Nicola Blackwood, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, abstained as the motion on same-sex marriage was passed through the Commons on Tuesday, despite significant student pressure encouraging her to register her approval.
In a letter sent to constituents on the night of the vote, Conservative Nicola Blackwood, whose constituency encompasses 14 Oxford colleges and private halls, explained that worries that churches refusing to hold same-sex marriages could face litigation prevented her from voting in favour.
Blackwood also cited the depth of feeling surrounding the issue of marriage as reason for her not voting. She said: “I do not oppose the principle of equal marriage in secular institutions. However, I am concerned that there are still unresolved issues associated with the proposals regarding the protection of religious freedom. In addition, a number of flaws in the consultation process have also become apparent. Given this situation I felt I had no option other than to abstain.”
Blackwood had raised hopes that she might vote in favour of the bill after declaring that she “has no principled objection to equal marriage in secular marriage” in response to a letter was sent to her before the start of Hilary, signed by 38 JCR and MCR presidents.
Whilst celebrating the step for equality the bill’s passage embodied, some students were angered by Blackwood’s abstention. Matthew Robinson, LGBTQ rep for Somerville, commented: “Suggesting that her stance on this issue reflected the general view of her constituency was frankly misguided, with nearly every college around Oxford presenting petitions with hundreds of signatures in favour of same sex marriage.
“This is not an issue which merely homosexual citizens believe in, it is one that all citizens believe in who support equality, and in deciding to abstain from the vote in favour of this issue, she clearly went against the views of the majority.”
Queen’s JCR President Jane Cahill drew a more positive message, saying: “I think it’s a big win – the campaign from students in Oxford, some more co-ordinated, some just sending very personal emails from their bedrooms, got one opposing MP – in fact quite a vocal opponent – to abstain, and one ambivalent MP – worried about social conservatives – to vote in favour. You don’t get a better advert for effective student activism than that.”
Cahill’s comment refers to Andrew Smith, the Labour MP for Oxford East, who voted in favour, despite initial ambivalence over the issue. In response to a letter sent to him by Merton College’s JCR over the winter vac, which was then resent by other colleges, Smith said that whilst he believed “that in all but name Britain already has gay marriage through civil partnership, which confers the same rights and responsibilities”, he didn’t have “any strong case for denying the opportunity to call this a marriage”, but raised concerns by claiming that: “I cannot of course guarantee that my judgement of what is right will correspond with your own.”
However, after Queen’s JCR passed unanimously passed a motion on Sunday night mandating their LGBTQ rep to put further pressure on Smith to vote ‘yes’, the Labour MP replied: “I have thought, and am continuing to reflect, carefully on the points raised, but intend to vote for the Second Reading, which is on the overall principle of the Bill. I will do so with some reservations on detailed aspects of the Bill: Marriage is a very important social institution, and it is right to proceed carefully.”
Smith was praised by those who had lobbied him to support the bill. Matthew Wigens, LGBTQ rep for St Catz, said: “It is a tribute to our Parliament that the bill passed with overwhelming support in Commons today and I am proud that our local MP for Oxford East was part of that triumph. This represents a socially progressive Britain that we should all be proud of.”
Daniel Bregman, Merton’s LGBTQ representative, stated: “It’s an awesome step forward in LGBTQ equality, and I hope some day it’s as mystifying to people how only opposite-sex couples could have married as it is to us that once mixed-race couples couldn’t.”
Andrew Smith was unavailable for comment.