Gay marriage threatens Tories

Peter KellnerPresident
February 04, 2013, 9:14 AM GMT+0

YouGov president, Peter Kellner, discusses how the gay marriage row threatens the Tories

The politics of same-sex marriage provide a drama at two levels. One is the issue itself; the other is the impact on voters of the dispute inside the Conservative Party.

As for the intrinsic merits of the issue, most people back a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry. YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times finds that 55% support reform, while 36% oppose it.

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Not only is opposition to reform a minority view; it’s also an issue that commands the passions of only a tiny number. We asked people which three or four issues, out of a list of 15, ‘will be important to you in deciding how you vote at the next election’. The top three are the economy (56%), immigration (42%) and health (26%). Same-sex marriage comes 12th, cited by just 7%. And that 7% dives 4-3 in saying they would be ‘more likely’ rather than ‘less likely’ to vote for a party that supports same-sex marriage.

In short, this is NOT an issue that will decide the next election. Politicians who claim to form their views by ‘listening to voters’ should be wary of employing ‘my postbag’ as a reason to resist gay marriage. This is one of those controversies – fox-hunting a decade ago was another – where the number and intensity of letter-writers bears no relation to the views of the wider public.

This analysis is disputed by some opponents of reform. Recently the Coalition for Marriage released a poll conducted by another company that appeared to show that the Tories could lose one in five of their supporters if they backed gay marriage. They derive this figure from the proportion agreeing with the statement, ‘I would have considered voting Conservative at the next election but will definitely not if the Coalition Government legalises same-sex marriage’.

Statements like that can be asked about almost any issue. They will often produce figures far higher than one-in-five people saying they will switch votes if their party adopts a given policy on a given issue. This is because a question on a single issue invites respondents to contemplate that issue in isolation of everything else.

I don’t blame the Coalition for Marriage: they were seeking, and obtained, publicity for their cause. The rest of us should not be fooled. Any serious attempt to judge the true saliency of an issue should do so by testing it in a wider context. Our figures show that when this is done, the proportion of Tories who (a) regard gay marriage as a vote-determining issue and (b) oppose reform is just 4% - not one in five but one in twenty-five, or barely 1% of the total electorate.

Even that is almost certainly an over-estimate, for it includes people who are also concerned about other issues such as Europe, immigration and the economy. At the next election, these will generate news coverage of the campaign, not gay marriage. Few people will decide their votes on this issue alone – and it is a moot point whether that small number will reward or punish a party that favours reform. So MPs whose postbag scares them should take heart. Not only will they be doing the right thing if they vote in tomorrow’s Commons debate according to their principles – they can do so safe in the knowledge that the risk of punishment at the next election is vanishingly small.

Besides, history tells us that measures to advance gay rights cease to be controversial almost as soon as they are passed. Ahead of the 1967 legislation to legalise gay sex, Gallup found that more people thought it should remain a criminal act (44%) than to legalise it (39%). Afterwards MPs across the spectrum agreed that there was never the remotest chance of turning back the clock.

It’s a similar story with the age of consent. The law was changed in 1994 to lower the age of consent for gay sex from 21 to 18, and then in 2000 to equalise the age of consent for gay and straight sex at 16. Both times, opponents of reform folded their tents once the law was changed. Or consider the 2004 Civil Partnership Act. Controversial then, almost universally accepted now.

I expect the same thing to happen with gay marriage. More than 100 Conservative MPs will oppose it tomorrow, or seek postponement. However, given Labour and Lib Dem support, the Bill will probably go through. Should its opponents then seek to reverse the measure in, say, five or ten years’ time, I should be surprised if they win the backing of more than a few dozen MPs, if that.

The real impact of tomorrow’s vote is likely to be altogether different. Under David Cameron, the Conservatives have started to shed their image as exclusive, extremist and out-of-date. However, the job is far from complete. YouGov regularly tests party images. In our battery of eight attributes, two should still give the Tories cause for concern. Asked which party is most prone to ‘appeal to one section of society rather than the whole country’, 50% say the Conservatives while only 20% say Labour. And asked which party has best ‘succeeded in moving on and left its past behind it’, a mere 17% say the Tories. (Labour, on 24%, does only modestly better: 51% say either ‘none of them’ or don’t know’).

For Cameron, gay marriage is part of his attempt to persuade the voters that his party belongs to modern, 21st century Britain and is not stuck in the first half of the 20th century. But the divisions that the gay marriages bill has unleashed, coming on top of internal Tory disputes over Europe, House of Lords reform and the HS2 train route, threaten to send an altogether different message: that the Tories are divided, out of touch and prone to quarrel over issues of little concern to most voters. That should worry them deeply. Gay marriage is unlikely to feature directly in the 2015 election campaign; but the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the Conservative brand certainly will.

See the full survey details and results of the latest YouGov / Sunday Times survey here

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This article also appears on the Comment is Free section of the Guardian