Why did the House of Lords vote for same-sex marriage?

54268One of the most notable features of the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act last year was the large majority it achieved in the House of Lords.  It received a Second Reading by 390 votes to 148, with every grouping in the House – Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and cross-benchers – producing a majority in support of the measure.  The scale of support, especially on the Conservative side, was greater than that in the House of Commons.

Why the large majority?  Such an outcome would have been unthinkable twenty years ago.  As Michael McManus points out in his book Tory Pride and Prejudice, there was little support in the Lords for lowering the age of consent or getting rid of Section 28, especially on the Conservative benches.  Those of us on the Conservative side arguing in support of change were in a tiny minority.   When in 2000 I spoke on the Second Reading of the Sexual Offences Bill – to lower the age of consent – I got some strange looks.  The reaction was not confined to my own side.  After I countered the claim that homosexuality was not natural – it is known in many species and is natural to those engaging in it – one Labour peer (ex-MP of the old school) said that he heard what I had said, but nonetheless thought it was unnatural anyway.  He was totally incapable of defining what he meant.

Opponents of change were not only in a majority, but were also well organised: Baroness Young ran an almost military style operation to maximise the vote against change.  Those who were wavering were swept up in the campaign and there was no organisation of any similar scale to counter it.   The Parliament Act had to be invoked in order to achieve the lowering of the age of consent.

Since then, there has a been a notable shift, not too marked to begin with, but gaining ground over time.  Initially, Baroness Young could muster her supporters to vote against change; then it became a case of the Lords rejecting a measure the first time round, but then not mustering a majority when the Commons insisted.  More recently, it became a case of just managing to garner a majority in support of change when a measure was first introduced.  However, there was nothing on the scale of what was witnessed last year.  Even supporters of the Bill were surprised by the size of the majority.

What then explains the outcome?  In part, it was poor organisation on the part of opponents.  Baroness Young was no longer with us and her successors lacked her organisational and political skills.  Opponents also made a tactical error by deciding to force a vote on Second Reading.  A number of peers who were inclined to oppose the Bill felt it wrong for the House to force a vote when the Bill had been passed by such a large majority in the Commons.  They voted for the Bill essentially on constitutional grounds, but in so doing helped create such a large majority that it was then impossible for opponents to challenge it at later stages.

However, there were more pervasive forces at work.  One was the turnover of peers over the years.  The creation of new peers by the Blair and Brown governments resulted in Labour for the first time being the largest party in the House.  However, many new members, inclined to favour reform, also came in on the Conservative side: when Conservative supporters of the Bill organised meetings, some of the newer peers (among them a number of fairly high-profile names) were notable among the attenders.  The introduction of more women into the House also helped: of women peers voting on Second Reading, 86% voted for the Bill.

The turnover, though, is only part of the explanation.  Among those Conservative peers voting for the Bill were long-serving ones who one would not necessarily expect to be natural supporters of the same-sex marriage.  Michael McManus refers to my analysis of party groupings in the parliamentary party in the Commons, but it applies also to the Lords: the ‘party faithful’ essentially were following the general mood and swinging behind change.  What was notable was that this shift was now greater in the Lords than in the House of Commons.  A combination of accepting the will of the Commons, supporting the party leadership (the ministerial team in the Lords proving highly effective) and in some cases apparently peers listening to their children or grandchildren meant a more receptive audience on the Conservative benches than had existed before.  In speaking in support of the Bill, I felt I was arguing a case that was reaching a receptive audience; I had not quite realised until the vote just how receptive.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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26 Responses to Why did the House of Lords vote for same-sex marriage?

  1. tizres says:

    “…following the general mood and swinging behind change.” Your post suggests movement of general opinion as measured within Westminster rather than the general public; I stand to be corrected but, for now, I’ll assume the former.

    Is it possible to quantify any change in mood in longitudinal terms, particularly figures before and after relevant anti-discrimination legislation? Also, any estimate of new members gained by UKIP down to ‘anti-Christian’ values? Have the Tories missed a trick?

    • Lord Norton says:

      tizres: The House was following public opinion or, in proportional terms, was ahead of it. Initially unpublished Ipsos MORI polling showed a swing in public support for same-sex marriage in the first decade of the century: support was just under 50% in 2000 but well in excess by 2007. By the time of last year’s Bill, neutral opinion polls consistently showed majority support, about 60%, for same-sex marriage: support was especially pronounced among the young and females. As Lord Dear observed at the end of the Bill’s passage, the percentage of the House voting for the Bill exceeded that in the opinion polls. The House had not only caught up with public opinion, but was now running ahead of itr!

