Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill defended his group’s lack of a position on marriage equality this evening.
Mr Summerskill mounted a robust defence of Stonewall, although he was attacked by audience members who questioned why the charity had not begun considering marriage equality sooner.
Following criticism of him at a Liberal Democrat event last week, Mr Summerskill told an audience at a fringe event at the Labour conference in Manchester that Stonewall would not be “jumped into” declaring a position on the issue and said there remained a “wide range of viewpoints” on the matter. Last week, he claimed that Liberal Democrat proposals for equal access to both marriage and civil partnerships regardless of sexuality could cost up to £5 billion.
This evening, he spoke on a panel with lesbian Labour MP Angela Eagle, gay Labour MP David Cairns and gay journalist Johann Hari.
Mr Summerskill said Stonewall was aiming to build a consensus on whether marriage equality should be the next step for the gay community in order to ensure any legislation would have cross-party support and pass in the House of Lords.
He said that this was a issue of “tactics” and added: “We do not feel embarrassed about raising this.”
He was speaking at an event organised by Stonewall and LGBT Labour and a member of LGBT Labour, Darren McCombe, attacked him, saying: “Why haven’t you consulted earlier? Separate is not ever equal.”
To applause, Mr McCombe said LGBT Labour had quickly reached a consensus on the matter through a democratic vote.
He also raised the issue of current laws requiring trans people to end their marriages to obtain gender recognition certificates.
Mr Summerskill acknowledged the “terrible unfairness” of this situation but said he had been in talks with ministers and officials about amendments to the Gender Recognition Act.
On the issue of straight couples being refused civil partnerships, he said gay marriage had been “chained” to heterosexual rights, which Stonewall does not lobby for.
The former Labour MP David Borrow also criticised Stonewall. He said: “It is not a member-run organisation. It does not give the opportunity to LGBT people to come together.”
He said that the charity is still seen as a spokesman for the gay community and implored Mr Summerskill to “go back to Stonewall and look again”.
Mr Borrow added that the charity had a “real dilemma” in who it speaks for.
In response, Mr Summerskill said: “Stonewall has never pretended to be a democratic member organisation. We have never said we speak for all lesbian, gay and bisexual people.”
He added that it was “critical” to build alliances across parties and argued that legislation could be rejected by the House of Lords if there was a perception that there was not a consensus among gay people.
Another panel member, the journalist Johann Hari, said: “We are not the government, we are making demands on the government.”
Referring to Stonewall’s estimated £5 billion cost over ten years for allowing straight couples to have civil partnerships, he argued that the disability lobby would not deliberate over the cost of wheelchair ramps.
However, Mr Summerskill responded: “It is perfectly proper to say there are arguments that will be used against us so we can counter them”.
He also pleaded with those present not to make the issue “party political”, claiming that the House of Lords would “retreat to tradition” and reject progressive legislation if this were to be the case.
Members of the LGBT Labour group had attempted to secure a debate on the issue of marriage equality at the main conference, but it was ranked at just position 13 in a priority ballot by party activists.