Last night I attended a meeting of Green councillors in Brighton & Hove. As a party member I have a constitutional right to attend these meetings. Since the party has won power in the City, they have had much to discuss which for very good legal reasons must remain confidential. Consequently, part of each meeting is now held in private. Following my post on the last occasion I attended one of these meetings, there was evident unease about my presence in the room.
With an injured foot, I walked several miles to get to the meeting. My hobbling was slower than expected and I was a little late. When I arrived I found the Green councillors listening to a lengthy sermon by Anthea Ballam. She’s a long standing Green Party activist who commands much respect, attention and affection both inside and outside the party. She’s also an interfaith minister. That means she’s a sort of freelance religious speaker. She’ll rock up at anything and talk nicely about whatever faith is required. For some reason beyond my ken, our local Green councillors wanted to listen to her at such length last night that they couldn’t complete all the business on their agenda. The issues pushed off the timetable by this religious episode were really serious. If they want to listen to preachers, can they not find space and time in their own lives, rather than derailing a political meeting to do it?
Ms Ballam’s 40 minute sermon concentrated on bigging up the contribution to the community by the religious folk in the City, declaring that the Green councillors were all in their flock and the dangerous nature of atheism. One of her constant themes was that all atheists are white middle class opportunists attacking their own community. She spoke at length about the resurgence of atheism post 9/11, describing it as a sudden and convenient phenomenon and driven entirely by white male middle class intellectuals. She detailed the crimes crimes committed by communist regimes. This was not an inclusive sermon, this was a blatant attack on non-believers. She focused her conclusions on a very wise and oft-tended religious theme: forgiveness.
Regular readers will know that I set up the part of the legal team in Occupy London which defended the encampment from eviction. Due to its location in St Paul’s Churchyard, we attracted a very high number of religious activists. By the time I quit the scene (in mid-December, when it became clear that Occupy was incapable of any form of strategic or political decision making), the whole thing had descended into a daily round of religious competition. I made friends with many of these folk. Some of them have been particularly effective activists. Some of them less so. I was very clear with all of them about my atheism. Nevertheless, I was repeatedly asked to join interfaith meetings. I’ll never forget one Church of England vicar, Adrian, the very spit of the holy men featured in the old Hammer House of Horror B-movies, declaring, “Atheists are welcome too!“, and shaking my hand in a vice grip so powerful I felt I might never type again.
Occupy may not have been very good at politics but it was excellent at social inclusivity. One of my new found friends, Tanya Paton, recently organised an activist’s pilgrimage to Canterbury. She also organised the already legendary Sermon on the Steps (my video at that link). So many preachers stood in line to speak on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral that in the end they had to be turned away. 22 spoke in all. There were priests, vicars, imams, hindus, buddhists, pagans and yes, atheists too. Hell, there was even a Satanist! This extraordinary demonstration of unity across all the faiths and with those of none pushed the Bishop of London, Dr Chartres to change his attitude to us. He came to talk the following day (another video) and spent a considerable amount of time with us.
When Ms Ballam spoke of the need for forgiveness, she had the air of a school teacher lecturing a whole class, admonishing them about the risks of a collective crime not yet committed. To say it was heavy handed is being generous. Clearly, she wasn’t asking people to forgive atheists. She was very specific. She was asking people to forgive religious folk for anything they had done to offend the body politic. Although she had been invited to the meeting weeks ago, the context was strikingly clear.
Four days previously, Green Councillor Christina Summers had broken with party policy and her specific promises to her colleagues and voted against a motion in favour of single gender civil marriage rights. The motion was was brought to a full council meeting by the Labour Party, after the government’s consultation period on the issue had ended. In fact, Brighton & Hove City Council had already made a formal submission to the government on the matter, supporting the right of gays and lesbians to be allowed to enter such marriages. The submission was supported by all three parties on the council: Green, Labour and Conservative. Since there are currently no independent councillors, that meant the entire council already supported the motion. Labour Party sources claim that the motion was brought to show the unity of the council but they must have realised that Summers would vote against it and this would create trouble for the Greens. Fair enough. That’s politics.
