Why Tories are winning the pink vote

The culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw, asserts that "a deep strain of homophobia still exists on the Conservative benches". The Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant goes further and warns that "if gays vote Tory they will rue the day very soon". It's not hard to detect the desperation in these shrill outbursts - and with good reason. A reputable new poll has found that 38% of gay men intend to vote Conservative at the next election - more than any other party, and a swing away from Labour of 14.2%.

It is this seeming ingratitude that Labour is unable to bear. It cannot comprehend that gay people might be as repelled by the government as everyone else. So now it resorts to pitiful efforts to scare them. "Don't trust the Tories," it says, while preposterously claiming that we'll reverse all the progress towards gay equality that's been made.

It's quite hard to make the argument of homophobia stack up when the visible evidence is that the Conservatives have changed. Two shadow cabinet ministers (I'm one of them) are openly gay. As Alan Duncan (the other one) pointed out, more of Michael Howard's shadow cabinet voted for civil partnerships than the cabinet. We have a number of talented openly gay candidates in winnable seats across the country - selected by the grassroots, not imposed by the party's high command.

When David Cameron used his first conference speech as party leader to talk about the importance of marriage, he added that the commitment was as important for gay couples as for those who are straight. The conference audience applauded. From that moment, any doubt that the Conservative party was changing its attitude towards gay people should have been dispelled.

This is all immensely inconvenient for Labour politicians, who are determined to maintain clear pink water between the parties because they believe it's in their electoral interest. Both Bryant and junior Labour minister Angela Eagle have claimed that the Conservatives opposed the new offence of inciting gay hatred. But this is simply not true. We supported the measure - I know, because I led for the opposition and I said so in the Commons. So did David Cameron. We also said that temperate comment had to be protected - a view widely shared in the media, including by leading gay commentators such as Peter Tatchell, who actually opposed the new offence.

That Labour should fall back on an outright lie to justify their charge against the Conservatives says more about them than it does us. Last week, at a Conservative event in support of Gay Pride (a gathering that would have been unthinkable in the old Conservative party), David Cameron apologised for the party's introduction two decades ago of the infamous section 28, which banned local authorities from portraying homosexuality in a positive light. "I'm sorry," he said. "We got it wrong ... I hope you can forgive us." Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the gay rights group Stonewall, described the apology as "a remarkably positive step forward". In telling contrast, Harriet Harman could not bring herself to welcome it. Don't be fooled, she said, and anyway it's all too late.

But it's never too late to say sorry. Just as Gordon Brown has not understood that voters are rejecting his false dividing line between "investment" and "cuts", Harman, Bradshaw and Bryant have not understood the lessons of Damian McBride and "smeargate". When Cameron says he made judgments on gay issues he now believes to be wrong, people respond to his candour as surely as they reject Brown's dissembling.

There is more for us all to do. We still need to tackle gay bullying in schools and homophobia in sport. We still have bishops telling gays to "change and repent". Intolerance and persecution of gays in other countries is a real cause of concern. But there is no need for a party divide on such issues. To believe gay people vote only on issues related to their sexuality is patronising and wrong. They care about the same things as anybody else. They want a better future for their country, and a better politics, too.

The truth is the major parties are reaching a consensus on gay equality. So the real dividing line will be between the parties that are honest with the public and those that are not; between those who can mount a broad appeal and those who fall back on a narrow tribal base. Even as their once natural supporters abandon them, New Labour still has not learned that the public is rejecting old politics, and that people - gays included - are crying out for change.

Michelle Taylor