Just when you thought it was safe to like Stonewall…

mark and ros at equal marriage vigilThe relationship between Stonewall and the Liberal Democrats would be described, in Facebook terms, as “it’s complicated.” We might share many of the same goals, but it can all get a bit spiky between us from time to time.

The Observer reports that their former chief executive Ben Summerskill has attacked the Liberal Democrats for being opportunistic over equal marriage, not passing our policy before 2010. In fact, there was huge support within the party for equal marriage and earlier in 2010, the Scottish Party had passed its policy in support. The equal marriage campaign only really started in earnest a couple of years before that and Stonewall itself took a long time to support the measure.  Why Summerskill has to be so sour about what is a proud moment for our whole society, in which both our organisations played a part, is beyond me.

Anyway, Lynne Featherstone, our Minister who was responsible for making sure equal marriage happened, has responded robustly to Summerskill’s comments:

His remarks have angered Lib Dem equality minister Lynne Featherstone. “Wow, I’m really upset by that, really upset,” she said. “That’s absolute rubbish. We are the party of equality and Ben knows that. It wasn’t in the manifesto probably because no one thought it could be achieved – not because of any lack of desire to do it.

“I wasn’t going to raise this, but it has to be said that Stonewall wasn’t in favour of equal marriage and they changed – and I’m very grateful they changed. It is somewhat upsetting to hear that that is his attitude. I thought we were all working together on this. I’m very surprised and disappointed to hear him say that. It’s completely unnecessary.”

Peter Tatchell said that Summerskill owed the Liberal Democrats an apology:

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.

Stonewall does a lot of good work, not least their excellent stuff on tackling homophobia in schools.  It would be nice if Stonewall and the party would continue to work well together as they did in the latter stages of the equal marriage campaign. We should remember that Summerskill no longer works for them and not judge the current organisation for his comments.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Simon McGrath 16th Mar '14 - 12:37pm

    I wonder if by any chance he is looking for a Labour Constituency ?

  • Andrew Emmerson 16th Mar '14 - 12:49pm

    My only nitpick with this article is that anyone apart from establishment politicians thought it was safe to like S’onewall

  • Edward Reach 16th Mar '14 - 1:30pm

    Well said, Caron. It is, of course, entirely reasonable to strongly disagree with everything Stonewall stands for and robustly challenge them on what they say and do. I don’t think it is reasonable to use Ben Summerskill’s Observer article today to attack an organisation that he is no longer CEO of.

    It is important to bear in mind that Summerskill is expressing his personal view here. It’s a bit ironic for people to attack him for the inaccuracy of his Observer piece and then proceed to wrongly conflate his personal views with those of Stonewall now. That, in my view, distracts from the main issue here – his very unfair mischaracterisation of party policy on same sex marriage. Something he is rightly being challenged over.

  • David Blake 16th Mar '14 - 2:09pm

    Benjamin Cohen of Pink News expressed it correctly: “Ben Summerskill’s pronouncement is frankly ludicrous and appears to be an attempt by him to rewrite history. The fact is that Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband were all ahead of Summerskill when it came to same-sex marriage. It was a policy that some might say he cynically and loudly supported when it was clear that Stonewall was in danger of being seen to have been on the wrong side of history.”

  • Paul in Twickenham 16th Mar '14 - 2:13pm

    I met Ben Sumerskill at Lib Dem conference a few years ago. He called me “matey” and exuded something between sarcasm and condescension. It is perfectly obvious he is a Labour supporter who allows his personal politics to cloud his professional judgement.

  • Stuart Mitchell 16th Mar '14 - 2:45pm

    Perhaps now you can begin to understand why Labour supporters don’t like it when Lib Dems belittle the huge amount of work done by Labour on equality over the years (including providing the vast majority of the pro-equal marriage votes in Parliament last year).

  • Public school, Labour Party elitist hack attacks Liberal Democrats — No Shock.
    I too have had meetings with Ben Summerskill and the only consolation was that I was there as part of my job, so at least I was getting paid to be there. One of my colleagues commented after the first meeting that “Summerskill must have very good eyesight to be able to look that far down his nose at us”.
    Pink News —

  • Jack McKenna 16th Mar '14 - 10:55pm

    Outrageous, Lib Dems have always supported LGBT people. If we could get the percentages it’d be interesting to see what percent of Labour MP’s voted against SSM compared to the Lib Dems.

  • Passing through 17th Mar '14 - 12:12am

    @ Jack Mackenna

    “Outrageous, Lib Dems have always supported LGBT people. If we could get the percentages it’d be interesting to see what percent of Labour MP’s voted against SSM compared to the Lib Dems”

    They come out around the same voting against but there is a worryingly high “Did Not Vote” percentage for the LDs

    LDs :
    Vote For: 44 = 77%
    Vote Against: 4 = 7%
    Abstained: 9 = 16%

    Vote For: 219 = 85%
    Vote Against: 22 = 8%
    Abstained: 17 = 7%

    IIRC about 45% of the Tories voted against the bill just in case anybody was fondly imaging they were some sort of long-lost liberal cousins.

  • If I recall, Stephen Tall did a whip-around and found that of the people who did not vote for the second reading, only Greg Mulholland didn’t give a reason why (and really, can we blame Jenny Willott for missing the vote? She was giving birth!)

