First the grey vote, now the gay vote

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair predicts Britain will have an openly gay prime minister, Michael Howard admits he was wrong to push Section 28 through Parliament and Charles Kennedy has dismissed the Tory leader's conversion to gay rights as skin-deep.

Tony Blair predicts Britain will have an openly gay prime minister, Michael Howard admits he was wrong to push Section 28 through Parliament and Charles Kennedy has dismissed the Tory leader's conversion to gay rights as skin-deep.

The gay vote - estimated at 2.65 million people - today becomes the latest political battleground ahead of the election expected in May. It follows the struggle for the female vote - fought in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine - and Labour's efforts to woo the grey vote in the Budget.

Messrs Blair, Howard and Kennedy have been interviewed by Johann Hari, the Independent columnist, for the gay magazine Attitude, published next week. It is the first time that a serving prime minister and a Tory leader have been quizzed by a gay publication. Asked if he could foresee an openly gay prime minister, Mr Blair replies: "Yes. Personally, I don't think people would reject a prime minister simply on the basis that he was gay. But there is more likely to be predjudice on the right than the left." Saying there were once several openly gay ministers in his Cabinet, he adds: "We don't at the moment but for no particular reason; we have plenty of gay ministers just below cabinet level."

The Prime Minister believes it would not be an issue for him if any of his children were gay. "I think for any parent, they worry how their own child might handle it," he says.

The Prime Minister insists there is no conflict between his religious views and his pro-gay stance. Urging the Church of England to resolve its differences over homosexual bishops, he says many people in the Church share his view that the fundamental Christian principle is one of equality. "But there are those that passionately disagree," he says.

Mr Blair claims Labour has made "a great amount of progress" since 1997 by equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28 and introducing civil partnerships giving gay couples similar rights to married ones. "We still have plenty more to do on this, but the changes we've introduced have been really significant," he says. "Gay rights have become part of political culture now."

Mr Howard accepts the point in his interview. The man who brought in the now-repealed Section 28 - banning councils from promoting homosexuality - tells Attitude: "I've changed my mind. I think I was wrong. Yes. I was wrong."

He says the world has moved on since those days. "I thought, rightly or wrongly, there was a problem in those days. That problem simply doesn't exist now. It's not a problem, so the law shouldn't be hanging around on the statute book."

Mr Howard says it is not "a core part of conservative beliefs to resist gay rights". He believes Britain's political parties have "pretty well" reached a consensus on gay rights. "I'm not suggesting we're necessarily there in terms of attitudes, because not everyone has caught up."

He promises that a Tory government would tackle homophobic bullying in schools, and says he admires the actor Sir Ian McKellen and the Labour MP Chris Smith for doing "a great deal to change attitudes."

Mr Kennedy claims many gays are switching to the Liberal Democrats because of their disenchantment about the "unfinished agenda" on gay rights. The gay community "has a deep dislocation from the present administration," he says.

He dismisses Mr Howard's change of heart. "Maybe he adopted this tough persona because that seemed the best way to make his way further up the career ladder, and now he sees that a different persona is required. As long as the Tories are hung up on gay issues, people will think they're weird," he says. He is calling for a new Equality Act to take on homophobia in a similar fashion to how racism and sexism are tackled.

The gay rights group Stonewall said: "The lesbian and gay population is more confident and will make demands. Politicans have got to listen to that. It doesn't make any sense for politicans to ignore large sections of the population if they want to be elected."

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