Evan Harris writes… Lynne Featherstone delivers on Lib Dem equality pledge – a response to Peter Tatchell

“It’s a Coalition, innit!”

No one would accuse me – I hope – of a lack of commitment to LGBT equality. Nor would anyone  – I fear – of being a cheer-leader for the Government, nor indeed of slavish support for Liberal Democrats in Government. But I can not accept my friend Peter’s criticism of Lynne Featherstone set out in his article. I doubt many readers of Lib Dem Voice would do so either, because his failure to distinguish between “Liberal Democrat policy” and “Government policy” is schoolboy-obvious, and his attack thus falls as flat as a pancake that’s been run over by a steamroller driven by a morbidly obese elephant with a grudge against flour-based food products.

Let’s look at the issue. Many years ago, the Lib Dems were the first party to call for civil partnerships for lesbians and gay people at a time when it was not only unpopular but made us a target of tabloid ire.  We put civil partnerships in a manifesto a long time before they were introduced by the Labour Government, who only did it – despite a massive majority, remember – only after chivvying and chasing from us and the rest of the equality lobby, and only after the Tories agreed they would not whip against it. Peter Tatchell and I worked on an amendment together calling for straight civil partnerships, rejected of course by Labour and even by progressive Tories.

If there was a Lib Dem majority Government, that Government would be consulting (yes, you have to consult on this sort of thing, it is good governance) on the total package – of equal marriage, equal civil partnerships and the religious freedom to conduct gay marriages ceremonies. But it isn’t a Lib Dem majority Government last time I looked. This means that if something is not in the Coalition Agreement it is simply not possible for Liberal Democrats to insist on it and not justified for the campaigners to blame the Lib Dems for not getting the Government to do it.

If you look at what is in the coalition agreement – for example, changing the Home Office policy on removals of LGBT people to countries where there is homophobic persecution and the eradication of convictions for discriminatory consensual sexual offences from the record – the Government has already delivered, unlike some other Home Office areas I could mention (“we will restore the right to protest” springs to mind!)

In fact, gay civil marriage is not only not in the Coalition Agreement, but it also divides the Tory Party, does not have official Labour backing and will antagonise the tabloid media. It also has the bishops moving (and not even doing so diagonally as I really feel they should) menacingly on Downing Street, so it is a (secular) miracle to make any progress at all.

So for Lynne and Nick to have got this on the agenda should be seen for what it is – a fantastic job of work. If anything, I worry what the price might be – and fervently hope we’ve already paid it.

So that’s the main thing, Peter. The title of your article should be “Lynne Featherstone delivers on Lib Dem equality pledge”

Recognise that, and then the rest of your complaints, wither away. But to deal with them all.

There has not been any delay. The Government has not yet delivered all that it set it out to do in the Coalition Agreement, let alone stuff we want that isn’t. So consulting on this with a commitment to legislate this Parliament is fine. It is important not to use Lynne’s saying she will listen to people inside and outside Government informally as a kind of pre-consultation (which she did) to justify an assertion that the Consultation announced (at our September conference) for March next year has been delayed. The ides of March haven’t bleedin’ well come yet, let alone gone!  Yes we need to hold the Government to the announced timetable as – opposite to what Peter says – plenty of the Government previous or planned consultations have indeed been delayed.

I attended and spoke at the launch of Peter’s Strasbourg case. I hope he wins – and I am not as confident as he is that he will even eventually – but as I said at that meeting I hope that his valiant couples could be spared the expense and hassle of taking that through to the end by our persuading Tory and Labour MPs (it will be a free vote for them I suspect) to back equality.

So Peter’s accusation that by getting the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to support a consultation and legislation to equalise marriage when it is not in the coalition agreement, that the minister responsible is “committed” to maintaining discrimination is somewhat insulting with someone who is genuinely dedicated to fighting for LGBT equality.

But dear readers, whisper this quietly. Maybe Peter’s doing his bit to help Lynne out. It does not do any harm to Lynne’s fight within the coalition to get this legislation a slot before the next election to say to the Tories  – who are so “pro-marriage” that they are actually against civil partnerships – “it is not as far as Peter Tatchell wants to go”.

Whisper this even more quietly, legislation – especially when free votes are in the air – can be amended by Parliamentarians as it goes through. Shhh!

* Dr Evan Harris is President of Lib Dem LGBT+ and a Vice-chair of the Federal Policy Committee.

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  • David Pollard 7th Dec '11 - 11:28am

    Nobody has yet explained to my satisfaction what the difference is between a civil partnership and a marriage in law so I still fail to see what all the fuss is about. In Scotland all the churches seem to be worrying about is the use of the word ‘marriage’.

