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Labour shadow minister resigns for views she doesn’t have

Labour shadow minister resigns for views she doesn’t have

Paul Bickley comments on Janet Daby’s recent resignation from her position as the Labour Party shadow minister for faith. 09/12/2020

On Monday (7 December) the Labour Party shadow minister for faith – Janet Daby – announced her resignation on Twitter:

I’m proud to support same–sex marriages. On Saturday Labour celebrated 15 years of civil partnerships, and all the progress we’ve made since. I sincerely apologise for my misjudged comments on Friday, and have decided to resign as Shadow Faith Minister.

The comments to which the tweet refer came at a Religion Media Centre Zoom briefing. In the Q&A section of the event, journalist and author Catherine Pepinster submitted a question about “the clash between people of faith and secular culture… Should registrars be sacked for refusing to hold same sex wedding ceremonies? Is that the appropriate response or should there be special arrangements for the believer in those circumstances?”

Ms. Daby gave a response indicating that she understood the question to be about issues of conscience. This was similar, in her view, to conscience votes in Parliament, or conscience exemptions around abortion in the medical professions. She suggested that she would like to “have those conversations”, that it was a “complex and controversial issue”, implied that different rights needed to be balanced, and concluded, “I think that needs to happen”. I personally wasn’t clear what “that” Daby was referring to – the conversations or conscience exemptions for registrars, though it was generally assumed that Daby was supportive of the latter.

Something happened in the following 72 hours which made the shadow minister for faith believe that it was not possible to hold this view and occupy a position on the Labour front bench. Although in fact Daby later clarified that this was not her position at all, with the curious outcome that she resigned for mistakenly implying that she held a view that she did not in fact hold.

Obviously, the law provides for civil partnerships (now extended to opposite as well as same sex couples) and same sex marriage. Registrars are employed to register those relationships and conduct appropriate ceremonies. In the infamous Ladele v London Borough of Islington case, which reached the European Court of Human Rights, it was found that the London Borough of Islington had not discriminated against Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar who indicated to her employer (before the Civil Partnership Act was passed into law) that she did not wish to become a registrar for civil partnerships on the grounds of conscience. At the time, she was disciplined under a charge of gross misconduct, and ultimately forced to resign (for a summary of the complex and finely balanced judgements in the case, head here or here).

Whatever one thinks of the law and the final resolution (in the ECHR, two judges out of seven offered dissenting opinions supportive of Ladele – not least because Ladele’s conditions of appointment changed after more than 10 years of employment at the London Borough of Islington, and three as a registrar), it is clear what the legal position is. Bluntly, there is no conscience exception for registrars when it comes to same sex relationships.

Janet Daby was therefore seeming (against her later stated intentions) to offer support to a prospect that there could be changes to the law which would permit for conscience exemptions in this field. The tone of Daby’s comments (“have those conversations” etc) seem to commend efforts at ‘reasonable accommodation’ of conscience concerns, rather than legal exemptions written into legislation. There are good arguments for this approach – see Nick Spencer’s report, ‘How to Think About Religious Freedom‘ (for a detailed discussion of the Ladele case, see p. 65–67). The report takes a pragmatic and balanced view. Religious freedom shouldn’t be a get out of jail free card, but if “we are to take freedom seriously… then everyone will find themselves legally accommodating practices that they find morally problematic”. That ‘everyone’ could include employers.

There are numerous precedents for legal exemptions in law – from highly controversial matters of deep disagreement like abortion, through to exceptions for political parties on all women shortlists, and making allowance for Sikh motorcyclists not to wear helmets. More to the point, even on cases like Ladele, pragmatic compromises between employers and employees have prevailed elsewhere: a registrar in Bedford was reinstated after she came to an accommodation with her employer. Messy, but sensible.

So what exactly is it about this that warranted Ms. Daby’s resignation (for views she doesn’t even hold)? I don’t think that the Labour Party has specific policy that registrars should not be given conscience exemptions, or against reasonable accommodation. Was there a massive and negative reaction? Not that I was aware of.

I think the likeliest explanation is that the Labour Party did not want another blemish on its equalities record. The Party lauds the Equality Acts (2006 and 2010) as one of its greatest achievements in office. The first of those established the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The Party therefore was all the more stung by the recent enquiry into anti–Semitism: its own Commission holding it accountable on its own legislation! I suspect that the Party doesn’t want to concede negative headlines on what should be obvious ‘progressive’ issues.

This – I hope – is a charitable and realistic reading. There are many goods in legislation like the Equality Act, and they should not lightly be qualified.

But I’m afraid this does reaffirm negative perceptions. Labour talks a good game when it comes to religion (e.g., ‘Race and Faith Manifestos’ and warm words on church social action) but all too often it isn’t listening. In our polling about the religion and belief landscape in London, we found that around half of regular attenders at religious services (46% in and 45% outside of the capital) agreed with the statement “governments have passed legislation that makes life more difficult for people with beliefs like mine”. There is a longstanding and heartfelt concern among religious communities that some equalities are more equal than others, and that religion and belief languishes near or at the bottom of the list. That even the merest inadvertent hint of conscience exemptions or accommodations is apparently taboo makes the point. It is ironic that the very person appointed to lead the Party’s attempts to build relationships with faith communities has lost their job for (unintentionally) giving succor to such concerns.

This is League Two level indifference to concerns around religious freedom, nothing compared to the Corbyn era’s Premier League anti–Semitism. At the same time, it’s too familiar a story. Political parties are always at risk of caring about the social utility of faith, and thinking not at all about the deep traditions and moral commitments which create that social capital. They’re interested in the bathwater, not the baby. There is some reparative work for the next occupant of the recently vacated post of shadow minister for faith. 


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Image: Richard Townshend, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons 

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Research Fellow at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

Posted 9 December 2020

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