Equal marriage debate/vote in Guildford: A Council of Cowards

For those who’ve just walked in, last month I created an e-petition on Guildford Borough Council’s website and within the two weeks it was up, it amassed the signatures of 544 Guildfordians. Any e-petition that exceeds 500 triggers a debate at a full council meeting. That debate was last Thursday. Here’s my account…

Before the meeting…

Mid-afternoon that day, about three or four hours before I was to embark on my merry way down to Guildford, I received a copy of the Order Paper (i.e. the additional bits that will happen since the agenda was published) for the meeting. As I expected, there was a motion on the table to respond to my petition. I did expect the motion to be from the Conservatives and, honestly, I did expect it to oppose equal marriage. Not that I have a complete lack of faith in Guildford’s Tory councillors but… oh wait… actually I do.

The motion was:

Whilst the Council recognises the strength of feeling expressed on this subject, it does not consider it appropriate to express a corporate view as a local authority because the issues of same-sex marriage and civil partnerships are a matter of personal conscience for each individual and the Council has no powers or responsibilities relating to the registration of marriages and civil partnerships.

So, the motion resolved to do absolutely nothing. The reason given for doing absolutely nothing was that as the outcome of the vote would mean simply the council endorsing equal marriage and not a change in the law, there’s no point discussing it anyway. In addition, the motion specified that equal marriage was a “matter of personal conscience”.

But that wasn’t it. It wasn’t a Tory motion. It was proposed by the Tory leader of the council, Cllr Tony Rooth; and seconded by the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group, Cllr David Goodwin. At this point I would like to apologise to some members of the local Lib Dem party, because at the time I made the erroneous assumption that this had been discussed and disseminated amongst the wider group. It’s clear now that it certainly was not, and Cllr Goodwin was acting on his own with no endorsement or support from any other Lib Dem councillor. This means that I tweeted a few things about the Lib Dems that, on this occasion, were based on inaccuracies.

Labour Councillor Christian Gilliam (somebody I knew long before he was elected and someone I consider to be a very dear friend) had an alternative motion to be debated, which I will post here later if he will allow me. Sadly, the council rules did not allow amendments that essentially reverse the motion on the table, so the only way we could get another motion debated was to defeat the Rooth/Goodwin one. Either way, I hadn’t written a speech by this point, so I threw a few paragraphs together in response to the motion itself (as opposed to equal marriage – the subject of the petition we should have actually been debating) and hopped on the train to Guildford.

The meeting itself

The public gallery was packed. Around 50-60 members of the public had turned up to see the debate and support the petition. Not one opponent was there. How do I know this? Because I had met almost every single one of them and we all practically invaded the Britannia pub afterwards. When we all filed in, Cllr Jennifer Powell (Con, Clandon & Horsley) remarked rather loudly, “what are all these people doing here?” with her normal look of half-surprise and half-disgust; betraying her views on the existence of a public gallery at a public council meeting. It also reminded the rest of us that Guildford Borough Council is so rubbish at democracy, the chamber is normally empty of public members.

I was given five minutes to open the debate. I will publish the first few paragraphs of my speech here, alongside the ad-libbed stuff I added in the second half of my five minute quota, but usual caveats apply (check against delivery, etc etc).

I did intend to talk about the reasons why the council should endorse the government proposals to extend marriage to same-sex couples and to submit either a late response to the consultation or write to the government supporting it, like the council has done on many other issues it has no direct control over; but as the joint Conservative/Liberal Democrat response is hot off the press, I suppose I should respond to that first.

Ignoring the fact that I know of at least one member of the Lib Dem group who would take issue with the council being referred to as “corporate”, the motion talks about it not being “appropriate to express a corporate view because the issues of same-sex marriage and civil partnerships are a matter of personal conscience”. The motion then goes on to point out that the council “has no powers or responsibilities relating to the registration of marriages and civil partnerships”.

This puzzles me Madam Mayor, because the council has other corporate views, for example on whether people should be discriminated against for their sexual orientation. That view is, to some, a matter of personal conscience. When bills went through Parliament debating such things, party leaders called it a matter of personal conscience. These days it’s considered an inalienable right and those who oppose it aren’t just “expressing a view”, they are “discriminating”. This is something the council accepts with its pursuance of the Single Equality Scheme.

