Notices of Motion. The Green Party – Did they push it too far? Why didn’t they just ‘Let it Be’?

23 September 2012…..The Green Party’s serving Councillors really did go into one over Cllr Christina Summers’ vote against the Labour Party-introduced ‘gay marriage’ Notice of Motion at July’s Full Council meeting.  Not even a Green Party initiative – just something they supported – it received all-party support, except for Cllr Summers’ vote against it on religious grounds.  All Green Party Hell let rip in the wake of that vote, threatening the future of the Administration itself in Brighton and Hove.

Why didn’t the Greens just ‘Let it Be’?

Not everyone knows what a Notice of Motion is about.   Consideration here aims to provide some small understanding and context within which to further understand the gravity of the Greens’ decision to expel (excommunicate!) one of its serving cllrs from the Administration, demanding she now sit as an independent cllr, apart from them, because she voted against the ‘gay marriage’ Notice of Motion, she’s anti-abortion, and they don’t want to play with her any more…so there!

Without that Notice of Motion vote, none of what has ensued would have happened.

A Notice of Motion can be about anything under the sun.  It is an issue initiative that seeks support at Full Council, is raised by at least one councillor and supported by at least one other councillor (often many more).  It is a temperature-taking, opinion and lobbying opportunity made available to councillors to put on Full Council agendas for debate, amendment and cross-party voting. 
It is no doubt possible for a Notice of Motion to be raised as a cross-party initiative;  but political parties like to take one-upsmanship ownership of these things, to get the drop on the others, achieve agreements using amendments and a final vote.  A Notice of Motion can be used to show the clear red/green/blue water between parties with a view to impressing  voters or getting good publicity for themselves.  They have propaganda value and sometimes lead to policy formations. 
BHCC has no power to grant ‘gay marriage’ to anyone, only to conduct Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans-sexual Civil Partnerships and registry office marriages for heterosexual people.  The so-called ‘gay marriage’  Notice of Motion had no value concerning governance of Brighton and Hove in any way, shape or form. A “Dear Prime Minister” letter was the limit of its influence.  Cllr Summers’  lone dissenting voice blocked nothing.  She did no damage to either the Green Party Administration or the Notice of Motion.
Green candidates signed an Equalities pledge before the last election, but ‘gay marriage’ does not appear within Green Party policy or its Manifesto.  Nevertheless,  Green Administration councillors within Brighton and Hove City Council went publicly ballistic over Cllr Summers’ vote against ‘gay marriage’, claiming she acted against the equalities pledge she signed.  She was already on record as supporting Civil Partnerships, however. 
In conscience-sensitive situations, councillors either absent themselves from the Chamber (make their excuses or go to the loo) or ‘abstain’ rather than vote for or against  some particular issue.  Cllr Summers decided to be open about her view and clearly vote against it.  There is no Green Party ‘whip’ so she was not obliged to vote with her colleagues.
In the wake of that Full Council meeting in July, 15 serving Green councillors demanded a panel be set up to assess whether or not Cllr Summers had gone against her signed pledge to uphold and promote equalities and if so, how to deal with it.  The Green Party Constitution demanded that Jason Kitcat be on that panel of 3 people.  He ‘resigned’ from it, believing there was a conflict of interests with his role as Convenor/leader in being on it.  The panel met about 3 times in all (with Cllr Kitcat subsituted by a 4th person for one of them) and it was found that Cllr Summers  had not gone against her equalities pledge.  What to do then……?

At this point, why didn’t the Greens just ‘Let it Be’?

They looked for something else to hang on her instead.  And it was discontent on other matters (such as her attendance at anti-abortion demos) that resulted in 13 serving Green Councillors voting on Monday night, the 17th of September, 2012 to expel her from the Green Group that forms the Minority Administration of Brighton and Hove City Council.

The potential consequences of this expulsion are very grave for the Administration because they just couldn’t ‘Let it Be’

On Tuesday, 17th September, The Argus carried news of just what these consequences might be.  Tim Ridgway’s article informed us that opposition councillors would be “seeking to see if the decision, which sees Cllr Summers become an independent councillor, will mean the Greens losing their casting vote on four of the seven main council committees“. 
Chillingly, the article informed us “It could even affect the powerful Policy and Resources Committee“.
Her banishment from the Administration benches means removal from Committees and therefore loss of her votes on them.  The political makeup of Committees will have to be reviewed and altered by Democratic Services officers to reflect the numbers of cllrs from each party and their proportional rights of allocation to committees. 
Cuts to staffing levels and reduced income all mean that changing who sits where and in what numbers on which committees is a drain on Council resources over and above normal need.  What was so all-fired urgent about getting rid of Christina Summers?  Why turn the Council inside out NOW?

