Conference Countdown 2015: Why you shouldn’t give me a vote at Conference

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In the last four years, I’ve been to a lot of Lib Dem conferences – though sadly not next week – but I’ve had a vote at none of them. I was even the mover of an amendment, but I didn’t get to vote on it.

On Monday the One Member One Vote motion would give me a vote at conference. So why do I think you shouldn’t give it to me?

I’m not worried about the vast, vast majority of members. But there are a just a few who do worry me. If we decided votes by referenda, I wouldn’t be concerned. Among 61,000 members, a few rogue votes wouldn’t be significant. But attendance at conference is a lot lower.

In 1989, a Channel 4 news crew were looking for people to rubbish the party. A friend saw them talking to someone who belonged to a rival party, but who had neglected to tell them that. Later, I spoke to a Channel 4 reporter to warn him. I suggested they restrict their interviews to people who had a gold voting badge.

What that meant, of course, is that they only interviewed people who had managed to persuade their local party to let them be a voting representative. And that cut out a lot of the professional trouble-makers.

What I’m worried about today is different.

On the Guido Fawkes blog, they have a photo showing the Lib Dem membership card of their undercover reporter. The article uses it to ridicule our party.

You can be sure that, if all members are given the vote at conference, that infiltrator will be happily voting away in the most ludicrous ways, and then writing about the experience.

The above would only be embarrassing, but there are more important concerns.

What happens if there is a key issue, where Lib Dems from one part of the country will vote differently to another? In that case, where the conference is held will be of crucial importance. This could already be a problem. If there’s a conference on the south coast, the numbers attending from the north will be reduced. Limiting the vote to elected representatives doesn’t eliminate that problem, but it certainly reduces it. If we were voting on a scheme like HS2, and the conference were held on one of the possible routes, it’d be bound to distort the result.

Imagine a different situation. It’s a debate on the morning after the night before. Attendance is thin. One vote out of 100 may not be significant, but what if it’s 20 out of 100?

It might be a debate on an issue that is very important, but of little interest to most members. Do we want the possibility of a lobby group spending £1250 on fifty memberships and weekend passes, in order to subvert the policy of the party?

Conference is the policy-making body of the party. We may only have eight MPs at present, but we are extremely important. We are now, not only the only UK-wide parliamentary party carrying the banner of liberalism, but of social democracy too. And, of course, after 2020, we’re aiming to be in a far stronger position.

I know there are a fair number of people who attend, but are denied a vote at conference because they haven’t been elected. I’m one of them. I’d love a vote. But would it be worth the possible damage to the reputation of the party, and to the integrity of our party democracy?

Is me getting a vote worth it?

* George Kendall is the acting chair of the Social Democrat Group. He writes in a personal capacity.

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14 Comments

  • Agree. The change is being framed as full democracy vs representative democracy. And full is better than representative, right? But it isn’t full democracy, it’s only full democracy for some who can make it, because of money and location. Full democracy for only some isn’t better than representative democracy, it’s unfair.

  • PS if there are really people from every constituency denied a vote, then increase the number of reps across the board.

  • I agree. I drafted an amendment from my local party to the OMOV standing orders which would have introduced a six-month waiting period before one was allowed to vote, to avoid exactly this situation (although inspired by the shenanigans in the Labour leadership election). If it was trailled that Conference was voting on a particularly sensitive issue, such as fracking, a 6-month waiting period would significantly hamper efforts to pack the Conference as agendas are not revealed that early. Particularly if we shift to whole-party referenda or online Conference voting, I think such a waiting period will be required.

    The amendment was in order, but rejected out of hand because a 12-month waiting period was rejected the last time there was a vote on this. I was distinctly unimpressed with that rationale.

  • Stephen Ruffian 18th Sep '15 - 9:48am

    Wow. I never knew that one had to be a “gold plated member” before one got voting rights at Conference! Is this the same with the other parties too?

  • Stephen – yes, indeed. I’m not certain about the Greens, but certainly Lab and Con only permit “approved” members to vote at their conferences; it’s very centrally-organised. Dear old Uncle Jeremy has made noises about changing it in the Labour party, though.

    Having thought about it, I don’t think people should necessarily be denied a vote simply because they are “trouble makers” or whatever (hardly the liberal thing to do). But I think there’s a legitimate concern about vested outside interests attempting to pack a completely open vote, hence why I’d advocate a minimum period before one can vote (of, say six month).

  • George is right (again).

    There are surely better ways in which more participation can be achieved. Could a conference discussion (and vote) be the beginning of a process that is followed by constituency based votes, perhaps at local meetings where members are invited to consider the arguments presented in the conference?

    There needs to be a distinction between delegate votes, a conference attending vote and a membership vote. Each categary can have its place, but of the three the conference attending vote should have the least authority to impose policy.

  • I agree with John. A six month period before voting rights kick in should be enough. If a member is as malicious as George infers they’re nearly certainly breaking other party rules; we should be able to weed those people out. However, stopping “trouble makers” is the exact opposite of what we need, we should be empowering them.

    Conference has voted for policies that made absolutely no sense in the cold light of day, the idea that increasing participation is going to damage policy making further seems unlikely to me.

