Leading article: The fight goes on

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The Independent Online

The political row that has broken out about homophobia seems a distasteful distraction. There seems something artificial, even underhand, about the way in which two Labour ministers, both gay, have claimed that homophobia survives on the opposition benches. The charges smack of party political point-scoring, on territory – equal rights and non-discrimination – that should by now be above such wrangling.

Alan Duncan, one of two openly gay members of the Shadow Cabinet, had a fair point when he accused the ministers concerned – Ben Bradshaw and Chris Bryant – of "stirring up hatred and division". His implication was that the very broaching of the subject might have the effect of reviving anti-gay rhetoric or innuendo. This is indeed dangerous territory. But there is another way of looking at this quarrel.

Parties have a duty to challenge each other on their record, and their defence of civil rights – which must include the rights of homosexuals, as of other minorities – is an important aspect of that record. It is quite possible, and not wrong, that it could become an election issue. At the very least, this row demonstrates the intensity of the looming election battle, and the parties' determination to fight for every vote.

This Labour Government is responsible for some of the most repressive legislation ever placed on a British statute book, mostly designed to combat terrorism. But it has a fine record on measures to tackle homophobia. Its introduction of civil partnerships for gay couples has been a real achievement, which has brought recognition and personal pleasure to many; it has also acted to stop discrimination against gay people who want to adopt. The Conservatives need a response.

David Cameron, despite a flawed voting record on this issue, has gone out of his way to show that his party has moved on from its bigoted past. Now he should denounce homophobia in all its forms and pledge to continue the good work that this government has done, for there are still battles to fight in the struggle for true equality. Labour has set a trap, exploiting suspicions that parts of the Conservative Party remain unreconstructed. It is a trap that Mr Cameron, if he shows firm leadership, can avoid.