Love's Labour's Lost

Recent case law has made it all too clear that the UK is failing when it comes to civil relationship law. 

Recent case law has made it all too clear that the UK is failing when it comes to civil relationship law. The ban on no-fault divorce traps people in a ‘wretchedly unhappy marriage’ (the words of a judge in the recent case where the plaintiff was denied divorce), heterosexual couples cannot choose a civil partnership, British citizens with non-European spouses need a minimum income of £18,600 for the British state to allow both to live together in the UK, and, in Northern Ireland, marriage equality for same sex couples does not exist. 

There are some glimmers of hope – the Supreme Court recently ruled that a woman was entitled to her long-term partner’s pension, even though they were not legally married. Most of the UK has equality in marriage rights, and the stigma around co-habitation or divorce is slowly dwindling.  But we have not yet gone far enough. 

While all of this case law is in the news, the Telegraph comment section seems to revel in publishing articles with titles such as “Brexit is an opportunity to reverse the tragic decline in marriage” and “Staying in an unhappy marriage could be the best thing you do”. Despite recent progress, conservative elements are still claiming a monopoly on relationships and forcing their arch-traditionalist ideas on society.

 We live in an increasing fragmented world. Much of the political narrative focuses on the individual and their aims and aspirations. Even the Labour buzzword ‘aspiration’ focuses on individuals rising and often ignores ideas of community . How we relate to each other is intensely personal, particularly when it comes to sexual and romantic partners. A strong partnership can strengthen a person physically and mentally, and a toxic partnership can destroy someone’s life.   

This is about much more than freedom of expression or pure liberalism. It is about people’s right to have control over one of the most personal and most important part of their lives. I am not saying there can be no legislation that genuinely exists for protection, such as provisions of an age of consent (Milo Yiannopoulos- I’m looking at you). I am saying that consenting adults should have the right to choose the relationship path that works best for them. 

Labour needs to speak out on the importance of relationships, and the importance of people’s ability to choose whatever form of relating to others suits them best. A quick news search on Labour’s position on no-fault divorce reveals that we haven’t been making headlines on this since 2001 (despite the fact that there was a Bill proposed in the House of Commons in 2016 postulating just that). When it comes to mixed-sex civil partnerships, Labour is backing the Tory call for a change in the law.

 It is difficult to ignore the string of case law that has been ruling on how people can and cannot interact in relationships. Article 8 of the ECHR (Right to Private Life) has been an important weapon to protect families from being separated and to uphold rights around relationships. However. with our departure from the EU looming, and our position in relation to the ECHR looking ever shakier, Labour needs to claim these issues front and centre. Labour MPs must also be proactive in making sure progress made so far is not reversed, and push for legislation to continuously advance protection and freedom in this area. We cannot sit by idly and allow conservative thinking to claim this ground as their own. We must speak out to raise awareness and fight for our progressive relationship rights. 

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