  • It is the unnecessary distinction between opposite sex and same sex couples that is the problem. If there were any distinction in nomenclature of relationships based on age or race or religion there would be outrage. While the rights granted may be the same, the continued division between straight and gay relationships is found by many of us to be offensive and unacceptable in a modern, liberal society.

    Neither Labour not a majority Tory government would have introduced equal marriage in this Parliament. That we, the Liberal Democrats, are leading this change is fantastic and Nick, Lynne, Evan and all the other people pushing this should be congratulated rather than castigated.

  • @David Pollard – I and other people explained the difference on the previous thread. If the explanation doesn’t satisfy you I don’t think the onus is on us to keep trying.

    Thanks for the response Evan. I share Peter’s concerns, but found his article a little personal and misrepresentative of Lynne’s position. Are you testing out the elephant on a steamroller line for a Spring conference stand up routine? 😉

  • A point which occured to me on the previous thread but is probably better asked here.

    My approach would be to allow religious organisations to conduct same sex marriages if they want but no organisation could be compelled to conduct such a ceremony. Is that consistent with the situation for different sex marriages now. AIUI some churches will not marry certain people (eg divorcees wishing to remarry, and possibly some religions who require both participants to be full members of the congregation) and can’t be compelled to do so.

    AIUI one key point of the difference between marriage and civil partnership is the extent to which they are recognised overseas.

  • Richard Gadsden 7th Dec '11 - 4:14pm

    @David Pollard: other countries don’t recognise a civil partnership as equivalent to a marriage and will recognise a civil marriage as equivalent to a marriage, so even if the legal status is the same (which it isn’t, but the differences aren’t all that big) there is still a difference as soon as someone leaves the UK.

  • A marriage is solemized by saying a prescribed form of words whereas a civil partnership are formed when a couple sign the register.

    Further, dissolution of marriage is different from civil partnerships. CPs cannot use adultery as grounds, only marriage can. There are also differences in reasons for annulment and around pension entitlement which are significant.

    So if you have a faith and want you marriage with a same sex partner you can;t have that – you can have a partnership which is the signing of a document as opposed to the declaration of love and faith… an unequal arrangement.

    Whilst such inequalities, however minor, stand then the laws of pensions, inheritance and equal rights remain distorted and in need to reform.



  • Daniel Henry 8th Dec '11 - 12:34am

    What Hywel said.
    btw, AIUI means “As I Understand It” right?

  • What I find difficult to understand is how things will work when gay couples are allowed religious weddings in Scotland but not in England & Wales. It is so unfair and ridiculous to tell gay couples that they can only get married if they force all of the family and friends to travel up to Gretna Green with them! Surely that will be an untenable situation.

  • Peter Tatchell is completely right!

    I’m horrified that the consultation on marriage equality is being delayed again. Why is that?

    If there is not full marriage equality by the next General Election then it will be quite clear to the LGB population that a vote for the LibDems is a wasted vote.

  • Evan Harris 10th Dec '11 - 8:36am


    Thanks for your response here. I feel you have blind spot in your arguments. If Lynne and Nick are only able to persude their coalition partners to allow equal marriage (ie for same-sex couples) but not equal civil partnership (ie not for heterosexual couples), that is simply not the same as Lynne and Nick supporting the continuing discrimination.

    Similarly, when we campaigned together – unsuccessfully at the time in 1998 – to repeal the offences of gross indecency but not the myriad other gay-only offences that were not in our amendment, that did not mean that either you or I “supported continuing discrimination in the criminal law”. You would have hated being accused of that. As we pointed out at the thime, it was just that – at that point – it bwas all we could do. As you know it forced the Government to review the alw and finally abolish almost all discriminatory offences in the 2003 Act.

    You are this wrong to accuse Lynne and Nick of “supporting continued discrimination” because they have so far not been able to persaude the Tories to allow straight people something state recognised short of marriage (hardly a surprise!), or to take on the religous lobby (yet) over even permissive religious gay marriage.

    As a junior coalition partner in Government you have a number of opportunities to add to the coalition agreement, at the cost of accepting things the Tories want to do. I am delighted and surprised that Lynne and Nick were even able to pursue this (there were planty of other progressive causes let’s face it that the Tories part of the should be peruisaded to accept), so it is really frustrating for them to be castigated for progress so far.

    You make a fair point about the timetable meaning we run out of time in this Parliament and that is what we need to campaign on, and prepare the ground for “full equality” amendments to any bill which LibDem LGBT+ will back, and not be distracted by unfair accusations of lack of support for full equality.

    May I suggest we focus our efforts on the two parties who are not yet fully signed up to full equality? Your emails should be going to Messrs Miliband and Cameron.

    Let’s meet to discuss it



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