For the LGBT community, and all those interested in an equalities agenda, tomorrow’s European elections are an important opportunity. Recent years have seen attacks on LGBT rights in Europe and, as the far-right in countries like Poland look to use these European elections to pushback against social progress, it’s never been more important to support the Socialist bloc in the European Parliament.
The Brexit Party might have no manifesto, and absolutely no plan for how to carry off Brexit — but the message their victory in this election would send to Europe is clear. Nigel Farage oversaw a party rife with homophobia for years, opposed gay marriage, continues to believe HIV-positive migrants should be banned from entering Britain and even saw fit himself to joke about “fags.” If he tops the poll on Thursday it will be an indication that progress we have made in LGBT legislation is on the slide.
Ann Widdecombe, the second most prominent Brexit Party candidate, is no better. The erstwhile Tory voted against LGBT people’s rights to civil partnership and marriage, to adopt, to be included in the school curriculum and to be treated the same as heterosexual people when it comes to age of consent. She also voted against the repeal of section 28, the punitive legislation passed in the 1980s which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality. LGBT rights are hard won and are under constant threat across the globe. This is a time to be vigilant against backsliding, and the Brexit Party are a major threat.
As a socialist and an immigrant, steeped in feminist and queer politics, these European elections matter to me and should matter to all of us. If permitted a victory on the scale the polls suggest, Britain’s hard-right will step up their campaign for the Charter of Fundamental Rights to be ripped up and for the most regressive Brexit possible. This will lead to a historic rolling back of protections for the most vulnerable in UK.
The battle for LGBT rights continues across Europe. The Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán — which, incidentally, is in the same European Parliament grouping as the ‘liberal’ Change UK — hosts anti-LGBT hate groups in Budapest. Last year it attempted to shut down a showing of Billy Elliot on the grounds it was gay propaganda. Lithuania has passed laws banning the “promotion” of homosexuality, and attempted to ban the spouses of married gay people from gaining residence. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has made the opposition to LGBT rights an “election battlefront” this year. Throughout this, the Socialists in the European Parliament have led the fight back — condemning attacks on social equality as many of their right-wing colleagues stood idly by, or worse.
In Britain, the Labour Party has a strong history of supporting LGBT rights at a time when it was politically unpopular — from the decriminalisation of homosexuality under Harold Wilson in 1967 to getting rid of section 28, ending the ban on LGBT people serving in the armed forces, civil partnerships and same sex adoption under the Blair-Brown government. The Tories brought in same-sex marriage, but only because a majority of Labour MPs voted for it. The current Tory Prime Minister, Theresa May, has a long record of opposing LGBT rights.
Three years ago, during the Brexit referendum, I argued the case for LGBT people to vote Remain because I believed a Brexit led by increasingly hardline right-wingers could damage our rights. But I am not an uncritical Europhile. I understand why many people voted to leave, and the fact that too many regions of Britain felt that they had been left behind by the political establishment. But I don’t believe most people who voted to leave did so because they wanted to roll back progress for LGBT people or other minorities in this country. However, many will find their votes in these European elections, cast often out of frustration, are used for just that purpose.
The Labour Party is trying to prevent this outcome. It is the only party which wants to bring this country together by appealing across the Brexit divide. While we are members of the European Union, Labour will fight to have a Socialist leading the European Commission who will protect LGBT rights and the equality agenda. We can also make our voice heard about some of the European Union’s deficits on economic policy, and democracy and accountability. PES’s Frans Timmermans will be a voice for LGBT people across Europe, as well as supporting our trade unions, a fair taxation system and campaigning to solve the continent’s housing crisis.
As Audre Lorde once said, there is no single-issue struggle as we don’t lead single-issue lives. For most LGBT people, and especially LGBT people of colour, workplace discrimination, poverty, and access to healthcare are key concerns. On these areas, and so many others, it matters which the biggest bloc in the European Parliament is, and that is what we will vote for tomorrow.
MEPs elected this week can’t either force Brexit through or overturn it. But they can commit to fight for the rights of minorities, to pushback against attacks on LGBT people and to make a clean break with the austerity policies which have allowed the far-right to grow. If you want to be part of the movement to do this across Europe, vote for your Labour candidates on May 23rd.