May 29, 2019
Text of Rebecca Steinfeld’s talk at Beyond Marriage Conference, Cambridge 24th-25th May 2019.
Thank you to Clare Chambers and all her colleagues at the University of Cambridge for organising this conference, and inviting me to share my experiences of campaigning for a change in the law to open civil partnerships to all.
Together with my long-term partner Charlie Keidan, I’ve been involved in the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign for several years – but today I’m speaking in a personal capacity.
So over the next 30 minutes, I want to share a few of my own reflections.
My talk is split into four parts:
- To briefly explain our motivations – essentially why we wanted a CP – and how and why these driving motivations evolved over time
- To outline the process of taking the Government to court on this issue
- To explain how the campaign developed, and how it worked with Tim Loughton
- To share the lessons I took from these experiences, and why I hope that civil partnership reform will pave the way for much broader reforms in relationship recognition
In the Q&A, please don’t ask me when and how Charlie and me will actually finally celebrate our civil partnership. Because, after four years, four Equalities Ministers, three court cases, two children and with me now working two jobs, quite frankly we’re too exhausted to organise anything.
- At beginning it was feminism. We are partners in life and wanted to be partners in law too. We wanted to formalise our relationship free from the baggage of marriage with its problematic gendered symbols, associations and traditions. Civil partnerships existed – there was no need to create anything new, just open them to all.
- After we had children, we wanted to reflect that relationship of equals to our children, but also pragmatically we wanted more financial protection for their benefit, in case we were to separate or one of us died
- The shift in our personal motivations coincided with a strategic shift in the messaging and language of the campaign: at the beginning, we were child-free and more idealistic, but became more pragmatic after we had children and saw the need to be disciplined in order to build the largest possible coalition in favour of change
- On a personal level, I should say that the label ‘civil partnership’ is aspirational rather than descriptive – my relationship with Charlie faces the same financial and emotional pressures as many working parents with small children, with its ups and downs. We try our best to be civil partners, but we’re don’t always succeed
- I also don’t want to suggest that marriage is not an evolving and dynamic institution – far from it – and I fully support those reforming marriage
- However, we wanted the relative blank slate that a civil partnership offered
- We walked into Chelsea Register office in October 2014 to give notice to form a CP. The Registrar asked us if we were different-sex, and when we confirmed we were of different-sex, she said we couldn’t have one
- This was a course of action suggested by Prof Rob Wintemute – to whom Peter Tatchell had introduced us – as a necessary prelude to challenge the existing law in domestic courts
- This was not an untrodden path. Some of you will have heard of the Equal Love campaign and the Ferguson and others v. UK case taken to the ECtHR. When we became engaged to become civil partners, this case was going through the courts and we were optimistic it would be heard and the judges in Strasbourg would rule that the situation in the UK was unlawful. Sadly that wasn’t to be: The case was dismissed
- So back to square one which meant a case to be brought before the domestic courts
- The basis of the case: Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 incompatible with Civil Partnerships Act (CPA) 2004 because HRA assures right to private and family life (article 8) and non-discrimination (article 14) in relation to other rights, and CPA only allowed same-sex couples to form civil partnerships
- We had an all-star feminist legal team: Louise Whitfield (DPG), Karon Monaghan and Sarah Hannett (Matrix Chambers)
- Our families were ambivalent despite their legal backgrounds – because of cost, risk aversion, small ‘c’ conservatism and reputational concerns
- There were three stages, which brought us closer to winning each time, but it was an opaque, exhausting, stressful, drawn-out process with numerous setbacks
- (1) High Court 2015 we lost on all grounds – but granted an immediate appeal because the case was in the public interest
- (2) Court of Appeal 2017 we lost narrowly 2:1, but it was a major advance because the lead judge agreed with us, and all the judges agreed that we were within ambit, i.e. this issue was deemed to affect our right to private and family life. The Government accepted that. It became a watermark for other legal cases.
- (3) Supreme Court 2018: We won unanimously 5:0 and were given declaration of incompatibility
- Then what? There were three ways to equalise: up (open to all), down (abolish), phase out/grandfather
- We’d always known that the legal case would have its limits – the separation of powers means judges, rightly, cannot legislate, so the legal case was essential but not sufficient.
- That is why from the outset we’d set up a public and increasingly politically-focused campaign to work alongside the legal case. After the Supreme Court ruling, the campaign superseded the legal case.
