But the politician who deserves credit for making equal marriage a reality is David Cameron
Speaking to John Humphrys on Radio 4 this morning, a sputtery Nick Clegg defended his party’s time in parliament. Refuting Humphrys’ suggestion that the Lib Dems had not actually done a lot over the last four years, Clegg told listeners:
“It’s because of us there is equal marriage”.
But how true is this? The Lib Dems often claim to be a moderating influence to the Tories and cite the passing of the Same Sex Couples Act as evidence of this. It is true that certain Lib Dem MPs have been longtime cheerleaders of equal marriage – Lynne Featherstone, for example, was named politician of the year by the charity Stonewall for pushing to introduce same-sex marriage from her second day in parliament.
It’s also true that the Conservatives were hostile to the change; 136 Conservative MPs opposed the Bill compared to 127 who voted for it. But the Lib Dems cannot take all the credit for passing the Bill. 44 Lib Dems voted for it – as well as 217 Labour MPs.
Labour have also claimed credit for the passage of the Bill; the Guardian reported at the time that David Cameron had been forced to issue a humiliating last minute plea to Ed Miliband to help him defeat an attempt by his own MPs to derail the legislation. Rebel Tories were attempting to extend the Bill to include civil partnerships for heterosexual couples, which would have made it much harder to pass. Miliband had previously been planning to abstain on the amendment vote.
Actually, the coalition politician who deserves the most credit for making equal marriage a reality is David Cameron, who had to go against his party and alienate the more traditionalist elements to push the Bill.
A letter of dissent was delivered to Downing Street warning that:
“Resignations from the party are beginning to multiply and we fear that, if enacted, this Bill will lead to significant damage to the Conservative Party in the run-up to the 2015 election.”
Ed Miliband recently described Cameron’s decision to press ahead with the Bill despite this serious opposition as the thing he most admires about the Conservative leader:
“It was hard in his party, it was the right thing to do for his country.
“There will be some people who won’t like me saying that but he took a risk in the Conservative Party by saying that was the right thing to do and he stuck to that.”
Last year, the former chief executive of Stonewall suggested that Lib Dem support for the Bill was no more than a cynical attempt to distance themselves from the Tories early on in the parliament.
Ben Somerskill said it had been ‘politically opportunistic’ for the Lib Dems at the time, noting that former MP Evan Harris greeted the conference on the issue by saying “this is great because we put clear blue water between us and the Tories” rather than by celebrating the step forward for equality. This seems a little unfair, given that the party supported equal marriage before even Stonewall did, and Featherstone’s early commitment to the issue is unlikely to have been dreamt up on the spot.
Still, it is wrong of Clegg to claim the victory as a solely Lib Dem one. Labour paved the way for same sex marriage with the introduction of civil partnerships in 2004 (several high profile Conservatives voted against, including Iain Duncan Smith and Ann Widdecombe). Labour are also the only party that have made LGBT equality an election issue, releasing a special manifesto aimed at tackling ongoing discrimination and stigma.
Stonewall statistics show that nearly a quarter of young LGBT people have attempted to take their own life at some point. Labour and the Lib Dems can both claim some part in legalising gay marriage; but this is plainly not the end of the fight. Only time will tell which party continues to make equal rights a priority, coordinating education, police and health services to make the UK a better place for LGBT people.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.