I recall very vividly sitting at a DELGA (LGBT+ Lib Dems as they are now known) meeting hosted by Stonewall at Lib Dem Conference in Birmingham, 2011. I was busy campaigning to have government policy changed on MSM blood donations, with a motion going to Conference in the next couple of days. Before the fringe session started I had a brief chat with Lynne Featherstone, the then Minister for Equalities for the government. She had a big fat smile on her face – she told myself and a friend that Theresa May was fully behind her on equal marriage and now David Cameron had nailed his colours to the mast at his conference. “Do you think he’s being cynical?”, I asked. “I don’t care”, she answered. To Lynne, this change to the law might just happen. For once in coalition politics, who got the credit didn’t matter.
I left the Lib Dems after the passing of the NHS Bill; a personal red line for me. Six months after leaving I decided to join the Labour Party. I’ve entirely no reason to defend the Lib Dems, so perhaps we could take it as Ben Summerskill’s greatest achievement that he’s convinced me to do so today.
In the very same meeting a year before, we listened with intent as equal marriage was discussed. With Ed Miliband’s previously stated support and the number of Tory MPs who were suddenly coming out of the workwork, we believed for a slight second that cross-party support could pull this off. St Austell & Newquay MP Steve Gilbert had a motion tabled for the next day to make equal marriage party policy and there was definitely an air of excitement. I will happily criticise the Lib Dems for political expedience on many many other things, but on equal marriage, there was just a hunger to overturn injustice.
The meeting turned sour when Ben Summerskill interjected, to our surprise, to tell us that supporting equal marriage was an awful idea. He asserted that it would cost the economy too much, that he didn’t support it and that we should just accept that civil partnerships are enough. Steve Gilbert responded by saying that equality doesn’t come with a discount price tag and the cost of achieving equality should not be a reason to stop pursuing it, citing apartheid as an example. Summerskill was indignant and said he found the comparison to apartheid offensive. He clearly did not feel marriage inequality to be an injustice and was willing to castigate anybody who thought otherwise.
The next time I was to hear Ben Summerskill speak would be at Downing Street last year, where a number of us were invited for an LGBT reception after the Same-Sex Marriage Bill received royal assent. He mocked a number of homophobic activists who opposed equal marriage, plagiarising that tired joke about politicians who were protecting the sanctity of their third marriage. How things change. The man who opposed equal marriage tooth and nail was now seeking to gain credit for its introduction. Today, he decides to accuse another organisation of cynicism. I’m reminded of that famous anonymous quote: “Many of us believe that wrongs aren’t wrong if it’s done by nice people like ourselves.”
The equal marriage campaign was a success because it was, excuse the term, a coalition. From James and Connor’s excellent launch of the campaign with their C4EM website to Ben and James-J’s Out4Marriage campaign to all the many many local campaigners who got involved and, of course, Labour, the Lib Dems, the Conservative Party leadership, the Greens and others. I like to think Josh and I did our bit too. It was deeply satisfying to see that, for once, the partisan boundaries had fallen down and MPs were arguing in the Commons not to best each other or to make a point, but to bring about a social change so many had waited so long for. All this whilst Ben Summerskill’s web designers were adorning his equal marriage pages with “Donate to Stonewall” buttons. We all know who was the most cynical on equal marriage, and if he could retire gracefully, those of us who put the LGBT community first would rather appreciate it.