Greens, homophobia and holding elected representatives accountable

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)

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22 thoughts on “Greens, homophobia and holding elected representatives accountable

  1. There’s always going to be a limit to the “no whip” policy. Red lines have to be drawn. We wouldn’t stand for climate denialism or white supremacism for example within the party for example. I don’t believe holding a personal objection to either abortion or same-sex marriage would be grounds for expulsion or disciplinary action, no matter how fiercely I defend women’s abortion rights and equal rights for LGBT couples.

    Praying outside abortion clinics, harassing and coercing vulnerable women, many of whom will be survivors of rape, goes way beyond what I would consider acceptable. It’s not just a differing opinion, it’s a direct attack on women and the choices they make with their bodies.

    I’m less concerned about the same-sex marriage vote, however there can only be a loss of faith in Green representatives among LGBT people if candidates can lie to them when signing a pledge to promote equalities issues, then vote against an equalities issue affecting many couples in her ward without consequence.

    I think she should be expelled from the party.

  2. Quite simply Christina has to go. If we can’t hold elected representatives to account (baring in mind all of us pay for their election campaigns and local members work tirelessly for them on the doorstep) over voting on our core values then we stand for nothing.

  3. This bint needs to go. Clearly talked bollocks to get where she is and then refuses to ‘represent’ people over her own beliefs. What is she doing there? Get rid of her.

  4. Personally I think that if we are going to have red lines we need to lay them out clearly before the election not retrospectively sack people who will have previously believed that we don’t whip. I profoundly disagree with her decision here but if the Green Party wants to think of itself as a less centralised party than, say, the Labour Party we have to be able to tolerate dissent from our own members.

    Green Party members are allowed to disagree with party policy, even our current leader does. If we insist that people agree with the PSS in full then we become a sect not a broad political party of people who can think for themselves.

    John McDonnell probably voted against the Labour government more times than he voted with it, but he was never expelled, or even deselected. The Greens either have to find it in themselves to be able to tolerate their own John McDonnells or simply come to terms with the fact that we expect more ideological conformity among our members than Labour does.

    I do find this difficult as these questions are not easy for anyone who is not an authoritarian and I’m extremely doubtful about these new and sudden rumours that she took part in the anti-abortion demos when this has never been mentioned before (as if *that* would go uncommented upon!).

    At the moment I’d be inclined to deselect her for next time and am uncomfortable with expelling someone for doing something that they could have been forgiven for thinking was allowable – it’s hardly the first time a Green cllr has voted against the party line on a key vote and we don’t normally demand they are purged from the party.

  5. Jack says that Christina voted against the Green Party’s core values. The relevant bits of the Philosophical Basis (which is our statement of values) state that:
    “A healthy society is based on voluntary co-operation between empowered individuals in a democratic society, free from discrimination whether based on race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social origin or any other prejudice.” and “The legitimate interests of all people are of equal value. The Green Party rejects all forms of discrimination whether based on race, colour, sex, religion, national origin, social origin or any other prejudice. We accept the need for social institutions to protect the interests of the powerless against the powerful.”

    Given that Christina’s vote was almost certainly based on her religious beliefs about the nature of marriage, and that religion is mentioned in both sections as something we should not discriminate against, it would seem to me that expelling her from the party on the basis of her vote on same-sex marriage could equally be considered a violation of our principles – even though her vote is clearly distasteful or offensive to many of our LGBTIQ members.

    It’s a bit clearer-cut when it comes to her actions on outside the abortion clinic (which I’m told were praying, not preaching). Here, the issue is not her pro-life views, but the way in which she chose to express them. Clearly it was a badly chosen form of protest, and may well have caused unnecessary distress to the women using the clinic. There is a much stronger argument to be had for her facing disciplinary action there.

    My worry is that taking excessive action on this case could set a precedent of de facto discrimination on religious grounds. If we were to expel her on the grounds that she expressed her religious beliefs whilst being a Green Party Councillor, we are effectively telling those with strong religious beliefs that – if those beliefs conflict with a specific Green Party policy – they must choose between their faith and their party should they be elected to public office. Whilst there are clearly some cases where that would be the case (e.g. a religiously-inspired belief that climate change is a myth), I’m not convinced that opposition to same-sex marriage (which is still the official position of the vast majority of religious groups in the UK and worldwide) is one of them.

  6. So it’s ok for someone representing us to vote against our philisophical basis conditional that they do it on religious grounds? I won’t patronise anyone by taking that one to its logical conclusion.
    Jim, I’d argue that the difference between Christina and, say, Alex Phillips is that Alex voted against a decision reached by a group of councillors- the party line if you will, whereas Christina opposed a principle that each of us sign up to when we join up.

    • I wasn’t specifically talking about Alex. Green cllrs quite often vote against the line and this can be on crucial votes, she’s not unique in that respect. Purely on the question of the vote I don’t think it’s at all clear that gay marriage specifically is part of the Party’s core values.

