Opinion: Let’s end the smoke filled rooms and make the party truly democratic

When Tim Gordon sent out an email announcing the results of the Federal Committee Elections he said:

The Liberal Democrats are a democratic party to the core, and your voting representatives have returned a set of committees which will ensure that members’ voices are heard at all levels of the party.

However, I look at the results as someone who is a member of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform, a democracy activist who is actively working with the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy to bring about democratic reform in the nation and generally as someone who takes the word “Democrat” in the party’s name very seriously. I cannot help but think that Mr Gordon’s statement is slightly over-egging our democratic credentials when it comes to our internal elections.

If the Tories or Labour were to hold elections where the only people who could vote were a cabal of men and women in smoke-filled rooms we’d be outraged and decry them for being undemocratic. Yet if we replace the smokefilled rooms for the conference hall, and the shady cabal with federal conference representatives, we have a perfect description of the internal elections for the Liberal Democrats.

In times past when the party was struggling for money, or it was difficult for us to hold elections, it made sense that we should limit the electorate to the most zealous and faithful for logistical reasons. But times have changed and so too must our internal elections. It is not right that I as a Federal Conference Representative have a say on who governs our party whilst other members do not. There are many in my constituency who might be able to make a better informed choice on many issues that Federal Conference Reps deal with, yet by the virtue of me being keen and able to give a good speech at an AGM, I was elected as a representative. And from that I am able to influence the direction of the party.

Why should we ensure that everyone gets a say? Just look at the people who have been elected to the committees. -vA small group of people drawn from an unrepresentative sample of the party (Conference Reps) who only had to lobby the same unrepresentative sample of the party to get elected.

That’s not democracy. It’s a joke.

If we want to live up to Tim Gordon’s claim to be democratic to our core then the road to take is simple. One member One Vote. Only that way can we ensure that the election is fair. Only that way can we stop groups like Liberal Reform and the Social Liberal Forum putting up slates of candidates to influence the direction of the party based on what they think the party membership wants. If we want to do what the party membership wants, then why don’t we just ask them?

One member. One Vote. It really is that simple.

* Steven Haynes is a democracy activist who operatesblogs at Democracy at Some Point the UK’s first podcast dedicated to democratic reform and is currently the Membership Development Officer for Northfield Liberal Democrats.

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32 Comments

  • Are conference reps automatically an ‘unrepresentative sample of the party’? You yourself note that you stood for election as a conference rep from your local party… which anyone can. I probably agree that internal elections should be opened up to the membership (though this would cost more) but your hyperbole really undermines the point. At some point in a (representative) democracy, the number of people making decisions diminishes, for efficiency, if nothing else.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 12th Nov '12 - 11:59am

    We shall have to think of a new cliche to replace “smoke filled rooms”. Within a few years, only us “oldies” will remember what it meant.

  • I think these are good points, maybe you might of argued them better. To do the subject justice you’d need a much more thorough look at party processes, demonstrate the weaknesses and offer suggestions of improvements. Hope you write more on this subject in the future!

  • Well said, Steven. I wonder if democratising the party will be any easier than democratising parliament?

  • I’m not sure expanding the electorate for party committees will make much difference other than make it eassier for big name peers and ex-MPs to be elected.

    Surely the other question is if the Federal Executive and/or the English Party were to be abolished would anyone other than those people at the meetings notice?

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Nov '12 - 2:21pm

    Steven Hayes

    Only that way can we stop groups like Liberal Reform and the Social Liberal Forum putting up slates of candidates to influence the direction of the party based on what they think the party membership wants.

    Isn’t that a bit like banning political parties and insisting only independent candidates can stand? Mostly we see this sort of thing happen in countries controlled by a dictator or the military who want a tame assembly in place so they can claim it’s “democratic” without ever being really challenged.

    Without allowing some sort of organisation so that those who are not already well known can pool their resources and together offer an effective challenge, this in effect hands control to those already at the top, because they can use the fact that they are known and the ability to exert influence that being already in control gives to ensure the stay in control.

    The party has always had a broadly left and broadly right wing for as long as I have been involved (over 30 years) which has tended to come out in identifiable “slates” in internal elections, but these have almost always been on quite an informal basis. It gives me the confidence to vote for some candidate I don’t know if I have an indication where that candidate stands on the major positions in the party by some attachment to a “slate”, so that helps give new people a chance.

