So Mr Kennedy has now shown the way on gay rights

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The Independent Online

A gust of fresh air from Bournemouth. At least one party in Britain is not afraid to inject a dose of common sense into the discussion of gay rights. The overwhelming vote at the Liberal Democrats' conference to recognise gay partnerships shows that the party is comfortable with the values of the 21st century in a way that neither Tories nor Labour appears to be.

A gust of fresh air from Bournemouth. At least one party in Britain is not afraid to inject a dose of common sense into the discussion of gay rights. The overwhelming vote at the Liberal Democrats' conference to recognise gay partnerships shows that the party is comfortable with the values of the 21st century in a way that neither Tories nor Labour appears to be.

The Conservative Party has many gay members, of course; some of its brightest MPs have been gay. Still, party apparatchiks continue to treat gayness as an embarrassing disease, which can be caught from lessons at school. In short, the party is confused.

The Labour Party should, on the face of it, be more tolerant. There are, after all, a clutch of gay ministers in the Cabinet. The Government is opposed to Section 28, the legislation that makes gay-bashing a legitimate sport. It has, however, taken fright at relaxing some of the more absurd legislation, introducing change only when forced to do so by an embarrassing defeat at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It seems more concerned about not causing offence to bigots than about ensuring that natural justice is done.

All the more reason, then, to welcome yesterday's vote. The Liberal Democrats overwhelmingly approved the proposals put forward by Susan Kramer, who was a candidate to be London mayor in this year's elections. Ms Kramer pressed for two unrelated people over the age of 16 to be allowed to enter a "civil partnership" that would grant legal rights, thus entitling the partner to all the benefits open to next of kin. (Sainsbury's is to grant gay couples the same pension rights as married employees, a reminder that commercial companies are often more in tune with social change than political parties.)

This new move does not relate only to gay people. But the proposed changes to gay legislation will gain most publicity, and rightly so. The Liberal Democrats have shown their mettle by voting so overwhelmingly in favour of Ms Kramer's eminently sensible proposals. Her proposals should not be seen as radical: they are about equality and fair play.

Now it is down to the two largest parties to follow the Liberal Democrats' lead. It is probably too much to hope that William Hague will speak in favour. But the Labour Party can finally show that it need not always be a timid mouse on issues of morality and personal dignity. Such a change in direction would not come a moment too soon.

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