      It’s something I’m in favour of but there’s a danger of confusing issues that we/you/one feels passionately about and something that is the core of the Green Party’s beliefs.

      Having said that the quote from the philosophical basis above is interesting because Stephen Gray thinks it shows we should not penalise this woman because it is discrimination against her religious beliefs where as I would interpret it to mean that we should prevent institutionalised discrimination like the ban on gay people getting married.

  7. Jack, the philosophical basis does not mention gay marriage. Christina clearly believes that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. If she also supports having civil partnerships as a legally identical institution for same-sex couples, then I see no conflict between her beliefs and the philosophical basis. You could argue that the name difference makes the two unequal, but that’s very much a subjective judgement call. It would be unfair to those who disagree to say that their belief on the issue is in conflict with the principle of equal rights that is set out in the philosophical basis, just because their interpretation of it on one issue differs from yours.

  8. I think we have to trust the party’s internal disciplinary processes to run their course, however frustrating that is when I can sense from this there is a call for immediate action. The party has an investigative approach and a tribunal could look at just this issue, or on a general point of “bringing the party into disrepute” could look at a wider range of points.

    My view is that we can’t pick and choose on equality or try to find a middle way on this. There is no hierarchy and where two issues of “equality” come into conflict, in this case whether marriage should be equal for everyone and whether freedom of religion allows a direct contradiction of this, it is pretty clear to me that the principle of equality rests with former. While I respect the right of everyone to practice the religion of their choosing (and we chose to get both my sons baptised), when that religion requires you to vote against equality, it establishes a hierarchy. Christian principles, in my view, should be based on what Jesus Christ tried to teach, which included the rather excellent, “Love Thy Neighbour”. Now if we are genuinely to love our neighbours, I think that demands equality.

    On the issue of party whipping, I think that we have it right. That does unfortunately mean the occasional “hand grenade” as you describe it. We’ve had a few of these and no doubt will have a few more. But the alternative is far worse. You only have to look at our administration in Liverpool, with control freakery at an extreme level (http://blogs.liverpooldailypost.co.uk/dalestreetblues/2012/07/another-week-another-leak-and.html) to realise that our values are better. I do agree though, that there are core principles around which the party is built, and that all of our elected representatives must adhere to them.

  9. Firstly, I want to say that I have worked with Cllr Summers closely. We were both candidates together for the Hollingdean and Stanmer in 2011, along with Cllr Sven Rufus. I got to know Christina in that time and, like many in the local party, I was fully aware of Christina’s religious convictions. However, there were repeated checks and balances in the local party to ensure that everyone selected all agreed with basic Green Party principles on equal rights for LGBTIQ, BAME and women. The candidate advisory panel, hustings and the formal declaration of advancing rights for LGBTIQ, BAME and women was designed to ensure that members could select the best possible candidates who were committed to basic Green values. The local party could not have done a better nor fairer job in the selection process.

    As a former minister of Holy Communion in the Church of England, I know how difficult it is to reconcile one’s beliefs with the values of an organisation. I disagreed with the official Church of England policy on gay and women bishops, equal marriage and reforming the abortion system to make it easier for a woman to terminate her pregnancy. Inside the Church, I found a mixed and diverse group of people. Some were conservatives, some were liberals and others didn’t ascribe to either wing of the Church of England. I left the Church after struggling to reconcile my own personal convictions with the values of the Church. In the end, I left God altogether.

    Christina Summers is a Green. She’s a great ward councillor, a real hard worker who wants to see the Green Party do well. However, on this one issue, the issue of equal marriage, she disagrees with Green Party policy. This, however, is a big disagreement. Equality for all is a central tenet of our Green ethos and it cannot be compared to other issues (like a budget) like for like.

  10. Secularism guarantees our freedom of conscience and our freedom of belief, humanist and religious alike. But religious groups of all religions are lobbying not just for the right to pursue their own vision but working hard to impose their own values on us all. That is not equality Therefore there IS a clear hierarchy, equality and justice must come before prejudice and superstition.

  11. The Equality Act 2010 lists nine protected characteristics, two of which are religion or belief and sexual orientation. There is no hierarchy of equalities in the act – religion or belief is not ranked above sexual orientation in terms of importance – so it angers me greatly that there are a number of apologists on this thread who think that it is acceptable for this woman to effectively rank her own private views above the public rights of her constituents and for her to publically express these obnoxious views as a representative of the Green Party. If she was denying equal marriage rights to disabled or BME people because of her religious views, would your attitudes be the same? We live in a supposedly secular state – why should people’s religious opinions influence matters of government policy, something which affects all citizens, regardless of whether they hold religious beliefs or not? Why should a person’s private views give them the right to impinge upon the civil liberties and rights of others? I am religious, but, unlike Cllr Summers, would never dream of forcing my opinions on others. I fear that failing to censure her for her actions will demonstrate that we are toothless in the face of people that defy our core policies and that this will stop people from voting for us. I joined the party precisely because I felt it was the only one that was truly committed to furthering an agenda of equality for all, that it was a party which held strong principles on values that meant something to me, a party that didn’t just change its policies on a whim (unlike all the other major political parties). How it reacts to this woman’s actions will define for me whether or not this is a party that I wish to remain a member of in the future.