  2. maude elwes says:

    The only true test of true public view and support for this legislation is via a referendum. And no government is going to make a move to do that, because they don’t want to see the response as they know it will go against their action. Just the same way they don’t want a referendum on our membership of the EU because it will be for out and not in and this issue being one of the reasons for that desire to be out of it. It is not the only one for sure, but, it is a big one.

    And the strange correlation here is, we are told this legislation was taken to coincide and comply with EU directives on the issue. It gets stranger and stranger by the day. As some majority of the EU States have not adopted to do this and don’t want to.


    How many of the European countries have adopted same sex marriage less than ten and the reason others won’t or can’t is because they know full well it is not supported by a majority of their people. This country is so used to fixing what it tells the public it has little or no fear of being brought to account on it. And, if they feel that is a wrong assessment, then have that dreaded referendum…. Want to bet that will be harrumphed and quickly glassy eyed if you dare to mention it. They feel it will all go away with time and that the parties funded by the tax payer will continue as before. I don’t believe it will.


  3. maude elwes says:


    It is considered a big enough issue in many States of the USA, a country our government loves to emulate. And it was considered an issue for Scotland at some point, although they too declined. How convenient for the UK government not to consider it something the nation should have a say in. Now I wonder why that is? Couldn’t be because they do know full well it would not pass the first post if they tried it on?

    Direct Democracy should have a means to call for a referendum on any matter the public feel is necessary. An unelected and appointed ‘House of Lords’ cannot be a legitimate manner of passing legislation in a democracy and for government to suggest any topic is not worth the vote for the citizen is a joke. Of course any regime would love that form of rule.

    And this links to those afraid to speak out. The children that have to suffer in silence.



    And who has been paying for all those pro lobbyists to infiltrate the natural laws of marriage between a man and a woman? I bet that would open the eyes a bit. Follow the money is always the best way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    • “Direct Democracy should have a means to call for a referendum on any matter the public feel is necessary.” Britain is not a ‘direct democracy. It is a constitutional monarchy and has a parliamentary system of government.

      “An unelected and appointed ‘House of Lords’ cannot be a legitimate manner of passing legislation in a democracy” Maybe, but that’s an irrelevant point

      “and for government to suggest any topic is not worth the vote for the citizen is a joke.” That’s not the position, though. Only fundamental or constitutional issues.

      “And this links to those afraid to speak out” Anyone can express their opposition to the issue, just as you have here.

      “the natural laws of marriage between a man and a woman?” No such laws are recognised in the UK. There’s statutory instruments, regulations to aid in their enforcement, judicial decisions, international law and treaty law.

  4. franksummers3ba says:

    Happy Easter to Lord Norton and others!
    It is still a religious holiday with all the Christian, Jewish and Pagan values and motifs corrected around the day. I therefore think it is significant to this discussion of Same Sex Marriage. I believe that the world is in a great deal of ferment over many institutions and few are more basic and essential or even as basic and essential as marriage.

    It has some meaning that society is more than a little bit unreconciled about many issues. It is far too simplistic to say that certain changes offend Christian Orthodoxy. In fact the Christian Church in the broadest sense may be diverse and filled with conflicts but it is enormous, enduring and influential. Easter of course means many things to many people. My own thoughts for the holiday are linked here: http://franksummers3ba.com/2014/04/18/easter-triduum-reflections-and-notes/

    But I think that same sex marriage will not rest undisturbed anywhere in old Chrsitendom for a century. It may prevail as law or it may not. But there will be energies released to oppose it which might not have come into action for any other reason whatsoever.

    • maude elwes says:

      @ Frank:

      Thank you for the kind Easter words. Joyous Easter to you.

      It isn’t simply Christians who are distressed and horrified by a government taking such a drastic step against the symbolic declaration of commitment by two people of the opposite sex as they declare their devotion to each other in a contract of faith. It is also many other religions, as well as people of no religion at all. What has been missed in the audacity of the legislators is, this should have nothing at all to do with them. It is a tradition held for centuries because of that special connection only a man and a woman can be part of. It is the epitome of their separateness in gender to become one in order to expand differing spiritual emotions and for the fulfillment of their natural need to physically and mentally couple. Two sexes who overcome those differences by joining in a way only they can do can not be emulated by those of the same sex.