Summers’ vote sparked a fire storm of anger inside the Green Party. I’ve been conspicuous in calling for her expulsion from the party. Many people support that call, including many of our councillors; they’ve confirmed this in private. The biggest view is that she should be expelled from the Green Group of councillors. A small minority feel that she should be allowed to continue as a member uninhibited by any disciplinary action whatsoever and free to promote her fundamentalist view of Christianity from her political office.
Although in my recent posts on Summer’s outlandish behaviour have concentrated on her religious motivation, that is not the cause of the anger inside the party. Personally, I wish it was. I would like my party to be a party of science, to draw its policies from evidence based learning and leave it at that. However, I am not a member of an atheist party, far from it.
The problem begins and ends with Summers’ political relationship with her councillor colleagues. She didn’t attend last night’s meeting but she has spoken to the local rag, the Brighton Argus, to whom she declared that she does not consider herself accountable first and foremost to her party. That is a big problem. Political parties can only operate successfully if there is a loyalty between their members and, in particular, loyalty to the platform their members are elected on. Without that, they cannot hope to obtain credibility with the electorate.
The Greens have positively encouraged diversity of opinion. Thus, I am free to write about whatever I like on this blog and still welcomed in the party. Frankly, after life in the Labour Party, it can feel very odd to find people I’ve heavily criticised choosing to go to the pub with me, chatting amiably about the issues that divide us and those that don’t and all the rest of it. No-one is ever ostracised for their views in our party. Those attitudes just don’t run in the Green blood. The problem is not concerned with Summer’s views, the precise nature of her faith or her religious motivation. The problem is that she has been elected to represent voters under the Green Party banner but has voted against party policy in strict breach of a written contract with the party which she signed.
Her view appears to be that she takes a different interpretation of the contract. Being a lawyer, I know that there is often room for interpretation of such things. However, the proper interpretation of the contract is clearly understood to sit with our party policy. We were the first mainstream party to declare support for ‘gay marriages’. Our record on such issues is impeccable, widely respected and very dear to us. This isn’t a side issue. It is one of our core policies. Before being accepted as a candidate, Summers was specifically asked by a formal party panel whether in the event of a conflict between her conscience and party policy she would vote with her conscience. She told the panel that she would vote with party policy. Assuming that she thought better of that agreement afterwards, she could have absented herself from the vote on Thursday. She could have abstained. Instead she turned up, made a speech and voted against every other councillor in the City!
After Ms Ballam’s sermon concluded, the Green councillors voted to exclude me from the meeting. Properly speaking the vote was to exclude people who were not members of the ‘Green Group of Councillors’. However, some others were allowed to remain. I understand the reasons for their inclusion. Without saying who they were and although annoyed at their privileges, I’m pleased that they were there. The issue on the table was Summers’ vote and the consequence. The motion being discussed was whether she should face any discipline from the party. The reason for the exclusion of myself and other party members was to prevent any report of the ensuing discussion to leak out. The councillors were considering whether to trigger a disciplinary panel. By excluding me, they prevented any risk of that panel being prejudiced by what I might write. That is absolutely right and proper. Anyone facing such a panel must have a fair hearing.
When the excluded were invited back into the room, we were informed that the Green councillors had decided to call Christina Summers to a disciplinary panel. It’s not actually called that, it’s called a Panel of Inquiry. That’s what our constitution calls it but everyone knows what it means. The panel members are also chosen by our constitutional rules. Summers must have realised that this would happen, when she cast her vote.
Update: the Brighton & Hove Green Party made an official statement on the matter, about four hours after this post was published. Here it is:
After a meeting of the Green Group of Councillors on Brighton & Hove City Council last night (Monday July 23, 2012), deputy convenor Councillor Phelim Mac Cafferty said, “Following the recent vote by Councillor Christina Summers on equal marriage [at a session of Brighton & Hove City Council], Green councillors met on Monday evening 23 July and requested that the party’s official inquiry process be initiated to ensure a fair, speedy and transparent outcome.
“It is for the inquiry panel to determine if any further action may be needed and it wouldn’t be appropriate to say any more at this stage.”
This is a process governed by the party’s constitution to ensure the rights of all party members are protected.