About a year ago, there was a certain excitement in the press, when Ben Summerskill – the Chief Executive of gay equality campaigning organisation Stonewall – gave a speech in which many read as an indication that campaigning against the ban on gay marriage was not a priority for the organisation:
The charity’s chief executive, Ben Summerskill, raised eyebrows when he told a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference that a policy allowing all couples the right to a civil partnership or a marriage regardless of gender could cost the public purse up to £5bn over ten years because of the tax implications of opening up civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.
Stonewall’s response to the furore was not particularly sure footed. They published a press release which started by explaining that they were consulting on the issue of gay marriage, and didn’t want to be bounced into taking a position while they did so:
Ben made quite clear at the meeting that Stonewall is engaged in a process of listening and consulting with active Stonewall supporters, of whom there are almost 20,000, about the future of civil partnership.
While some lesbian, gay and bisexual people fully support changing civil partnership into marriage, there are others – including particularly some women – who do not want something that is either the same as or synonymous with marriage. This is a sensitive area of policy development and not one which is assisted by inflammatory media coverage.
The Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone, with whom we have discussed this issue privately, acknowledged in response to Ben’s remarks last night that as Stonewall is a supporter-based organisation it could not be expected to issue a response to such an issue until it had built the sort of consensus Ben had outlined.
It went on to explain that Ben Summerskill was raising questions only about opening up civil partnerships to heterosexuals, and was saying nothing on the issue of gay marriage.
All well and good. But many – including Outrage! – were unimpressed by the failure of Stonewall to indicate that they were, indeed, supportive of gay marriage equality. Outrage! also criticised the survey on gay marriage which Stonewall later conducted.
Nevertheless, Stonewall eventually did extend its campaigning aims to include marriage equality. As one might expect, its membership opposed discrimination against them.
I was surprised that Stonewall hadn’t pushed for marriage equality, immediately following the partial victory of civil partnership legislation. The argument against taking a position seemed superficially plausible. There are some radical lesbian separatists who are opposed to anybody getting married in any shape or form to which the word “marriage” is attached. But it struck me as odd that Stonewall appeared to be arguing, in essence, that they couldn’t formulate a policy until they had taken into account the views of radical lesbian separatists who were so opposed to marriage, that they wanted it specifically denied to them. Radical lesbian separatists are loonies, and Stonewall is a mainstream organisation, and repeated surveys show that a negligible percentage of gays oppose full equality: a goal which a majority of British people support.
Ben Summerskill, perhaps, thought that there was no point in asking a coalition including the Tories to back full equality. Here he is, in 2009, arguing that “Tory waters [are] not yet safe for gay voters“. Perhaps he concluded, after the election, that there was no point in spending campaign money on lobbying for such a goal.
I was pleased that Labour introduced civil partnerships. I think Labour should have supported full marriage equality. Civil partnerships are really only a half way house. Labour would likely have backed full marriage equality when the party returns to power. So perhaps Ben Summerskill took the view that the best thing to do would be to sit and wait for a Labour victory. Then Labour could claim the honour of being the party which backed real equality.
Unfortunately, that prize is denied to Labour, who should have gone for gay equality, from the start. Equally, Stonewall should have pushed for gay marriage equality from the Coalition. They would have found that they were pushing at an open door. The Tories and the Lib Dems will now be able to boast that it was they who removed one of the final impediments to equality under the law for gay men and women.
Which I think is a shame.
The reason for delay is that there is to be a consultation. Stonewall should advise the government – drawing on its own experience – that this is a fundamental issue of equality, and that the consultation should be scrapped and legislation introduced as soon as Parliamentary time permits.