Councillor Rooth. Councillor Goodwin. You need to learn to distinguish between something that is a “matter of personal conscience”, and something that is simply so controversial you’re too scared to talk about it.

As for the council having no powers or responsibilities in this area, I don’t recall either Cllrs Rooth or Goodwin using that line when this council passed a motion condemning the government for asking us to rebill council tax payers at great cost. That motion, Madam Mayor, was an example of something we had no power over. But we still proposed it, we still supported it, and we still voted it through. We did so because, despite the fact we knew the government wouldn’t listen, despite the fact that the motion was nothing other than a message, it was all we could do and it was the right thing to do.

Madam Mayor, this issue matters to many people in Guildford. It matters to people of all sexualities who consider this to be an injustice. It is too late for the council to respond to the consultation, despite the consultation being open to all local authorities, not just those who have responsibility for marriage licenses. It should be supported by members because, like the motion about the council tax rebill, it matters; and if a message is all we can send to the government, then that is simply better than doing nothing.

[Ad-libbed stuff here. I can remember some of it, but not enough to reproduce word-for-word. The stuff I can remember is below]

I am personally, perfectly content with my miserable and lonely atheism; but I know many people who derive much goodness from their faith and struggle with this issue. Some have spread the myth that religious organisations will be forced to perform same-sex marriage. Let me assure you that the proposed changes, as detailed in the consultation mean that not only will religious organisations not be obliged to perform same-sex marriage, it will actually be illegal for them to – they wouldn’t be able to perform same-sex marriages even if they wanted to.

I ask the Liberal Democrats to remember that great liberal tradition of liberty and equality. It is their Minister driving this change through and they have every reason to be proud of that. I am sure I don’t need to give the Conservatives a lesson on libertarianism, but it is not “state intervention” when you’re allowed to do something, it is state intervention when you’re banned from doing something. I ask the Conservatives, in the words of their Prime Minister, to vote for equal marriage not in spite of being Conservatives, but to vote for equal marriage because they are Conservatives.

The Mayor then asked Cllr Rooth to move his motion and Cllr Goodwin to second. After that the motion was opened to other councillors to speak on. I’ve kept notes on the gist of what they said, so I’ll try and reproduce them here…

Cllr Rooth’s points were essentially that the “essence of human relationships” were personal. He pointed out that no other Surrey council had responded to the consultation, then erroneously stated that of all authorities in the UK, only Thanet Council had responded. Oddly, in his summing up at the end of the debate, he mentioned views of residents within the Christian communities, which seems to conflict with his earlier point (and the point in the motion) that human relationships were “personal”. His response to my point on similar motions being passed despite the council not having any power whatsoever on these issues, namely the council tax rebilling, seemed to essentially be that this was a different case because it affected the vast majority of the borough. Bizarrely, Cllr Goodwin came up with the figure of “98%” of people opposing the council tax re-billing – a very odd thing to state when the basis of your argument for not debating equal marriage is lack of evidence – yet plucking figures of support out of thin air on other topics is just fine.

Cllr Philip Hooper (Con, Holy Trinity) supported Rooth/Goodwin’s motion on the basis that we don’t know what the rest of our residents think – a point later reiterated by Cllr Goodwin. This was an astounding way of dodging the debate at hand and I countered it in my right-of-reply by simply asking why the public gallery was packed with supporters of the petition with not a single opponent; and also asking where the petition was opposing equal marriage. I also pointed out to Cllr Goodwin that he had a good month to go canvassing to find out his residents’ views – an in-joke that only other Liberal Democrat local members will appreciate, but still a poignant point – it is their job to be prepared for these meetings with the views of their residents.

Cllr Sarah Creedy (Con, Holy Trinity) embarked on an odd homophobic diatribe about how the “gay community” (a grouping I’ve always found odd – we don’t have elected representatives or a national council/body) being unable to hold down monogamous relationships. She pointed out that marriage was defined in 1867 as “between a man and a woman”, missing the irony that as marriage pre-dates 1867, which would make it a redefinition. She said that there was no support for the petition in question and moved on to talk about children, suggesting that kids do better with a mother and a father (although without citing said studies). I pointed out to her that she should stand by the courage of her convictions and support a motion opposing a petition rather than one that simply places the council firmly on the fence. Although her comments shocked almost everybody present, I will give her some respect on this – she was the only one who voted for the motion who had the courage to stand up and give their actual views on the matter, rather than using “let’s not debate this” as a cowardly proxy like the rest did.

