Why I'm worried about Nicky Morgan's stance on gay marriage

The Education Secretary says she opposed gay marriage on the strength of her postbag. She should have looked to her conscience

October 31, 2014
Public support for Gay Marriage when it was legalised was strong: MP's shouldn't have been fooled by organised lobby groups. ©  Robyn Ramsay
Public support for Gay Marriage when it was legalised was strong: MP's shouldn't have been fooled by organised lobby groups. © Robyn Ramsay

I am worried about Nicky Morgan. On this occasion it’s not the Education Secretary’s plans for our schools. It’s about her stance on gay marriage. Or, rather, her old stance. This week she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that she had changed her mind and would now back the new law, having opposed it at the time.

What concerns me is the reason she gave for opposing gay marriage in the first place. It turns out that the key influence was not her conscience but her postbag. She said: "At the end of the day as a Member of Parliament I'm also here to represent my constituents and I had requests of 10-to-1 asking me to vote against it. I wish people had come forward earlier to say that 'actually we'd like you to support it.'"

Let’s unpack that statement. In a separate interview with her local paper, the Leicester Mercury, she said that 285 constituents had asked her last year to oppose gay marriage, while just 24 supported it. Her Loughborough electorate at the last election was 77,505. So the state of her knowledge at the time of last year’s vote was: For gay marriage: 24, against 285, no information 77,196.

Good MPs know, or should know, that certain issues provoke passionate minorities on both sides of the argument. Postbags tell them about the ability of lobbies to marshal their supporters, not about the overall state of local opinion.

As far as I am aware, no proper poll was conducted in Loughborough at the time. But, as it happens, its voting figures in 2010 were broadly similar to those of Britain as a whole: both locally and nationally, the Conservatives enjoyed a seven per cent lead over Labour. So the chances are that local opinion was broadly in line with that of the country as a whole.

A YouGov poll at the time for the Sunday Times found that 54 per cent backed gay marriage while just 37 per cent opposed it. So, if Nicky Morgan was determined to abide by public opinion, she should have backed reform.

However, her misreading of public opinion is, to my mind, the lesser failing. Worse was the way she allowed herself to be pushed around by public opinion at all. As a pollster, I might be thought to approve of poll-driven policy decisions. I don’t. Polls should inform debate; they can be a vital means of communication between MPs and voters. But I am with Edmund Burke. Politicians are our representatives, not our delegates. They should decide issues on their merits. They should lead the electorate, not follow it.

This is what he told his Bristol voters in 1774. His argument is just as valid today:

"Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents…But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you—to any man, or to any set of men living… Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."