birmingham.

"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.

"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."

'Duty'

A lot of the change is down to David Cameron, who has been "a great comfort to our cause".

Ms James, who is standing in Stourbridge, in the West Midlands, argued that the case for kicking out the current government had grown stronger for all voters in the past 12 months - but gay people had a particular reason to vote Tory.

"Gay people are net contributors to public services through their taxes, because very few of them have children.

We believe that the 2.5 million gay electors in this country should feel able to vote for every major political party
Ben Summerskill

"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."

She added: "There is so much wrong with this government's policy, gay people should not just vote Conservative, they have a duty to vote Conservative."

But not everything in the garden is rosy.

'Barriers removed

Many Tory MPs had a poor voting record when it came to gay issues such as civil partnerships and the age of consent.

And some were linked to faith groups which had a problem with the gay agenda but, on the whole, "the real barriers that used to exist for Gay people voting Conservative have now been removed."

Ben Summerskill, of gay, lesbian and bisexual campaign group Stonewall, acknowledged that the Tory party had changed but said the real test would be if its MPs backed government moves to extend new discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation.

He told the meeting: "We believe that the 2.5 million gay electors in this country should feel able to vote for every major political party because they think that party will not just be good for the country but because they believe and are convinced that it will be good for them."

Nick Herbert
Nick Herbert feels it his responsibility to speak out

He said there was also a lingering concern in the gay community about Section 28 - the highly controversial legislation banning the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools in the 1980s.

"In the polling booths if people believe that never again will a major political party in this country introduce anything as demeaning and divisive as Section 28 then rightly people will think that might be a party that will be good for them."

Nick Herbert, one of two openly gay men on the Conservative front bench, also hailed the revolution in attitudes that he said had taken place in the party.

"Yes, we have more to do, but that is not to recognise the progress we have made in a very short space of time," said the shadow justice secretary.

When he entered politics he was frustrated by the "gay" label, he told the meeting, as he felt it had distracted from his political stance.

But he now felt an increasing sense of responsibility to speak out, as one of the first gay MPs.

He rejected a call from the audience to vet Tory candidates for discriminatory attitudes, but he said he hoped they would all sign up to the party's "outward-looking, open and tolerant" policy agenda.

Tory selection panels are now banned from asking would-be MPs about their sexuality, but Mr Herbert was concerned this could discriminate against those who were not openly gay.

"I suspect most of the candidates who are selected are openly gay and have made it perfectly clear to the association. It is still difficult for younger people who may not want to make an issue of it."

Ms James also spoke of her frustration at being labelled a Lesbian Conservative by the media.

She told the meeting that when she was selected to fight Holborn and St Pancras at the last election she hoped reporters would mistake her partner's name - Jay - for that of a man so her sexuality would not be an issue.

No such luck - reporters cottoned on to it straight away and she says she now tries to avoid being interviewed in the mainstream media - although she accepts her personal life will always be the subject of fascination for some newspapers.

The test of whether it will always be an issue for the political classes, is if fringe debates like this one are still being held at party conferences in years to come.





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