Section 28

Abolish the second chamber

Although there is still a long way to go, and campaigners for progressive change must always guard against complacency, it seems the battle for homosexual equality in Britain is gradually being won, both in society and in law.

Almost 23 years after the Sexual Offences Act legalised homosexual acts between adult men, legislation to lower the age of consent for gay men to 16 was agreed by the House of Commons last week, when the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill was given a second reading by 263 votes to 102. Last month the ban on homosexuals in the military was lifted under pressure from the European court of human rights, and replaced by a code of conduct which will apply equally to homosexuals and heterosexuals. The law is slowly moving towards recognising rights for homosexual couples, and beginning in some spheres to move towards giving them the same rights as co-habitees of the opposite sex.

A Gallup poll published in the conservative Daily Telegraph last Friday found that 72% of respondents believe that homosexual behaviour is "neither right nor wrong but simply a fact of life", while only 13% were of the view that it "should not be tolerated". Also 53% of those polled, and 72% of the 18 to 35 age group, thought that a sexual relationship between two people of the same sex is of equal value to one between a man and a woman. A poll published in the equally conservative Daily Mail showed that 68% of those questioned saw nothing wrong in teaching children that a gay lifestyle should be tolerated.

In this climate the continued existence of section 28 is an anachronism. The repeal of section 28 was one of Labour's pre-election promises. As local government minister Hilary Armstrong said, it would "take away a symbol of intolerance and a source of confusion". Abolition of section 28 was made part of the Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill. But when it came before the Lords on Monday night, an amendment by the former Tory leader of the Lords, Lady Young, to retain section 28 was passed by 210 to 165. Fifteen Labour peers also voted against abolition.

However, the government is unwilling to use the Parliament Act to overcome their lordships' opposition, as this would stop the Local Government Bill for several months, and as it also provides for the creation of elected mayors the government says it will not countenance such a delay.

Instead it is seeking a 'compromise', probably along the lines of an amendment proposed in Monday's debate by the Bishop of Blackburn. This compromise would legally oblige schools to promote marriage as the "fundamental building block" of family life, but more importantly it would emphasise the right of pupils of whatever sexual orientation to be free from bullying. The respectable gay and lesbian campaign group Stonewall is willing to accept the 'compromise'. Others, including communists, are not. We fight for the removal of all state restrictions on the right of young people to freely discuss sexuality and to combat the historically accumulated bigotry against gays and lesbians.

Predictably, the action of the Lords over section 28 has provoked a chorus of protest in the bourgeois liberal press. Polly Toynbee in The Guardian (February 2) said the Lords vote proves that "all religious leaders should be kept out of government in any reformed Lords, as we watch law being made by a horrible caucus of unrepresentative cardinals, bishops, rabbis, and mullahs". Waheed Alli, the only openly gay member of the House of Lords, pointed out that the most hardline supporters of section 28, including Lord Longford and other catholics among the 15 Labour peers who backed Lady Young's amendment, believe all sex is sinful unless it takes place within marriage with the intention of procreation, and warned against "a return to the days of the medieval church when clergymen who were (not always) celibate sought to preach laws from the pulpit to guide the lives of the common people" (The Guardian February 7).

Jonathan Freedland reminded his readers that the House of Lords which demonstrated such homophobic bigotry, so out of tune with the more enlightened public mood, has already been reformed by Labour, with all but 92 of the hereditary peers excluded. "If ever an advert were needed for radical overhaul of the second chamber - rather than the timid tinkering proposed by John Wakeham - then the failure to ditch section 28 is surely it" (The Guardian February 9).

It is easy to dismiss reactionary and anti-democratic actions by an unelected House of Lords based on heredity. But what would these liberal-Labour commentators have said if the abolition of section 28 had been blocked by a second chamber composed wholly of elected representatives?

We communists do not demand the radical overhaul of the House of Lords: we want the second chamber abolished lock, stock, and barrel. Communists favour a single-chamber parliament, as such bodies are more open to influence and intimidation by the masses below. A second chamber provides a safety valve. It provides 'checks and balances' on democracy.

That is why we say, abolish section 28; abolish the second chamber.

Mary Godwin