  12. Having chatted to a couple of people today I think I’ve shifted my position slightly. There appear to be two separate issues. The first is the vote.

    I think our response to this has to be proportionate and even if we’d like to expel someone over the vote there is a dangerous tone that is being set – because this wont be the last time we’re in a difficult position over an elected rep voting in an embarrassing way (and we should remember her vote did not even come close to changing the outcome of this).

    The second is more serious though. That is the relationship of this councillor to the rest of the green group and her behaviour outside of the council chamber. It seems clear now that she has taken part in the anti-abortion protests in Brighton, which have been particularly nasty, which have intimidated women, some of whom will have been vulnerable.

    It looks like the relationship between her and the party has broken down and that it is not viable for her to continue in the Green group when she finds it difficult to be honest with them. i think this is a real shame and very sad because we must be a party that’s broad enough to incorporate dissenting voices but it’s difficult for us when the working relationship appears to have completely disintegrated.

    I still think this is a difficult decision for people to make and if people get it wrong, well they are under pressure and it’s not easy so we should be forgiving of that. What I don’t want to see is the party develop a culture of hounding members out when they deviate from party line while ensuring we have a sensible approach to the people we work with, so if we can no longer work with someone we draw a line under that relationship and go our separate ways.

  13. I remember an occasion a few years ago when a person resigned from an Anmesty group because Amnesty has decided to take no stand on abortion. Curious, but we lost a fine active campaigner.

    I find it difficult to see how a person can embrace our philosophical basis, yet in practice vote against it. It seems to me that this councillor has not managed to square her religious views with those of the Green Party, and this conflict must be a strain on her. Nevertheless, we are VERY clear on our principles, and the basic values which bring us all together are not negotiable. Putting principle before power has made us the party of integrity, and the esteem with which we are held in this matter must be protected

    Sometimes religion is slow to realise it’s mistakes – slavery for example, where the bible was said to support it, then years later was said to outlaw it. Greens who do not stand for office probably experience these conflicts, but Greens who do stand for office should be abuntantly clear of our raison d’etre, our reason for being, and should have resolved personal conflicts of this nature before putting themselves forward for election.

    I would suggest Christina gives the matter deep thought. Either she is a Green, or she is not.

    Party whip? Never!

    • Thank you Pippa, I agree with everything you say. Christina clearly has many internal conflicts, and I feel for her in one way. As you rightly say though, being conflicted and troubled by issues that cross over into significant policy issues, is not the time to stand as an elected representative.

  14. I know many people who are upset that immediate action wasn’t taken over this issue, and can understand their concerns, I was shocked when I first heard. But I think the debate thus far on this list has shown why I believe taking time and investigating properly is the right thing to do. I would be very concerned if we allowed ‘trial by Twitter’, its important to make a considered response.
    We must also ensure lessons are learnt, as we grow as a party this won’t be the last time we face an issue such as this. Our policy is not to whip, but people are right to point out the need for clear red lines to be established, the philosophical basis of the party is a good place to start, although it doesnt get down to specifics. However by then taking an overview of other areas you will get a pretty good idea that our policies on equality, abortion etc are going to be problematic for someone who is very religious. The fact that there were so many concerns at the time of selection should have probably raised alarm bells and I know people were very thorough in trying to mitigate potential problems, but there is a fundamental conflict.
    As a councillor Cllr Summers also has a responsibility to represent her ward and as she was elected as a Green I would imagine the voters in her ward would have an expectation of her behaviour based on that.
    I am sure that the local party will take all of these issues into consideration and there are other rumours flying about, which I think it would be inappropriate of me to comment on, as they are just rumours. I understand that Cllr Summer is an excellent Councillor and as Pippa says shes must be going through a lot of conflict, but if she is opposed to some core Green policies then I think she should consider her position very carefully herself. In the meantime do I believe it is for Brighton and Hove Greens to consider the situation in light of all the information they have and make a decision.

  15. I too am a Christian and a Green Party member, but I don’t see any conflict between the core party principles and the belief that the word “marriage” can legitimately be reserved for opposite-sex relationships.

    I think we need to distinguish between sameness and equality.

    It is possible to believe that men can be distinguished from women, but that they should be treated equally, except in those few cases where the difference between a man and a woman is a relevant difference. It is not a denial of equality to use the word “man” to refer only to half of the human race.