    I was a conference representative for the first time in many years this year, but was only able to attend on the Saturday of conference, so if there was open slate-based lobbying of candidates after that, I didn’t see it. In fact it would have helped me if I had seen it, because it isn’t easy to list candidates in order of preference if all one has to go on are their official statements. These always seem to be written in a bland way, with plenty on what the candidate has done, but usually almost nothing open and obvious on where they stand on controversial issues in the party. One has to try and read between the lines and pick up odd hints from odd phrases.

    So, to be honest, I think the party would be much more democratic if there were more obvious factions, and candidates were not afraid to put up statements which said clearly what they thought about the big issues in the party.

  • Matthew,
    I think the federal committee structure is a place where we need to show unity and speak with one voice to be better able to hold the leadership to account. Factionalism has it’s place, but this isn’t it, this is an area which must represent the party as one.

    Candidates must stand on their individual merit because if they are just mouthpieces for groups it restricts open debate and weakens the relevance of those groups contributions, and closing off of wider debate is precisely what creates the impression of ‘smoke-filled rooms’.

  • Paul Holmes 12th Nov '12 - 3:04pm

    How on earth does widening an electorate stop the running of slates?

    The 1832, 1867 Reform Acts and onwards all quite rightly widened the electorate of the UK but the creation of a mass electorate also led to the dominance in UK Politics of ‘slates’ (otherwise known as political parties).

  • Happy with slates – you don’t have to vote for them, but they provide guidance for those who do.

    Want OMOV – will increase engagement and buy-in and may even link up the leadership and the membership more.

    Quite like both the SLF and Liberal Reform – both well organised groups with principled positions. Ideally I’d personally like all internal committees to have an equal mix of both of those and some keen “independents” and also “cross benchers” like myself…. and then we could have some decent debates.

    Good, clear reports back of what the committees were up to would help too.

  • So the real debates may only happen when those happy elected few meet together in person and the majority of members are excluded? I’d hope that engaging the membership went further than blind support for whichever politicised slate they side with. Democracy isn’t just about voting, it’s about participation at every stage of the process.

  • ” If you can ensure that electronic voting happens properly and is secure ( which it can be) “. Can it? Most of the writings I’ve read on the subject suggests that it can’t.

  • It depends what level of security you think is appropriate.

    For policy votes at conference, which are not even secret , you need little more than membership verification. Name + membership number + post code should be enough really. Since the votes are public their legitimacy can easily be verified.

    For committee elections you probably want another layer of security like unique ballot ids. But I don’t think there’s any need to go over the top with it. The chance of fraud is pretty low!

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Nov '12 - 6:42pm

    ” If you can ensure that electronic voting happens properly and is secure ( which it can be) “. Can it? Most of the writings I’ve read on the subject suggests that it can’t.

    It can be accomplished in the sense that it is possible, yes. I can give you some references if you like, but it’s fairly academic, because:

    It cannot normally be accomplished by the people who end up responsible for running elections, as they have neither the relevant expertise nor the knowledge and funding needed to retain the relevant expertise, and most systems additionally require an electorate which can understand and actively participate in the defence of the system – an ability which is rarely present.

    My fairly well-informed position on this is that the party does not have the institutional ability or funding needed to deliver an IT project of this scale to an acceptable degree of reliability for this purpose, nor does it have an electorate which can effectively participate in any of the voter-policed systems.

  • Stephen Donnelly 12th Nov '12 - 9:26pm

    I think the ‘electorate’ was about 3% of party membership. Most members don’t know that these committees exist, let alone the influence they have. Most members don’t know that only conference reps get to vote in these elections, they probably , and not unreasonably, think that conference reps are the people who want (and have the time) to go to conference.

    There is no excuse for not opening these election up to one person, one vote. The present system has more in common with the Chinese Communist Party elections than a modern Liberal Party.

  • Paul Holmes 12th Nov '12 - 9:48pm

    Steven Haynes -‘an enlarged electorate makes it harder for someone to get elected just because they are on a slate’.