  • As Sarah says, nearly all the Lib Dem MPs who were absent for the vote had a good reason, such as caring for a seriously ill relative at the time – see the details at http://www.markpack.org.uk/38982/same-sex-marriage-7-lib-dem-mps-not-present-of-which-only-1-an-abstention/

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Mar '14 - 10:59am

    I have a lot of sympathy for what Ben Summerskill is saying here.

    I believe the gay marriage thing HAS been used opportunistically by the Liberal Democrats. It’s been used as part of the shift of the party to the right, this somewhat fringe issue was pushed as what liberalism was all about as a way of hiding the party’s dropping of so much of what it was about that was economically distinct from current right-wing orthodoxy. We have all been encouraged to think “Everything’s OK, we’re still the old liberals we always were, because we’re so much in favour of gay marriage”. It’s a policy that doesn’t cost any money, doesn’t involve taxing the rich any more, doesn’t threaten big business, so fits in very well with the way our party has been taken over by people whose economics are what used to be regarded as right-wing Tory, but who claim they are deeply and truly liberal because they don’t have some of those old-fashioned social conservative aspects of the Tories.

    There were times this policy was pushed so hard in Liberal Democrat circles that it gave the impression that liberalism was about gay marriage and not much else. I’m afraid the impression that came across to me – and I suspect to many former voters – that now this WAS all the Liberal Democrats were about, swallowed up by the Tories, with just a few token “aren’t we brave radicals?” policies like gay marriage we could shout about and parade and make us look like something different.

    Ben Summerskill reminds us that it was NOT universal amongst gay rights activists to support gay marriage. Indeed, I remember a time when the idea was treated with great suspicion because underlying it seemed to be the suggestion “Gay people will only be properly accepted if they fit into heterosexual norms”. I don’t like the way that those pushing for it within the Liberal Democrats wrote off that viewpoint, pretended it never existed. It seemed to me to be another of those re-writes of history, a little one besides the one that rewrites all of economic left liberalism out of existence and pretends liberalism historically meant support for extreme free market economics, but still an indication of a mentality that to me is profoundly illiberal.

    I was appalled by the way this policy was pushed in a bullying way in the party. Again and again comment was published in official and semi-official party circles which pushed the notion that if you disagreed or even had concerns about aspect of gay marriage, you were a “homophobe”, the only reason for your position was a deep-seated hatred of gay people. As a result, I suspect a lot of people who had issues about the policy, the sort of issues originally raised by Stonewall, as well as the sort of issues raised by those with a religious background, felt they could not air those issues, felt they had no choice but to agree in public with the policy and pretend they had no concerns and never had any. The result was to close down debate, again to me, profoundly illiberal. See, as an example, the stream of nasty comments made about Sarah Teather when she stepped down, made here in Liberal Democrat Voice, as if her divergence from the norm on this issue overshadowed everything else she had said.

    On the whole it seemed to me that the compromise that we had something called “civil partnership” which people were calling “gay marriage” colloquially anyway, was working. Given that Liberals had often seemed obsessed with removing any special privileges attached to marriage, I felt it was hypocritical suddenly to make out that just this word “marriage” was a big thing. I felt it would have been better just to have pushed things so that the legal protections of civil partnership were identical to those of marriage. To me this newly invented obsession with the idea that a legally recognised gay partnership HAS to be called “marriage” and HAS to be covered under the historical laws of marriage seemed to be tokenistic. The tactic of inventing something token to get people all worked up about and to divert them from thinking of other things has a long history in politics. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of those pushing for it strongly in the party, sorry, but I do think it was being used by others deliberately as a diversionary issue.

  • I would probably have voted for gay marriage in order to avoid the risk of being labelled homophobic. That would have made me a hypocrite. Every fibre of my liberal self screams at me that the institution of marriage is a church invented, state sponsored, tool of social control that I want to abolish not extend.

  • Marriage is a universal institution found in all cultures from the beginnings of history — and doubtless far into prehistory. It is not “church-invented” but predates Christianity by millennia. Christian churches involved themselves in marriage — previously, in the Roman Empire, a secular institution — as a way of asserting their relevance and as a “tool of social control.” Extending marriage to those who have been unjustly denied marriage by religious institutions goes a long way to emancipate people, and the institution itself, from that control.

    There is nothing liberal about wanting to “abolish” marriage, which is an impossible task. (The closest one gets to an abolition of marriage is under certain institutions of slavery, where marriages were forbidden and family units were regularly broken up; but even there marriage was practised clandestinely.) If you dislike the idea of being married, you are free not to marry — but you cannot as a liberal deny others the freedom to marry if they please. Liberalism is not about imposing a certain social system on all people in defiance of their wants and needs.

  • Phil Rimmer 17th Mar '14 - 2:35pm

    Very nicely put David-1. The problem is that, as with most lasting human institutions, the institution of marriage evolved over time (as you mention) but is now entirely regulated, and almost entirely defined by, church and state law. This having serious repercussions when there is a state religion or church.

    Certain organisations, individual couples even, could and would carry on happily defining their own forms of “marriage” long after anyone abolished the legal structure of the institution just as they did prior to the existence of church and state. No liberal would do anything to stop them but it would end our one size fits all approach to social control through the institution.

    Still, as I said, mine would have been the hypocrites yes vote. If the state must have tools of social control better that they apply to all equally.

  • Richard Duncalf 17th Mar '14 - 3:52pm

    Ben is just wrong, wrong, wrong. A perverse intervention from yesterday’s man. However, this should not detract from the substantial and necessary work Stonewall continues to undertake in promoting equality in the workplace, schools and overseas.

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