  • Sue Doughty 18th Sep '15 - 3:03pm

    Sorry to disagree but denying members the right to vote if they have paid their registration fee based on a hypothetical situation re HS 2 (which is unlikely to run through anywhere where we have conference, or something that happened in 1989 doesn’t work for me. WE have 79 local parties not functioning. How will people become conference reps there. What about those people living in the rented sector who move quite often, but not around the AGM so don’t get a vote. The logical extension to this would be to say that you shouldn’t be able to vote for your local councillor, your building society board or even your school governors unless you had jumped particular hurdles.
    Entryism may be a worry although given what has happened to the party in recent years, we may not be the most attractive candidate if you were choosing to rig an election. As to the logic that we should give them six months to see if they are OK to have a vote – hmm. As it happens there are people within the party with whom I have disagreed for years. Maybe we should take the vote away from them (just joking). If we are to be a democratic party we need to trust democracy. Mondays vote is not about if we do OMOV – we voted for that last year, it is to make the constitutional and standing order changes needed in order to implement it. Last night I was at Hackney local party where I met a new member. She was quite shocked to learn that in what she thought was supposed to be a democratic party she is denied a vote. I was just rather ashamed that this is still happening.

  • George Kendall 18th Sep '15 - 3:05pm

    Thanks for all the great comments, guys.

    @Mboy

    “if there are really people from every constituency denied a vote, then increase the number of reps across the board”

    Agree.

    @Stephen Ruffian

    What is fantastic is that any ordinary member has a chance to speak. You need to put in a speakers card and mostly won’t get called. It’s terrifying, but also a fantastic experience.

    I’m sure that a fair number of those who’ve joined since the general election will be blinking in front of the television lights next week.

    If you do get called, your speech will hopefully be available on BBC Parliament, on iPlayer. If it is, try to get a tech-savvy friend to make a permanent recording. It’s a great keep-sake.

    @John Grout

    I agree a 6 month waiting period would reduce the problem a lot – though it would mean that a new member under the current rules, who a local party wanted to become a conference rep substitute, wouldn’t be able to vote.

    However, there is a principle here. A vote at the policy making body of the champion of Liberalism and social democracy is a huge privilege. I don’t like the idea that infiltrators, without ever meeting a single other member of the party, could come to conference and have that privilege.

    I am more relaxed about infiltrators managing to get called to speak. If they did, and used it to embarrass us, that might cause problems, but it’d also advertise the fact that ordinary members got a chance to speak. To me, the idea of an infiltrator voting at a low attendance conference debate is more troubling.

  • George Kendall 18th Sep '15 - 3:09pm

    @Martin

    Other solutions are worth discussing, but personally I’m sceptical. Some of them could be complicated, use time we could use for campaigning, and might require expensive technology.

    @George Miles

    There are problems with every solution. My main reason for posting this is that I won’t be at conference, and I wanted to make sure these concerns were aired beforehand.

    If anyone wants to make a speech in the debate, and use any of my words and arguments without attribution, please do so.

    @ChrisB

    I prefer a solution that doesn’t require us to weed people out. Simply requiring that people get their local party to make them a representative seems to be a better way to prevent infiltration. There might still be infiltrators, but it would be much harder. I’m in agreement with Mboy.

    You’re right that conference has sometimes made poor decisions, but, as you say, that’s a separate issue. With the possible demise of social democratic Labour, we carry a huge responsibility in this country.

    @Sue Doughty

    Hi, I hope you’re well. Obviously we disagree. I think Mboy’s solution could avoid the problem with that new member. As for non-functioning parties, we need to create new ones, quickly, which cover a wider geographical spread.

  • What year is it? Use of real time on-line voting should be explored. A (24 hour?) voting window could maybe organised so those at work when the debates happen during the day can watch them & vote if they wish on some of the big issues (okay I know amendments etc will cause problems).All members should be allowed to vote – right? We are a party of individuals – right?

    Liberals should get away from ‘we know what’s best for you’ and put its trust in its members……wouldn’t that tie in nicely to our Principles??

  • Laurence Cox 18th Sep '15 - 3:29pm

    I am rather surprised that there is a need seen for OMOV. If we look at the current regulations:
    Local Party members Number of Representatives
    30 to 50 members 8
    51 to 75 members 9
    76 to 100 members 10
    101 to 150 members 11
    151 to 200 members 12
    201 to 250 members 13
    251 to 300 members 14
    301 to 350 members 15
    351 to 400 members 16
    401 to 450 members 17
    450+ members +1 for every 100 members
    for the smallest parties we can have 1 in 4 members as voting reps and even for large parties (400) it is still 4%. In my own experience over many years we have found it difficult to find enough members willing to be conference representatives even at a time when the numbers allowed were far fewer.

    The danger that I can see from OMOV is that I understand this was the method that the old (pre-merger) Liberal Party used and, as a result of packing of conferences, the Parliamentary Party refused to take any vote as binding on them. Perhaps someone who was a member then can confirm this. I would prefer to have voting representatives and binding decisions to OMOV and non-binding decisions.

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