Sunday, 16 March 2014

How cynical can Ben Summerskill be?

In his parting shot after stepping down as chief executive of Stonewall last month Ben Summerskill has taken one last swipe in today's Observer at the Liberal Democrats over their stance being the first UK-wide party to adopt a policy on equal marriage.

He says we were cynical to pass it just after we entered Government in 2010, but this of course is another case of Summerskill's selective amnesia. The Lib Dems are a Federal Party which sometimes means that party policy can start out in one of the other state parties before it comes to the Federal platform. This is the case for equal marriage it was passed in March 2010 at Scottish conference. Federal conference at around the same time was finalising the UK wide manifesto ahead of the general election therefore there wasn't room on the 2 day agenda then to discuss new policy.

There was also a distinct difference in wording the year after 2010 when the main parties faced the Scottish electorate. SNP were ready to consult on it, Labour were only prepared to promise to allow faith groups to carry out civil partnerships on their premises and consult on the different status between civil partnership and marriage. The Lib Dems and Greens were bold enough to say they would bring equality both to marriage and civil partnerships, while the Conservatives were strangely quiet.

What is cynical is the stance that Stonewall took on the equal marriage debate. A month ahead of the Lib Dems debating it they were silent when Pink News consulting leading organisations about it. Indeed it was a commenter on that post that told me what Stonewall's response was:

"Stonewall are not campaigning against same-sex marriage and never have. Our focus in terms of legal recognition of same-sex relationships is on the practical rights and benefits available to couples. Marriage would give no extra legal rights than those currently available.

"Having secured an amendment to the Equality Act we want the Government to implement the legal changes necessary to allow those religious groups who want to conduct ceremonies on their premises to be able to do so. David Cameron stated his support for this recently."

So  that stance was on a par with the Alli amendment to extend the right to conduct civil partnerships on religious premises (ie ensuring the registrar was off the premises for any religious elements that the couple might want to include).

The night before the debate at the LGBT+ Lib Dems diversity fringe event Ben Summerskill put up the barriers against equal marriage; cost, the feminist movement, need to focus on homophobia. Afterwards Stonewall issued this press statement. During that week I'll give Ben some historical credence for his comments today, then he commented in Attitude:

"Anyone who's involved in campaigning [for equal marriage] should be very cautious about being seduced by politicians in any party who are looking for political advantage and have different imperatives from gay people in the wider world."

Strange then how once Stonewall took up the baton they ignored their chief executives own comments that equal marriage wasn't a different imperative from gay people in the wider world, but that it was their idea all along. Now that in my book is cynicism.

The fact of course is that being Stonewall they only ever saw it in terms of gay marriage, failing to take up the Lib Dem's calls to fairness to those who are transgender and intersex. This was something they did a month after the first party in the UK to make it policy did so saying:

"We seek to secure marriage for gay people as a civil vehicle on the same basis as heterosexual marriage, available in a registry office but without a mandate on religious organisations to celebrate it.

"We seek to retain civil partnerships for lesbian and gay people recognising their special and unique status."

Yeah their initial response, and response ever since, has been to dilute the Lib Dem definition of equality. Only talking about it in the gay context not the whole LGBT spectrum and only seeking to retain CPs for same-sex couples and not expand it mixed-sex couples. So that when they proclaimed that equal marriage was delivered in the UK they were cynical. Those of us who know what equal marriage means know that England and Wales are behind Scotland on trangender issues and on freedom of religion, while Northern Ireland like transgender people don't feature at all on Stonewall's radar.

My own personal history on working out how to get the Lib Dems to accept forming policy on equal marriage goes back before 2010. Indeed in 2009 I posted that I was aware that there were a number of people in the party who would believe it should be a matter of conscience and not something we should form policy on (when it came to the votes in Parliament you can see who some of those high profile members were). This was also the time that along with Liberal Youth Scotland I was already starting to work on forming just such a policy the one that would eventually be passed in Scotland that following March and was largely reflecting in the policy that Ben Summerskill now calls cynical.

I like the fact that Peter Tatchell actually also takes Ben Summerskill to task on this saying:

"An apology would be appreciated. Stonewall does great work but the gay campaign for marriage equality faced an uphill struggle, which was made worse by Stonewall constantly undermining our efforts. Some of the arguments Ben and Stonewall put forward at the time [2010] were quoted by homophobes to justify their opposition to same-sex marriage and this was hugely damaging.

"I am not a supporter of the Liberal Democrats, but on the issue of same-sex marriage the party took an early position, while Stonewall did all it could to sabotage that position. It is unbelievable really."
 I just hope that the new chief executive of Stonewall does get the implications on the transgender community and indeed Northern Ireland that Stonewall's neglect, despite the basis on the name in the entire LGBTQ community would suggest it should include, under Summerskill's watch.

Update 11:58 the one thing I couldn't comment on earlier was the quote upon which Summerskill has hung the entire cynicism claim from our former MP Evan Harris. Thankfully he has tweeted this which shows that far from being cynical he was saying that being in power the Lib Dems should "seize the moment [of being in Government] to push the agenda forward on full equality" something which is based on the constitution of the party.

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