Tories woo gay voters
Manchester – Britain’s opposition Conservatives held their first ever gay party conference event here as, edging closer to power, they seek to cast aside their right-wing image and embrace diversity.
About 600 people flocked to Conference Pride on Canal Street, in the heart of this north-western English city’s gay community, on Tuesday for a club night that organisers said proved how much Margaret Thatcher’s old party had changed.
The mood was only slightly dampened by a boycott of the event – held during the Tories’ annual conference here – by Britain’s best-known gay rights group. Inside, barmen wearing "Conservative and proud" t-shirts served up "Tory Martinis" – a mix of vodka, gin and midori – to a heaving crowd against a backdrop of pumping house music, scattered pink balloons and disco lighting.
"I’m very, very impressed – I thought it was all going to be toffs in suits," said one man with a diamond stud in one ear as he jostled to gain access to the smoking terrace overlooking the Manchester skyline.
Under the leadership of David Cameron, the Tories have sought to modify their traditional focus on family values that alienated many minorities in a drive for openness that has gained urgency as a general election looms.
Opinion polls put the Tories on course to oust Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour government in the vote due by next June, an achievement after 12 years in opposition that owes much to their reinvention as an accessible party.
Tory party chairman Eric Pickles, equalities spokesperson Theresa May and openly gay environment spokesperson Nick Herbert were among those at the event on Tuesday.
"I’m living proof of the fact that the Conservative Party has changed," Herbert told the crowd to cheers and wolf-whistles.
"I am lucky enough to be in David Cameron’s shadow cabinet as an out gay man, I was elected as an out gay man, I have never experienced any prejudice or obstacle along the way."
He admitted the party had been wrong in the past but said it had apologised and the event was proof that "gay people are not the property of the left."
Simon Fox, 24, a Conservative delegate from London told AFP the event was "fantastic", saying: "You can still be on the right and you can still be gay."
‘Right and gay’
Although gay events have taken place at past Conservative party conferences, this is the first time they have had the party’s official blessing and been open to anyone.
"It really gives a clear message about a party that has changed," May said.
However, she expressed regret at the boycott by gay rights group Stonewall over the presence of right-wing European MEPs at a fringe meeting at the conference here on Tuesday.
Latvia’s Roberts Zile and Poland’s Michal Kaminski, who have been criticised for their extreme-right views and homophobic comments, sit with the Conservatives in their new political grouping in the European Parliament.
"There is no doubt the progress that has been made in the last couple of years has genuinely been historic," Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill, who had been due to speak at Conference Pride, told Channel Four news Tuesday.
"But the event tonight has been overshadowed by the presence, not just at conference but on the same platform as some senior members of the party, of people of such extreme and offensive views."
Protesters from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) group OutRage also demonstrated outside the event to call for stronger action on equality.
"Of all major parties, the Conservatives have the worst record on gay rights," OutRage campaigner Peter Tatchell told AFP.
"Such an event is great, but the vast majority of Conservative MPs have voted against repealing homophobic discrimination over the last decade."
"David Cameron’s new gay friendly image is mostly PR and spin, there is no substance, no policies for gay rights."