      To pretend that same sex people can join in such a way is absurd. They are not opposites crossing the barriers of their genetic make up to expand their scope of compassionate knowledge. They are two of the same group who know no difference on the basis of physical and mental dissimilarity. No need for anything like a soul changing spiritual event of understanding there, they are one and the same Their’s is a coupling of oneness, sameness. A unification of the identical.

      For men and women to have allowed a set of government officials to intervene in such a special and sacred vow between them is a step too far. A tragic and ominous step beyond repair. It removes the interpretation of man/woman whole and united as one in nature.

      It is a tragic situation, as it removes the ability to rejoice and honour the civilizing of the uniqueness of male/female connection found through maturity.

      • franksummers3ba says:

        Happy Easter to you! In fact Christian countries more likely to debate this issue than many others. But mostly I wanted to wih you and Lady Tizzy and others a Happy Easter.

      • “the audacity of the legislators is, this should have nothing at all to do with them.” Legislators make laws. UK marriage law has been changed and the definition redefined a number of times already. No one called for a referendum on those occasions.

  5. maude elwes says:


    My understanding is the EU have indeed pushed for same sex marriage to be adopted though all member states as well as globally.


    And a hearing is expected in May. Who wants to take a punt on the outcome?


    And what the rest of the world says.





    And China, that country we embrace with a big hug, the one with the human rights issues we find so utterly appalling.


    So, only a very few countries in the world find they can back the rejection of the specialness between a man and a woman.

    • Lord Norton says:

      maude elwes: As the data I cite show, the UK is more tolerant than the USA and I have no seen no authoritative challenge to the arguments advanced by the Constitution Committee. There is no evidence that the opinion polls on same-sex marriage are flawed: they are consistent and have shown a clear shift in opinion over time. The support for same-sex marriage is notable also for being spread fairly evenly across the country. Disagreeing with factual data does not undermine the accuracy of the data. As your link shows, there is no attempt by the EU to impose same-sex marriage. The cases you cite are Strasbourg, not Luxembourg, cases. Same-sex marriage is not a recent historical development. Anyone would think from what you write that opposite-sex marriage is the only thing that has ever existed prior to recent decades. ‘Traditional’ marriage is only marriage as it has existed in recent decades; ‘traditional’ marriage at the beginning of the 19th Century would be anathema, not least to women, today. Marriage is not the preserve of religions. It only takes effect in this country when fulfilling requirements stipulated by Parliament. It has everything to do with legislators. They cannot get out of it because marriage is determined now by statute and Parliament has variously redefined marriage since the Marriage Act. Couples, whenever opposite-sex or same-sex, are capable of forming committed – ‘special’ – relationships for life. The usual reasons trotted out about procreation and the like were well dealt with in debates on the Bill. Many of the claims advanced by opponents of the Bill were not arguments, but rather assertions of moral superiority, often put forward by people who seemed to have no shame in parading their ignorance of homosexuality. The fact that various religions oppose same-sex marriage is not an argument in itself for not doing that for which the normative arguments are overwhelming. Various religious faiths are looking again at the subject.

  6. maude elwes says:

    @ LN:

    I become more baffled by your staunch support of this legislation as the months go by. I read the Conservative women’s blog a week or so ago and low and behold found the distress of those who wrote there, regarding the change to law in respect to marriage only between a man and a woman, as very sad indeed. It brought to mind the women I meet who have children in school and stand shaking in anger at what is being taught to their children on this and other sexually explicit matters. One woman told me her son of 13 years was sent home from school early as two of the children in the class had fainted when pictures were put up on a screen of various biological and sexual facts, causing them major trauma. This was a thirteen not five year old class. This kind of teaching practice is as a direct result of same sex marriage legislation being forced on children in class and why Russia has rejected it.

    Again, you tell us in your post that our people are more tolerant than the Americans on these issues and we do not fight against it the way they do there. Could that be because they are afraid to speak out, or, raise the issue for discussion on those grounds and the Americans are not? Americans have the right to vote for or against it. We do not. And you tell us the investigations made by various pollsters show we are in favour. Where are these findings published and who did the investigations and why should we believe them when there is absolutely no proof whatsoever of what you are saying? Facebook and Twitter are not a sound basis for legislation. And the young are for it you say. Well how young are they? Which goes against society as a whole anyway as there are more aged than young in the UK.

    What has been done here in this country on this matter is an attempt to achieve, via the courts and via an unelected group, what could not be achieved through a ballot box. You denied the public any say on this very important change to their lives by ignoring their existence. However, it is all in vain, for this matter will continue to rise and be fought against regardless, as the principle of self determination in a democracy should not be walked over any longer here.