- Origins: People heard us on Woman’s Hour in December 2014, contacted us and offered to help. Charlie had the foresight to form what he called a ‘kitchen cabinet,’ which soon became a steering group and then campaign team
- This included figures such as Martin Loat (who with his partner, Claire, went to the Isle of Man to form a CP to add weight to the campaign and is now leading the campaign), Fiona Millar, architect Elsie Owusu, as well as Peter Tatchell and Rob Wintemute
- The Change.org petition – 145k signatures –created a community of people who could take action, lobby and donate, plus it showed public support & how people were personally effected
- By creating this community and building on the media coverage generated by legal case, we were able to raise funds on Gofundme and Crowdjustice fundraising pages for both the case and campaign. We also secured foundation backing for our strategic litigation without which we would not have been able to take the cases because the costs risks were too huge for us to bear solo.
- The campaign organised polling showing the public support (3:1 supported extension)
- First few years: various campaign managers worked with the steering group. Then political strategist Ben Rich came on board. He counselled that we should have as broad a tent as possible to build cross-party support and to persuade the government. He advised identifying parliamentary champion, ideally a Conservative politician who we could work alongside and support as they took legislation through Parliament
- Enter Tim Loughton! A Tory MP and as a former Minister for Children and Families he had a long track record of commitment to pursuing this issue since 2013. He seemed the ideal champion…
- BUT – in the initial period, there were some deliberations about how best to work with Conservatives as the campaign had a left-leaning tint and because Tim Loughton’s attempt to amend the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 to extend CPs was interpreted by some as a stance against same-sex marriage – something Charlie and I campaigned for in our own (Jewish) community
- But over time, we saw Tim’s sincere commitment to this issue, and we formed an effective working relationship with him. And it’s been an unexpected pleasure working together. I even let him hold my baby!
- As fate would have it, Tim came in at number 5 in the PMB ballot, the highest Tory in the ballot – and the rest is history – though he’ll tell you more about the ins and outs of that legislative process from that point on – for us, it was a rollercoaster!
- Theresa May announced Government support for opening CPs in Oct 2018, just four months after the Supreme Court ruling
- The Bill cleared Parliament on 15th March 2019
- Though we still need secondary legislation to introduce precise arrangements around things like conversion and recognition of overseas CPs, the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 mandates that mixed-sex civil partnerships will be available by 31st December 2019. So we are very nearly there!
Three main lessons learned:
- Recognise the importance of litigation: It is impossible to say what would have happened without our legal effort, and who knows what will happen to the institution of CPs over time. What we can say is that the legal case generated media interest beyond what we could have imagined, news hooks to hang personal stories, ventilate the issues, raise public awareness and generate support. The disadvantages were that is was personally demanding, an opaque procedure, prohibitive costs, and it could only take us so far
- Be prepared to make trade-offs: The need to moderate campaign messages (from equality, human rights, feminism to “popular, fair, good for families”), and to form unexpected alliances (radical feminists and backbench Tory MPs), meant the process has not been without its challenges. I must say though that it was powerful and somewhat surreal to see a raft of Tory MPs speaking in favour of what I originally envisaged as a radical feminist policy change during the Bill’s last debate in the House of Commons. So those trade-offs swing both ways!
- Recognise the limits of what you can achieve, but also its potential: Ignore nasty comments but learn from legitimate criticism and consider how you or other can address it in the future. In our case, one criticism we encountered was that reforming civil partnerships did not go far enough in addressing the vulnerable situation of cohabitees, or in challenging the unequal status between couples and other relationship arrangements (such as between siblings and polyamorous groupings). I acknowledge those limitations. But at the same time, my own view and hope – and I can speak for Charlie too – is that by reforming civil partnerships, we have continued and widened the conversation about whose relationship gets to be recognised and why, and about the need for social policy to keep up with modern and evolving family life. I hope that opening civil partnerships to all is just the beginning of the conversation, and not the end.
Other lessons learned:
- Identify a clear and realistically attainable objective: This was amending one law to open one social institution to all – not reforming marriage and cohabitation law and policy per se. The disadvantages of this were that we had to be careful how we presented our case and some argued we did something entirely un-radical. For example, we never said we were against marriage and some argue that extending CPs was a very conservative thing because it celebrates state sanctioned couple relationships rather than new forms.
- Role of strategy: Thanks to a professional campaign structure, things got more strategic over time. It’s useful to research who else is working on this issue and how can you add to what they’re doing. Determine whether you need top down or bottom up change. Identify the policymaker with power to change. Identify potential allies
- Build a community: Use online platforms to share your and others’ personal stories, engage supporters by asking them for non-monetary contributions (sending postcards to MPs, share photos explaining motivations)
- Fundraise: We used crowdfunding, Crowdjustice and philanthropic foundations (which underwrote Government costs when we lost)
- Persist and prepare yourself for the long haul: Even changing three words has taken five years, four equalities ministers, two children… It’s a long, drawn-out, rollercoaster of an experience. Sacrifices to work and family life have to be made, so don’t take on something like this lightly!