On 10 May 2013 newly elected Banbury Labour County Councillor John Christie put forward the following motion at Cabinet, which was defeated (16 for, 30 against, 11 abstentions):
“This Council, in demonstrating its commitment to fulfilling its legal duty to advance equality of opportunity under the Equality Act 2010, will respect the use by Councillors of gender neutral and inclusive titles in addressing and referring to those who chair meetings of the Council and its committees.”
John has admitted he wasn’t asking for the earth but to stop the infantile barracking he and others have received when addressing the chair at meetings.
Oxfordshire County Council elections delivered a majority Conservative Council by one seat thanks to an Independent ex Labour district councillor, but the Conservative’s lazy arrogance inherited from the previous administration has been severely shaken, and they can no longer assume to nod through policies without proper consultation (Proposed school bus charges being a recent example).
Yes, folks, John is suggesting – horror of horrors – that County Council uses the term ‘Chair’ rather than “Chairman’, ‘Madam Chairman’ or ‘Mr Chairwoman’.
New Labour Councillors report that in OCC business, when the word ‘Chair’ is used to address the person in the chair, Conservative councillors barrack the speaker with nonsense like “we’re not furniture”, and will not let them speak, and it is this that has precipitated the motion.
Conservatives wanting to continue the use of ‘Chairman’ often cite its irrelevance and low priority in comparison to the important and pressing business of government, but right-thinking people know that language is a powerful tool in shaping public attitudes and behaviour, and in this example limiting the ability of women and girls to compete equally in all spheres of life and have their voices heard.
As soon as Keith Mitchell took full control of the County Council in 2005, he had the term ‘Chairman’ enshrined in the Constitution, replacing the inclusive ‘Chair/Chairperson/man/woman’, which prevailed under the previous coalition with the Lib-Dems.
It was at this time that Mitchell changed the name of the “Executive’ to ‘Cabinet’ and if we wanted to play silly games too about ‘furniture’ (we don’t want stoop that low do we?), we could point out that ‘cabinet’ is the French word for toilet.
It was Keith Mitchell that made a great fuss about this in the first place. It is difficult to understand why he took time in OCC’s busy schedule to bring this about. Was it a political stunt attempting to ‘wind up the lefties’ – something he appears to enjoy? (We remember his apparent contempt for democracy when he put up the ‘False Labour’ candidate in1996 at a Council election in Bloxham). Or is it some misplaced need to preserve what he thinks is the best use of the English language?
John Christie’s motion was an important attempt to challenge the status quo, and developing a democratic and inclusive culture at Oxfordshire County Council.
Let’s give him and other Labour Councillors our full support to press for this important cultural change.
See Mary Evans Young’s letter in the Guardian 12 September 2013 (2nd letter)
Read Mary Evans Young’s article in the Oxford Mail 13 September 2013
Hear John’s radio interview 17 September 2013 (Use slider, John’s interview is at 3.10.30 into the Phil Gayle programme)