I’m normally very pragmatic about tactical voting. In fact, I have to be. For a good eight years I delivered Focus leaflets with the famous barchart. “Labour can’t win here”; “It’s a two horse race”; “It’s so close here”, etc. It’s a sad indictment of our political system that more often than not, your vote has to be used to stop someone you dislike more than it is to help someone you like. If only we had a system like AV…
Those who attended the Guildford Borough Council debate on equal marriage will recall that the primary opposition to my petition was engineered by the then Conservative leader of the council, Tony Rooth, and the then (and current) leader of the Liberal Democrat group, David Goodwin. Initially the motion against the petition was proposed on the basis that the council does not have any powers regarding marriage and therefore should not take a view – it also explicitly stated that views on equal marriage were a matter of personal conscience. Do note that down, because it’s important. The Lib Dem leader wasn’t concerned about equal rights, he was insisting that such rights where at the whim of “personal conscience”.
The notion that the intent behind this motion was because the council had no powers was exposed as nonsense during the debate. In my opening remarks, I challenged Cllrs Rooth and Goodwin on the fact they’d both enthusiastically supported/opposed similar motions in the past, most notably the motion against the council tax re-bill and the motion supporting a Tory white paper in the previous Parliament. The former was entirely out of the council’s control and the latter was regarding something that would become an Act of Parliament – nothing to do with the council’s powers. On both those occasions, neither Rooth or Goodwin moved an amendment to kill off the debate on the grounds that the council had no power.
That’s all fine, except Goodwin had a response to it. He moved to a different argument – that he wasn’t sure his residents would support it. Once again, do note this down – a case of not doing the right thing, but doing the most popular thing. There are certain situations where one does not poll their residents and simply uses their conscience. When I was a councillor, I’d have found it remarkably odd to ask residents who weren’t in my local care home their views on services for that care home. They have no stake in it, they are not affected by the decisions made – so why on earth should they have a say in it? The same goes for a marriage that many of Goodwin’s residents will not be affected by (the straight ones I presume, he decided to ignore the many LGBT ones who had turned up in the public gallery to support the petition). Sometimes you’re just expected to do the right thing.
I’ve been quite disdainful of the Guildford Lib Dem response to this. I’ve had faux outrage from activists in the local party; indeed the Guildford Dragon reported that Goodwin’s position was in question with his colleagues after he proposed such a motion without consulting them. Yet he still leads the council group and the local party Executive saw fit to approve his selection to restand in the May elections for his County Council seat. So for all the noise and anger at his part in scuppering a petition that simply asked for support in the pursuit of equal rights, Guildford Liberal Democrats have not only done nothing, but they have put him back on the ballot paper.
Even after this, I was content simply campaigning in Guildford South West (the division in question, which contains a good chunk of my old ward) this May, until I read this article on the Guildford Lib Dem website, which quotes Goodwin as saying:
“I am sorely disappointed Anne Milton MP could not decide whether to vote in favour or against the proposals on Equal Marriage, especially following her comments the previous week on concerns that people thought she was against the proposals.
The residents of Guildford elected Anne Milton MP to reflect judgement, not to avoid votes deliberately because she couldn’t make up her mind.
This is an issue which affects a lot of people in Guildford. I’m glad that this will enable people of the same sex make a lasting commitment to one another, finally bringing same-sex partnerships in line with heterosexual marriage. It’s a landmark decision which will also protect the interest of religious institutions not to go against their own beliefs”
So, breaking this down into points.
1. Goodwin is “sorely disappointed” Anne Milton couldn’t decide how to vote after he himself proposed a motion to council insisting that councillors don’t get to vote on the equal marriage petition.
2. The condemning of Anne Milton for a lack of “judgement” and that she avoided votes “because she couldn’t make up her mind” after he explicitly stated he didn’t want to vote on equal marriage because he wasn’t sure his residents would support it.
3. His sudden interest and support for equal marriage after his outrageous comments at Guildford Borough Council that angered and distressed many members of the LGBT community who were there.
Equal marriage is deeply important to many LGBT people. The very fact that Guildford Liberal Democrats have seen it as a political campaign (and have postured as such on varying sides of the debate) instead of a campaign for the rights of individuals speaks volumes about their sincerity towards LGBT people in Guildford. It’s not so long ago that I walked out of their AGM after one of their Parliamentarians said the local party shouldn’t support my blood ban motion because it wouldn’t be “politically expedient” and because it would upset “the Daily Mail readers”. The things said in private by members of the local party do not reflect the shiny progressive picture they plonk on their website. The very fact they think LGBT people will be duped by such a cynical article speaks volumes for the respect they have for them.
There is of course, no such thing as “no exceptions”. There are decent people in Guildford Lib Dems who have consistently supported equal marriage. Steve Freeman, my old ward colleague, came along to sign one of my equal marriage postcards only a few weeks ago; as did George Potter (LD candidate for Guildford East) and a couple of others.
Guildford Liberal Democrats have been an obstacle for LGBT equal rights progression more than they have been supportive. They do not see equal marriage as a means to an end for same-sex couples who wish to enjoy the same rights as everybody else, they see it as a stick to beat Anne Milton with. Therefore, I’m sorry to say that no matter what the barchart says about the Tories possibly getting in, LGBT individuals are not safe voting Lib Dem in Guildford.