The LGBT+ voter is red, but could their party colours change?

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other sexual minority individuals (LGBT+) make up an important –and growing– proportion of our society. Sexual minorities represent a social stratum that has long been subjected to institutional forms of discrimination by the state and have been historical and, regrettably, contemporary victims of social marginalisation and violence. These processes have a value-shaping effect when it comes to establishing an individual’s political preferences and worldview.  Being a member of a social out-group is likely to engender a unique set of preferences that have implications when it comes to determining choices at the ballot box. 

Political scientists assume that voters behave in a way that maximise their welfare. In other words, citizens are inclined to vote for political candidates or political parties that promise to implement those policies that are preferred by the individual and are likely to vote against candidates and parties that promote policies that are inimical to their interests. 

Historically, social democratic parties have been at the vanguard of advancing LGBT+ rights. Despite the legacy of Tony Blair’s New Labour government often being associated with liberal economic reforms or the negative legacy of the Iraq War, the Blair-led government in the UK represents the ‘golden years’ of LGBT+ rights advances with the UK’s social democratic party bringing in, amongst other reforms, the Gender Recognition Act, legalising adoption for same-sex couples, repealing the ban on LGB servicepeople in the military, and introducing LGBT-specific hate crime laws. 

In Spain, the PSOE pioneered the legalisation of gender-neutral marriage. After years of campaigning led by the social democratic activist and politician, Pedro Zerolo, the PSOE’s Zapatero-led government made Spain a world-leader in LGBT+ rights with the country becoming only the third country in the world to provide marriage rights to individuals of the same gender. Even in those cases where social democratic parties have held a somewhat lukewarm position on LGBT+ rights, these stances have often been accompanied by strong and explicit opposition to advancing ‘sexual liberalism’ amongst socially conservative parties on the right. In a political environment where social democratic are viewed as the pro-gay party family and right-wing conservatives are viewed as the anti-gay block, it’s reasonable to assume that when it comes to deciding on which side of the political aisle their vote is to fall, LGBT+ voters are likely to opt for social democracy. Until very recently, however, we haven’t had much empirical evidence in European countries to back up this hypothesis.  

Figure 1.- LGB voters in the UK are Labour

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Consistent with popular assumptions about who wins the LGBT+ vote, using data from the British Election Study (BES) panel shows that sexual minorities are largely and consistently more supportive of the Labour party –the primary driver of pro-LGBT+ laws in the UK– compared to heterosexuals whose support for Labour is often neck-and-neck with the Conservatives. This UK-based data mirrors recent academic work that confirms the same elsewhere: social democratic parties are the primary winners of the lavender vote in Western Europe. 

There are two potential threats to social democracies intertwined relationship with the lavender vote.

Threats from the (new) left

The emergence of new left parties that tend to be greener, more socially liberal, and more cosmopolitan than traditional social democratic parties represents something of a threat to social democracy’s hegemonic positions among LGBT+ citizens. Mapping European party families’ positions on questions of LGBT+ rights as well as the relative importance they place on these issues (Figure 2), shows that parties belonging on the far left (e.g., Podemos in Spain, or Syriza in Greece) and the Greens are substantively more vocal in their pro-LGBT+ positions than social democratic parties. 

Figure 2.- Political parties in the EU and LGBT+ rights

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A look the legislative process around Spain’s new LGBTI bill –also penned the trans law– signals this point further. The law has been pioneered by the PSOE-UP governments’ far-left minor coalition partner (UP) rather than the social democratic block. Amongst the PSOE’S leadership, including the (now ex) vice-president, Carmen Calvo, as well as certain feminists within the social democratic party’s rank and file, there has been opposition to liberalising gender recognition laws which would allow trans women to change their legal gender status without a medical certificate. According to an internal memo signed by feminists within the PSOE, doing so is likely to be prejudicial to cisgender women’s welfare and this sentiment has been echoed in some of the vocal  anti-trans feminist marches that have taken place during the last few months.  

If citizens cast the ballots for the party that is most likely to defend their own (and group-based) interests, then we might expect some LGBT+ voters to cast their ballots for the ‘new left’ instead of social democratic parties when the former are more vocal advocates of contemporary LGBT+ policy issues. 

Unfortunately, the data available in Spain does not allow us to stratify the population based on their sexual and/or (cis)gender identity. Currently the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS) –the organisation responsible for commissioning Spain’s electoral survey and social barometers– does not allow survey respondents with the means to identify as LGB or T+.  Despite this drawback, a method of identifying LGB individuals in the European Social Survey (ESS) –detailed here– demonstrates the consolidated levels of support among Spain’s lavender vote and the left (Figure 3). 

Figure 3.- LGB voting and the left in Spain

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LGB voters in Spain are significantly and substantively more supportive of the PSOE and UP than their heterosexual peers. Given that these two left-wing political options have currently demonstrated their willingness to form a progressive coalition government, the dispersion of LGB voters between parties within the left-wing block does not represent a threat to LGB voters’ collective electoral influence. 

The homonationalist threat

A threat to the increased affinity between LGB voters and social democratic parties has also been identified amongst an unlikely political opponent on the right in the form of far-right parties. Whilst far-right parties, like VOX, tend to be socially conservative (read anti-LGBT+) some far-right parties are ‘sexually modern nativists’. These parties use the ‘rhetoric’ of ‘protecting’ LGBT+ rights as a means of legitimising their anti-immigrant, and often xenophobic, stances. This political strategy –also penned homonationalism– has been used by the far-right in the Netherlands and also by Trump in the US, with far-right leaders flirting with LGBT+ voters via their promise to protect them from immigrants who, according to the talking points of far-right parties,  are inimical to the LGBT+ community’s welfare. 

Figure 4.- LGB voters and internationalism

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These attempts are, however, unlikely to be successful. In addition to being more likely on economic questions, LGB voters are also more culturally liberal, more europhile, and more pro-internationalist. Comparing their level of support for the EU and as well as their attitudes to different immigration measures (Figure 4), we see that sexual minority voters are significantly more internationalist vis-à-vis heterosexual voters. They do not, therefore, harbour political preferences or beliefs that would make them susceptible to the appeals from homonationalist far-right parties. 

Social democratic parties concerned that far-right parties might be able to rob them of their loyal LGB support base would be recommended not to engage in socially conservative positions that mirror the anti-immigration or anti-EU stances of the far-right. Not only has it been shown that these copy-cat tactics can be detrimental to social democratic parties’  electoral fortunes, but it could also alienate sexual minority voters who have traditionally been a core constituency of the social democratic electorate. 

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