Cllr Rooth and Goodwin’s assertions that it’s fine to debate and pass a motion where the council has zero power on it if it affects a certain number of residents is deeply concerning. This is frankly because, on many issues, representatives are expected to take up cases where a minority of people are affected in a very negative way – older people, those in ethnic minorities, those with disabilities. Essentially any group in society that is typically disadvantaged because of who or what they are. What makes it particularly sinister is that this way of thinking was backed up by a senior local Liberal Democrat.

I am proud of the former colleagues of mine on the Lib Dem bench who stood up and spoke passionately for equal marriage. I hope they’ll forgive me for not recording too much of their speeches, I was too busy concentrating on the nonsense from the Conservatives, but I’m very grateful to Cllr Mark Chapman (LD, Westborough), Cllr Steve Freeman (LD, Onslow), Cllr Anne Meredith (LD, Friary & St Nicholas). I’d also like to thank Cllr Gilliam for his excellent speech, which you can read on Guildford Labour Party’s account of the meeting here.

The vote

This may surprise you, but not all votes made by your elected representatives are recorded (the minutes simply point out whether a motion was carried or defeated). Four councillors must request a recorded vote if you want to see how your councillor voted. Cllr Christian Gilliam (Lab, Westborough) stood up to request one. The Mayor reminded him that four councillors must request it for it to happen, so she asked for all those who wished for a recorded vote to stand up.

Two did: Cllr Gilliam and Cllr Gunning (Lab, Stoke).

Whilst I am grateful to my Lib Dem former colleagues who supported my petition, I find it rather odd that people like Cllr Goodwin can insist at a previous council meeting on the importance of democracy and transparency when it comes to video-recording council meetings; yet they will not stand up and be counted when a recorded vote is requested.

I shall save my primary disdain though for the Tories and Cllr Goodwin. If they truly were representing their constituents, they’d have backed a recorded vote on their own motion. The fact they didn’t says a lot about their convictions and their principles. From what I could gather at the end, the vote went as follows:

Liberal Democrat group majority voted against the motion; a couple abstained; Cllr Goodwin voted for the motion.

Conservative group vastly voted in favour of the motion; a few abstained; Cllr Monica Juneja voted against the motion [for which I am grateful].

Labour group all voted against the motion.

In summary

Nobody can pretend anymore that this is an issue that doesn’t matter to Guildford residents. The arguments against coming up with a line on equal marriage were weak and easily taken apart. Cllr Chapman remarked that pretty much every issue in the chamber is decided with a “personal moral conscience” so he didn’t see why this was any different. I agree.

The fight will continue. We need as many people as possible to email Anne Milton, Guildford MP, telling her they are in favour of equal marriage. You can contact her on anne.milton.mp@parliament.uk.

As for the Lib Dems, democracy appears to be important to Cllr Goodwin. To those who turned up to the chamber that night, residents of his, who were disingenuously turned away in favour of views of other residents whom Cllr Goodwin wasn’t even sure existed, I think it’s important to give those residents a say at the ballot box if he won’t listen to them in the council chamber. Cllr Goodwin’s Surrey County Council seat will be up for reelection next May – we think it’s important for residents to have an actual liberal who will represent them properly, not find excuses to avoid talking about controversial issues. That’s why I’ll be supporting in whatever way I can the candidacy of a progressive independent liberal in Guildford South West.

If they won’t listen to the views of LGBT individuals at the council chamber, let’s hurt them at the ballot box, as democracy allows us.

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2 Comments » Equal marriage debate/vote in Guildford: A Council of Cowards
  1. Henry says:

    Mark should challenge him for the position of Group Leader. Goodwin is not fit to be a Liberal Democrat at a moment when it requires a great deal of political skill and strength. He sided with the establishment on an issue on which he needed to do nothing, with no backing from his party it seems [which suggests that internal democrat mechanisms are also not working in the LD group].

    • admin says:

      I keep out of internal Lib Demmery (mostly) but Mark would be a fantastic leader. True liberal. However, that’s up for the LD group to deal with…

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