    No -in fact an enlarged electorate makes it harder for ‘independents’ or individuals to get elected -its an inevitable consequence of increased democratic electorates. How many non slate candidates got elected to the UK Parliament in 2010? Nil. How many as a % across every Parliamentary election in the last 50 years -not even half of one per cent. What % of 15,000 principal Cllrs? How many non slate candidates (ie non Party) are going to be elected as Police commissioners this Thursday?

  • Interesting discussion about slates given that the SLF ran one but aren’t willing to say what the criteria were for getting on it in anything other than the most general terms.

    In the absence of that information they don’t really provide the guidance Louise was suggesting.

  • Euan Davidson 13th Nov '12 - 9:46am

    We have one member one vote for internal elections AND conference in Scotland which have caused none of the problems presented against one member one vote, its high time the federal party caught up on both.

  • But you can be a conference rep and not attend conference… thus you can continue to have a vote in internal elections etc… Of course, ultimately, if you are to listen to a debate, you will have to attend to make an informed decision, otherwise it is not deliberative democracy. So what we want are grants to attend conference. For those who think they may struggle to afford it, stewarding is a great way to get involved and you can be a voting rep.

  • I stood as a candidate for Federal Policy committee, and it was far from being like a smoked filled room affair, it was infact a rather confusing process, since I was only able to send out 1 piece of communication (my poster), and then had to wait for people to contact me for further information. I’m vaguely aware that I was able to enage with people, but not with what I would call proper canvassing.

    The rules seemed rather complicated and a little confused, and it felt a little like buying a premium bond; I sent in my A5 artwork, and then waited. To its credit LDV hosted a page for candidates, and I made a couple of posts on it; but I’m not sure how many people accessed it, and of how connected LDV actually is to the wider pool of conference reps.

    I know a few of the people elected to our various committees, and I wish them all well, but I can’t help feeling that the current process benefits the better known and the better connected, and I worry that it may be at the expense of enabling everyone to have a fair shot, and of the party’s ability to really reap the benefits of our members’ full range of skills and experience .

  • Stephen, I’m afraid you are misguided in several of your arguments, and Matthew Huntbach and Paul Holmes are right. Support will congregate around those who are already in high positions and those who are seen on the TV. Slates are necessary to offset this, but can only do it to a limited extent. Sadly, it will centralise power with those already established, not disperse it more widely. There is an inevitable conflict between the Liberal bit and the Democrat bit. Getting the balance right is not as easy as simply talking about “smoke filled rooms.”

  • For the record I voted in the LDV survey in favour of widening out the party electorate for internal elections, its an obvious democratic principle.

    But this will not help Mark Platt’s ‘problem’ about how to access the voters and persuade them to vote for him if he is ‘not well known’ -it will make his ‘problem’ worse as he would have to get at say 50,000 voters instead of 2 or 3,000.

    The complaints by Independent candidates in the current Police Commissioner elections are educative. How they ask,as complete unknowns, can they be expected to reach a million voters without an ‘army’ of helpers and ‘lots’ of money ? [Hint -its called a political party]. One in the East Midlands complained on the BBC that he had to collect a 100 signatures and this was an outrageous demand on his time (so how you gonna canvass a million voters then?). Another proudly proclaimed, with 13 days left at that point, that he had delivered 6,000 leaflets -so just half a million more to go then!

    Unless we return to the ancient Greek democratic style you have to live with the reality of fighting election campaigns and not indulge in wishful thinking. But of course the Greek style was based on excluding the vast majority of the population from voting, just as England did before 1832 (or 1867 to be more accurate).

    In recent years the internal party rules on PPC selection seemed to be designed to limit campaigning as much as possible in order to ‘help create a level playing field among candidates.’ Observing the current selection process in my own constituency (not as a participant) I am pleased to see that the ECC rules have been changed again but now so as to allow candidates to show more of their grasp of the reality of what is involved in campaigning to win.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Nov '12 - 2:12pm

    Steven Hayes

    It doesn’t stop them running of slates, what it does is makes it more difficult for people to just end up on a list and then get voted in just because they are on that list. I agree that there’s nothing wrong with people making their views and ideology more known in internal elections but the thing I have against slates it that actually it often hides it rather than demonstrates it.

