Friday’s Irish referendum was a joyous moment for all of us who seek love, justice and human rights available to all and equal to all. The Irish public voted in huge numbers to bring about a seismic change in our closest neighbor’s constitution.
For those of us watching in Britain, the sense something momentous was happening came well before the result, as we watched thousands of Irish residents in Britain making the effort to travel home to vote for equal marriage.
It would not have easy for many to take time off work, to pay for travel, or to rearrange their daily lives to simply cast a ballot. Yet they did so, because their choices mattered, not merely for themselves, but for all citizens for Ireland. If you were among them, then I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I would also like to pay a special thanks to all those LGBT Labour and Labour Party Irish Society members who didn’t take a break after our general election but got stuck into this crucial campaign.
Whether people made that journey for friends, for loved ones, or from principle alone, they were carried over the Irish sea on a tide of positivity and support that says much about how much Britain, as well as Ireland, has changed.
But the great victory party of Saturday also night reminds us on Sunday morning that Northern Ireland remains one place on these islands where you cannot marry the person you love. For those of us in politics, it is a duty to speak clearly on the simple question of equality for all in every part of our country.
Our work will be done not just when we win legal and political victories like equal marriage but when our society changes at a more fundamental level.
The victories won in 1967 or 2015 will not be complete until same sex couples can do all those simple things that those of us who are straight take for granted: to walk down the street with the person we love, to kiss one another, to be your own true self without fear of abuse or attack. We cannot pass laws to end prejudice. But we can – and must – do all we can to protect those who suffer from it.
This responsibility extends beyond our shores. Being gay is illegal in 78 countries across the world and being a lesbian is illegal in 49. In five countries same-sex sexual activity carries the death penalty. Within our own Commonwealth homosexuality is a criminal offence in 41 out of 53 countries. This hate must stop and as the current Stonewall campaign says, none of us should be bystanders.
One of Ed Miliband’s achievements was bringing Labour’s voice to the global debate for LGBT equality. Not just that, he showed his willingness to combat discrimination head on when he pledged to appoint Michael Cashman as our global ambassador on LGBT rights.
I know Michael will do much of this work anyway – which is why he is so right for this role – but as Labour’s leader I will make sure he has the full weight of our whole party behind him. With sister parties in the Socialist and Democrats group across Europe we can amplify his voice further still alongside others like President Obama’s recently appointed US State Department envoy, Randy Berry. In any government I lead, Michael Cashman will have the machinery of government at his disposal in his mission.
At home, on streets and in stadiums, across our nation, and across Europe, we have a duty to fulfill. The same holds true around our planet. One day, loving your partner will be criminal no-where on earth. I don’t underestimate the challenge of that cause. That is precisely why we must embrace it.
In Britain, our work is far from done. Yet despite this, the UK’s record on LGBT rights remains a beacon of hope. From the first Gender Recognition Act to equal marriage, from the Equality Act to the lesbian and gay campaign for the miners, Britain has shown that prejudice decays, discrimination can be defeated, and a common humanity is recognized in the most unexpected places.
Now is the time to finish the work at home and take a lead internationally. Ireland showed us that the old arguments have had their day. That burning passion to champion equality and tackle injustice will be at the heart of the Labour Party I lead.
Liz Kendall MP is standing for leadership of the Labour Party in the UK.