Referendum by the Back Door

An interesting new development in civil rights has been the idea that such things should be put up to popular vote. Ireland did rather well out if it, supporting same-sex marriage so firmly that their frightened government passed a very progressive gender recognition act as well. Australia, on the other hand, was subjected to weeks of bitter argument in the media which involved a great deal of hate-mongering on the part of the anti-LGB lobby. What’s more, the vote wasn’t actually a referendum, it was just a postal survey of people’s opinion. In Australia voting is mandatory, but this was optional. Getting the vote out, or inhibiting it, suddenly became important.

As yet the UK has not had a referendum on LGBT rights. The country has had a rather bad experience with a referendum in the recent past and no one wants to go through that again. Nevertheless, the government is putting LGBT rights up for vote. They have launched a public consultation on the subject of the new sex and relationships curriculum to be introduced to English schools.

Consultations are not exactly new, but mostly they have been a matter for pressure groups, academic experts and so on. This one will be different. Right wing groups are already urging their supporters to flood the consultation with demands to ban all mention of LGBT issues from the curriculum. (See here, for example).

While the consultation is by no means binding, if it does come out strongly against LGBT inclusion, the government will be able to claim that it is the “will of the people” that we return to the days of Section 28. But, as I noted, this is not a referendum. It isn’t even something that the government will publicize heavily. We know that the other side will be well organized, well funded, and will have the likes of the Daily Malice on their side. We have to fight back.

I have had a brief look at the consultation. It is long and involved, and the government is asking for evidence. The anti lobby will doubtless provide prepared text for their supporters to cut and paste. Hopefully that will count against them. It would be good if we could look better informed. If you want to read up on the subject, Stonewall has plenty of information.

It is also important that this new curriculum teaches young people to respect each other, and that sex should be a matter of consent. There is a big opportunity here to deconstruct harmful gender stereotypes. I’m assuming that the Women’s Equality Party will come out with some recommendations in the near future. I will point you at them when it happens.

By the way, one of the talks I have planned for the LGBT History Month event in Bristol on February 10th will be from the leading civil rights lawyer, Jonathan Cooper OBE. I have asked him to address this issue of putting civil rights up for popular vote. It should be a very interesting talk.

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