The sad politics of gay marriage

Peter KellnerPresident
March 12, 2012, 9:32 AM GMT+0

Peter Kellner considers our latest poll on same-sex marriage and is struck by the public's attitude towards David Cameron

I should not have been surprised, for only last week I reported on our detailed survey that showed how most of us thought that our political system had a terrible reputation and, in particular, that politicians lied all the time.

Even so, one result from our latest poll for the Sunday Times struck me as extraordinary. A number of our questions examined the controversy over gay marriage. The surprise did not concern overall views: 43% back the idea, compared with 32% who back civil partnerships but think we should go no further, and 15% who dislike both gay marriages and civil partnerships. Nor should anyone be amazed that responses are closely linked to age: 66% of under 25s back gay marriage, compared with just 21% of the over 60s.

What I did not expect were the responses to another question. It concerned David Cameron, who last week made clear his personal support for gay marriage. We asked people why they thought the Prime Minister pledged his backing. Just 21% thought it was because ‘he genuinely believes it is the right thing to do’, while as many as 63% felt ‘he does not believe it is right, but is doing it for political reasons’.

Why such a massive, three-to-one, thumbs down for the Mr Cameron and his motives? It’s not because he is massively unpopular: 42% think he is doing well as PM, twice as many as those who think he genuinely backs gay marriage. Nor is it because he has suddenly overturned a lifetime of opposition to reform. He is the first Conservative Prime Minister to appoint openly gay men to the Government, and has consistently fought homophobia.

Nor is it because the 63% comprises exclusively of the disenchanted supporters of opposition parties: people who might be expect to assign the worst motives to anything Mr Cameron does. The overall figures could not be so striking without the sceptics including a fair number of Tory voters. And, indeed, Tory voters divide two-to-one (58-27%) in suspecting the PM of cynical motives. Most of his own supporters think he doesn’t really mean it when he says he backs gay marriage.

Some of these people will be opponents of gay marriage who think that Mr Cameron is privately on their side, but has to pretend he isn’t because of the prevailing political climate. But this can’t explain much of the 58%, as only a small minority of Tory voters these days hold homophobic views.

The larger truth is that this is a further sign of how far leading politicians, even relatively successful ones, are distrusted by the public. For what it’s worth, my personal view – as someone who has never voted Conservative and can’t imagine ever doing so – is that the Prime Minister is absolutely sincere in supporting reform, and that it is not only wrong but ridiculous to suggest that he is motivated by the (probably non-existent) electoral advantages of speaking as he has

Yet despite the absence of any hard evidence that he is acting cynically on this occasion, most people, including most Tories, appear simply to assume that political calculation trumps all.

This is bad news, not only for Mr Cameron, and indeed not only for the Conservatives, but for the reputation of our political system.

See the full details and results of the poll here (pages 7-8)

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