    It is possible to believe that heterosexual attraction is distinguishable from homosexual attraction, but still to believe that those who have the former should be treated the same as those who have the latter (or both), except in those few cases where the distinction is relevant. It is not a denial of equality to use the word “gay” to refer only to those who experience homosexual attraction.

    It is possible to believe that an opposite-sex, enduring, exclusive, sexual partnership is distinguishable from a same-sex, enduring, exclusive, sexual partnership, and to use words to make that distinction. It is not a denial of equality to say that the word used historically for one of those kinds of partnership (“marriage”) should be used in the way it has commonly been used.

    What may be a denial of equality is if the law treats people differently in a way that is not justified by the difference in reality. It is contrary to equality if a man is denied an office job simply because he is a man. Or if a life-partner is denied access to her partner’s hospital bed simply because her life-partner happens to be a woman. Or the argument could be made (and I would tentatively make it myself) that whether an enduring (etc.) partnership is between people of the same sex or between people of opposite sex is not a relevant distinction for anything that the state needs to concern itself about, and therefore that the word “marriage” could safely be removed from law altogether. (I commend this proposal for the consideration of a party that isn’t afraid to be radical!)

    But simply using a word like “man”, “gay” or “marriage” to refer to something and not to something else is not a contradiction of equality. It’s just using words in the way words are used – to make distinctions between things.

    We need to understand that it is possible to stand for equality without denying the existence of real diversity.

  16. I have known Christina for 4 years, before she or I were elected as councillors. She was a hard-working community activist mainly around the London Road area and had been involved in anti-Sainsbury’s campaigns, the regeneration of the London Road area campaign named ‘Another London Road’ campaign, as well as transport campaigns.

    As a pro-choice feminist, as well as someone who identifies as being LGBT, it goes without saying that I do not agree with Christina’s stance on a woman’s right to choose or gay marriage. To be clear, what I have a problem with is not her holding these views but her insistence to act upon them. I think that praying for women many of whom are making the toughest decision of their lives, is fine. I just have a problem with where that praying took place. I don’t understand why it couldn’t have taken place at home, at church or indeed anywhere else rather than at or near the abortion clinic. 

    On the vote last week, Christina had 4 choices in front of her: to vote for, to vote against, to abstain or to not be present. I feel that if she felt unable to vote in favor then she should have either abstained or made sure she wasn’t present. Christina is an intelligent woman and knew the ramifications of each of these options. She also didn’t have to speak during the debate, but chose to, and I think her wording aggravated the situation further.

    We are a very logical, pro-science party, who embrace many people of faith. In fact, in the Green Group of councillors itself we are a pretty diverse bunch that includes Catholics, people of Jewish-heritage, buddhists, Humanists and atheists to name but a few. However Christina was the only one to vote against, on the grounds that marriage is for a man and a woman to procreate. For logical people this doesn’t make sense because now that we are in the 21st century, with all of its technological and scientific advances, many same-sex couples bring up children yet there are also many heterosexual couples who cannot conceive. Marriage in the 21st century has to be about love, regardless of sexual orientation, and as someone who has been in a relationship with a woman but is currently in a relationship with a man I know that love is the same whoever it is given to and received from.

    Finally, we must remember that Christina is a person, and in fact the Christina I know is not malicious in any way, and is someone whom I believe does things because she believes she is doing good. I do feel sorry for her and the position she’s in, but I also think that having an inquiry panel is a positive step forward, because it will protect both Christina and the group and bring much-needed closure to this, but i must stress that I wouldn’t want to pre-judge the conclusion of the inquiry panel.

    My prepared speech for last week’s full council can be viewed here: http://alexfordeputy.org.uk/equality/

  17. Some of the comments here have started from an acceptance that Cllr Summers has voted against our core values, and that she therefore lied when she said that she would uphold them. However, equality is one of our core values, but specifically supporting same-sex marriage is not. So what is actually happening is that some people have interpreted the core value of equality in one way, and Cllr Summers has interpreted it another way. Cllr Summers obviously feels that by supporting civil partnerships, which confer the same rights as marriage, she is supporting equality. You may not agree with that interpretation, but it is unfair to accuse her of lying or going back on a promise, or wonder why she joined the party.

    If you don’t think there can be differing interpretations of the principle of equality, go and read the discussion about whether our leadership selection process should actively discriminate against men.

    If we are going to decide that disagreement with same sex marriage is inconsistent with Green Party membership, we should at least acknowledge that this is a change of the goalposts, not a reaffirmation of an existing rule, and that Cllr Summers is being ushered out because of this rather than because she didn’t meet the criteria in the first place. We should also accept that in doing so, we are making clear that we are far less tolerant of dissenting voices than the other major parties are, and that we should stop pretending that we don’t have a whip.

  18. Pingback: Does the Green Party need whipping? | Green Politics: Sustainable Futures

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