As many readers will have already heard, a fierce debate has broken out amongst the membership of Brighton and Hove Green Party about the actions of Councillor Christina Summers, who voted against a Council motion supporting same-sex civil marriage. Her reason was a personal religious disagreement with gay marriage and whilst the motion passed successfully, there have been widespread calls for her to be disciplined and potentially expelled from the Green Party.
News of this has spread beyond the local party itself, which does not surprise me. This case has implications beyond the particular instance at hand and how we react to it collectively will say something fundamental about the sort of party we will become as we grow in size and have more elected representatives in power.
At the time of candidate selection for the last local elections, I was an active member of the Brighton and Hove GP. There had been some private disquiet about the candidacy of Christina Summers because of comments she had allegedly made around gay equality, not least by the sizeable number of LGBTIQ members in the city. It was felt that the most appropriate way to deal with this fairly was to directly question candidates on their commitment to equality in the hustings process and request that candidates sign up formally to act to support equality and tackle discrimination. As someone who sat in those hustings, heard Christina address this point reasonably and supported her candidacy, I have to say I’m exceptionally disappointed by the decision she made in the Council vote. Whilst an abstention would have been politically damaging to her, an active vote to enshrine discrimination puts her squarely in opposition to local and national party policy.
As the National Chair of LGBTIQ Greens, I have written publicly that whilst individuals must be able to hold their own views, elected political platforms do have boundaries, including signing up to core values to further equality before standing for election. I welcome the decision of the local party to take forward a formal process, one that gives Councillor Summers the space to explain her judgment in this matter. If the local party feels that she has brought them into disrepute and that she acted in contravention to her explicit commitment to equality and fighting discrimination, I trust them to exercise discipline as they feel appropriate. Just as worryingly, news that she has actively preached and harassed women attending an abortion clinic in the city has compounded her action in the Council chamber and I am keen that this is verified and also addressed.
What this incident has done is open a much wider debate about the efficacy of exercising political power without a form of party whip. The freedom that elected representatives have to act as their judgment dictates has rightly been one of the stronger attractions to the party for many voters. That freedom has served to engender trust in our authenticity and brought a real sense of individuality to many of our politicians. Yet the political fallout from this vote is growing – I have received complaints and comments from a number of LGBT voters outraged at Councillor Summers’ behaviour. What does this mean for us as a growing party? As our ranks of elected representatives swell, does it mean we are hostage to unexpected political grenades launched in our direction that we cannot protect ourselves against?
Perhaps it does mean laying out more clearly what the guiding values and principles are for the Green Party and expected those who stand as candidates to sign binding undertakings that underline their agreement to act in accordance with them, alongside any particular red-line issues that each local party might have. Ensuring that a transparent and open process is in place to hold individuals to account and giving local members a clear mechanism by which to recall elected representatives will be more crucial than ever.
The wider lesson for the Greens is that we cannot afford to ignore democratic growing pains such as the one that has rocked Brighton & Hove in the last few days.
After receiving such a rich set of responses from the Leader and Deputy Leader candidates to our recent gender debate, I’d be keen to hear from the candidates about the wider lessons for the Green Party we need to draw from this incident. What do we need to do as a party to address these dilemmas around accountability and collective responsibility as they inevitably occur?
Previous blog posts focussing upon LGBT issues:
LGBTIQ Greens: Chair’s Report (Spring 2012)