Former Liberal Democrat MP, Evan Harris, defends Lib Dem equality minister, Lynne Featherstone, after her stance on marriage equality was questioned by the human rights campaigner 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!

This article was first published on Lib Dem Voice