    Brits, unlike elsewhere in democracies, have not had the opportunity to vote on defining marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. It is not the role of the unelected ‘House of Lords’ to deny the will of the citizens on this issue. And the Commons are whipped. That is not a true account of voters preferences.

    And your remark on the rethink of religions on this matter is typical of uncaring obstinacy. The CofE are losing their faithful to the RC section at a rate unseen since Henry VIII forced the run against Catholicism under his rule. And trying to pretend it isn’t as a result of pressed politically correct dogma, of this kind is not the reason behind it, is asinine. Recently the AofC had to admit he couldn’t take any more of it if they were to remain a functioning moral body.


  7. “Where are these findings published” You can’t criticise things if you don’t know about them.

  8. Lord Norton says:

    maude elwes: That you come across various comments that agree with you merely demonstrates that you have come across some comments that agree with you. None of your observations undermine anything I have written.

    • maude elwes says:


      Clutching at straws will not change facts. Unrepresentative lobbying cannot cover the underlying fear shown here against the need for open and ‘honest’ discussion on this issue. There must be a way tol enable the British people to have a say in how their elected and paid for by them government runs their lives. They are there to serve the people not dictate.

      And as far as your perception of me being a lone reed, you are so off beam with that. And what is worrying is you know it, hence the enormous hostility from the minority who claim to be the majority when one word is spoken against.


      I am far from alone, even the reluctant Tory ‘yes’ men admit to the Conservatives being in line to lose at least 4 million votes as a result of this legislation. Not to worry though, if you continue to tell the nation what they know is a lie, they will finally believe it and go along with what has been imposed on them. That is because you are banking on them having no alternative as all of the main parties cling to this mantra and that leaves you in the clear. As you say, lets wait and see.


      And how quiet our media is on any one thing that may lead to the facts of opposition to Gay marriage coming to light. How does government manage to muffle the press on such controversial issues as these? British news is the equal to those in North Korea.


      • Lord Norton says:

        maude elwes: That is simply saying you are right in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary and that you rely on what amounts to a conspiracy theory: if only the press were not muzzled, if only there was a referendum. The press are quite capable of expressing views they think are popular and opinion polls are consistent in showing most people support same-sex marriage. MPs are elected and accountable at the next election.

  9. maude elwes says:

    @ R.Gates and Lord Norton:

    So, only a few comments agree with me. How many agree with you is what you should be concerned about.

    You are both in for a big wake up call come the next general election. You seemingly have no sense of national rejection or disillusion with the entire political spectrum and what is perceived as betrayal. And you certainly have no idea of the need for that smugness to change. Which is odd, considering the Scots are seeking separation because of it and the Welsh will be next. The people of England are no longer knowing where to run to for solace yet you refuse to feel it.

    You may say people can speak out, but, they won’t, at least not on here. And you have seen to that as well as you can. The B&B story and many others left the fear of speaking out well and truly imbedded in the mind, which it was designed to do. However, that aside there is a definite change blowing in the wind, right across Europe, not simply the UK. Running off to unite with the US will not help your plight. So, stand still and see what happens. But don’t say you were surprised by it.

    • Lord Norton says:

      maude elwes: That’s a long-winded way of saying ‘wait and see’, which tends to be the refuge of those who have no substantive argument. The B&B case had nothing to do with speaking out, but everything to do with complying with the law as its effects people pursuing a business.

      • James Hand says:

        Indeed – Smith v Trafford Housing Trust was a case involving speaking out and Mr Smith won his claim for breach of contract (he was unfortunately too late to test the discrimination point as he didn’t have the funds, something which seems much more likely given the level of tribunal fees recently introduced). A substantive argument for a bit of ‘wait and seeing’, although not quite in the same context, can be found at http://www.halsburyslawexchange.co.uk/gay-marriage-freedom-of-speech-and-conscience.

  10. tizres says:

    Frank & Lord Norton: I (and Lady Tizzy) happily receive and return, with blessings, your kind wishes.

    Neither legislation nor punishment will alter a mindset not ready to be altered. What, then, is to be done?

  11. Poll: Majority of Ukip and Conservative voters now support gay marriage http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/poll-majority-of-ukip-and-conservative-voters-now-support-gay-marriage-9278449.html

    Also in that article it shows that now in the UK, support, across all age groups, for marriage equality is at RECORD LEVELS.

  12. Pingback: Is the Lords becoming more liberal than the Commons? | The Norton View

  13. Pingback: Gay rights back in the news… | The Norton View

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