    As I said, I voted in all the federal committee elections as a first time delegate (yes, the last time I was a proper elected conference member was before the merger), and I saw no signs of slates. That may well be because I was only able to attend the first day of conference (that’s why I’ve not gone to it for years – I work as a university lecturer, and it ALWAYS coincides with the first week of term), and slate literature got distributed later on.

    So, yes, I know slates tend to exist, or get put together, but they seem to be, as they always were, fairly informal. There is not some uniform slate profile the candidates put up so everyone on one slate says exactly the same thing, nor if you look at the count is there an obvious pattern of heavy slate voting. So I doubt there are people who get in purely through slate membership – though as I said, when it gets to later preferences and I’m choosing between people I don’t know anything about, it’s helpful for me to know if someone is recommended by a slate whose views I tend to agree with – I would be likely to give my later preferences to people like that rather than just not bothering after the first few (or filling in loads of preferences at random in order to put those I know I don’t like low down).

    I don’t see any signs in party committees of slate elected members being forced to vote for some sort of official slate line, nor of extensive caucus meetings of slate members. In fact, as a result I suspect our party is far more manipulable from the top than it would be if there were a more formal organised “opposition” within it. Which perhaps explains why … oh, well I won’t be rude, and LDV probably wouldn’t let me say what I might want to say anyway.

  • William Dyer 13th Nov '12 - 3:50pm

    I think that it may be time to submit a constitutional amendment ?! :)

  • Liberal Eye 13th Nov '12 - 4:49pm

    This post rests on the thesis that if democracy is ‘A Good Thing’ then more democracy (as simply measured by more people voting on more things) is ‘An Even Better Thing’ and yet more ‘The Best of All’.

    I don’t agree. As Matthew Huntbach and others argue, this favours well connected, well known candidates at the expense of others. I believe it would make it very difficult for the Party ever to form a coherent opinion against the divergent pull of populist appeals from multiple factions without the co-ordination of a single leader who has to pull everything together. If my memory is not mistaken the Greens had to row back from a similarly idealised but unworkable position a few years ago and appoint a leader. For all its faults, representative democracy is a better approach.

    The question we should rather ponder is how to achieve a more effective democracy meaning a system that maximises our chances of achieving national power for a liberal platform. By the opinion of voters – the ultimate test for any politician – the Lib Dems are, by a wide margin, the least successful major party at this. As long as this continues we can be as ‘democratic’ as we like internally but actually not add anything to the national pool of democracy. Indeed, in a worst case scenario we might even lessen it by preventing the emergence of a powerful liberal voice on the national stage by occupying the liberal niche in the political ecology.

    For me effective democracy is not about the right for me or any other individual to have a finger in every pie but to control the politicians we elect both on the Party stage and on the national stage. It is sad but true that a proportion of those who put themselves forward, especially nationally, are either very flawed individuals or simply not up to the job (Lib Dems have been spared the worst of this only because the most self-seeking types join other parties). For the greater good we need to be able to dump anyone fast if it transpires that they are mad/incompetent/have lost the plot/etc. The Tories instinctively understand this (cf how they dump any leader not cutting the mustard) and it makes them highly effective. Over time this means that they get far more of their thinking on the statute book then we do. That is the lesson we should take to heart.

  • Democracy depends on the electorate being informed about what or who they are voting for. What could make our system more democratic is 1) the quality of information about the party reaching the ordinary member, which (unless s/he is online and connected or receiving one of the subscription magazines) currently is zilch – note I don’t count the versions according to Wapping, and 2) the ability of those putting themselves forward to have contact with the electorate. Our internal elections were run without the latter, so the resulting winners are inevitably going to be the well known, ie the former MPs and the ones who speak at conference.

  • Liberal Eye, this article is not about the dismantling of representative democracy but about creating one! The committee members are the representatives of the whole party and they should be elected by the whole party not by a tiny, largely self-appointed subset. I would submit that even if voting-reps were actually accountable representatives the arguments for requiring elections to elect the people who elect the people who actually take the decisions are anachronistic. Thanks to the internet it’s really not very difficult to know who the candidates are or for candidates to make themselves known. If people choose not to use the internet that’s their own look-out really. There’s no other means for members of a national party to talk to each other.

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