Why not just ‘Let it Be’? 

The Green Party will now have just 22 cllrs (pending appeal by Cllr Summers to her national party), the Conservatives 18 and Labour 13, leaving Cllr Summers as an independent sitting in the Chamber but not sitting in a voting capacity on committees.  The Green Administration is likely to be outnumbered by the combined opposition Members on key committees able to vote together to block Administration policies and business they feel is against their own policies – or even to make mischief so the Greens look foolish.

All because the Greens pushed too hard and could not just ‘Let it Be’

On Thursday, 20th September, at Economic Development and Culture, the agenda carried an item to terminate the city’s mobile library service in December.  What sport the opposition cllrs made of it!  Cllr Brian Fitch and Cllr Mary Mears were in high spirits and on grandstanding good form.  The whole opposition bench were in their pomp, tails up and prancing.  Opposite them were a nearly-in-tears Cllr Phelim MacCafferty, a stern, arched eyebrows, pursed lips, Cllr Lizzie Deane and a slumped and dispirited-looking Cllr Leo Littman – all of whom are among the 13.  Presiding urbanely and pleasantly over this panto was Committee Chair, Cllr Geoffrey Bowden, who, as a gay man, might have been expected to sign the expulsion order.  He did not .  The mobile library debate was quite the spectacle.  Sadly, it was not webcast.  It should have been. 
The opposition parties, with their combined majority of votes, forced the Administration to keep the mobile library service until the end of the financial year (March 2013) and demanded the Administration make more of an effort to find a way to save it for the future.  I suggested to Sally McMahon, Head of Libraries, that maybe the Big Lemon could be drafted in on some kind of partnership basis…they are looking into that.  Anybody else got any ideas? 
I give this example to show just what the Green Party can now look forward to after their expulsion of Christina Summers, the power they forfeited by expelling one of their serving cllrs from Administration benches.  Ironically, she cannot be expelled from the actual Party itself. 
The time-honoured way for political parties to deal with their party’s elected cllrs when they have gone off them for whatever reason is to sideline them, remove them from promoted positions and finally to de-select them ahead of the next round of elections.  The Greens prioritised expulsion of Cllr Summers NOW.  They need to explain why there was such a threat to their Administration that she had to be removed at once – even though it meant throwing away casting votes on important committees they need in order to get any business agreed that they put forward for decision. 
How was expelling Cllr Summers for her vote (and because she is anti-abortion) of more importance than keeping casting votes on key Council Committees? 
The Argus of Saturday, 22nd September gave us the names of the 13 Green Councillors who voted to expel Cllr Summers. These 13 councillors can, in consequence, be said to have also voted to give up their party’s casting votes on (potentially) four key commitees, to have invited the opposition parties to vote together to defeat them on important issues at those committees.  Ten of the 13 are brand new councillors elected in 2011.  The article, naming names, appears on the Death Announcements/obituaries page (!) and some believe political death is now on the cards so it is hard not to see an unspoken comment from The Argus in this article’s page placement .
They are:  Cllrs Liz Wakefield (Hanover), Rob Jarrett (Goldsmid), Leo Littman (Preston Park), Phelim MacCafferty (Brunswick and Adelaide), Lizzie Deane (St. Peter’s & North Laine), Sue Shanks (Withdean), Christopher Hawtree (Central), Ben Duncan (Queen’s Park), Sven Rufus (Hollingdean & Stanmer), Mike Jones (Preston Park), Stephanie Powell (Queen’s Park), Amy Kennedy (Preston Park), Ruth Buckley (Goldsmid).
The 9 cllrs who did not sign, who hopefully do not themselves now risk expulsion for failing to support expelling Cllr Summers, were Matt Follett (Hanover & Elm Grove), Mayor Bill Randall (Hanover & Elm Grove), Geoffrey Bowden (Queen’s Park), Ian Davey (St. Peter’s & North Laine), Ollie Sykes (Brunswick & Adelaide), Alex Phillips (Goldsmid), Pete West (St. Peter’s & North Laine), Jason Kitcat (Regency), Ania Kitcat (Regency).

When the electorate puts a political party into power,  that party has a responsibility to hang onto its voting powers so it can conduct the business it was elected to preside over.  It is entrusted to keep its internal hissy fits to itself, to  understand the limited value of a Notice of Motion, to know when it is right or wrong to ‘go nuclear’ on an issue and when it should just ‘Let it Be’

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