Opinion: Federal election rules could be in danger of making a mockery of our party’s democratic processes

Ballot paperNick Clegg, speaking on Internet TV station 18 Doughty Street recently described our party as “painfully democratic” – he meant no malice or mischief by the claim, but it was a pithy, and accurate, summary of a key point about Liberal Democrat decision making. Every so often we keep the party’s democracy alive by distributing ballot papers to an electoral college of thousands of voting representatives (who are in turn elected by their local parties) at great expense. When it comes to being democratic, despite the cost, we practice what we preach.

During the latest round of elections to national party committees such as the Federal Policy Committee and the Federal Conference Committee, Liberal Democrat Voice received helpful assistance from election officials Lord Rennard and David Allworthy – their help enabled us to publish a full list of candidates as soon as it became available. This was, so far as I know, the first time a full list of federal election candidates was published online, free to access, allowing non-voting representatives (who do not receive copies of ballot papers and manifestos) to see who was standing for positions of influence in the Liberal Democrats. Alas, having seen that information, they then had no place to comment – in fact, the election rules forbade it.

All being well there are now two years until the next set of elections, and while the last lot is still fresh in our memories we should have a rational debate about the conditions under which the next is fought.

At the time of the elections you may have noticed very little debate in the Liberal Democrat blogosphere – indeed, almost none. There was also no coverage in the party’s in-house newspaper, Liberal Democrat News. Even seasoned Lib Dem watchers Liberator had little to say. The silence from was odd – and telling. For, at the heart of our democratic process are a set of rules which, perhaps unintentionally, almost completely stifle debate and discussion – they are in danger of making our elections a sham.

The rules state that candidates or their supporters must not use e-mail, e-groups, CIX conferencing or websites during elections to promote their candidacy. No party publication, including the Conference Gazette, may accept advertisements in support of or in opposition to candidates, and that candidates may not use Liberal Democrat News to specifically promote their candidacy. Which leaves basically… nowhere… for members to debate and discuss the election other than privately, member to member.

It is the first rule I mentioned that troubles me the most – banning all Internet promotion, reporting, and debate. The Internet is now a natural playing field for election battles – by committing all candidates to zero effort on e-campaigning, that playing field is being artificially flattened to the point of non-existence. Yet we know that you cannot really force a level playing field in an election – people with time, energy, support, and talent use those assets to place themselves at an advantage. In our internal elections, as in all elections, our candidates should be free to use the strengths they have to get elected.

The rules were also written before the advent of sites such as Liberal Democrat Voice and Liberal Review – sites that seek to report, as well as comment on, happenings in the party.

Most dangerously, our rules mean that candidates are free to put their personal manifesto in to the hands of the voters, completely unchallenged. As a candidate, you can, within certain restrictions surrounding endorsements and the like, pretty much write what you like – the rules forbid any large scale comeback.

Take, just as an example, the case of Reg Clark – party treasurer for five years, he resigned shortly before the 2005 election and has since argued that senior figures within the party have attempted to make him a scapegoat over the Michael Brown affair. And yet what is undeniable is that while treasurer, Reg Clark made a serious error of judgement in one of his dealings with Brown. As The Times later reported:

“Reg Clark sent messages to Michael Brown days after being approached with a possible donation for the party. He asked Mr Brown for up to £700,000 to save a struggling recruitment group in which he was the majority shareholder.”

This regrettable error of judgement was surely an abuse of his position as party treasurer. Yet when Clark stood in the last election to be placed in the pool of people who the leader can appoint to the House of Lords, his manifesto which was distributed to all voters made no mention of it.

A reasonable and informed voter might very well balance this one error of judgement against five years of faithful service to the party, and forgive and forget – but can it be right that our voters weren’t free to make that decision themselves as the ‘facts’ as reported were not available to them, unless they happened to read The Times? For right or for wrong, off the back of his manifesto, Clark was elected to the Peers Panel.

Perhaps the greatest weakness in the rules banning electronic debate is that they are fundamentally unenforceable – had an anonymous mud-slinging blog popped up in the last election, or had e-mails been distributed from a specially created Hotmail account, or even if someone had set up a website independently supporting a particular candidate, party officials would have been left at a loss as to whom to take action against – online, its easy to cover your tracks, and its getting easier with each passing day.

By banning public debate, the election rules ensure that the election fight is a clean one – there is no opportunity for the good name of individuals to be dragged through the mud by supporters of rival candidates. As someone who ran the website of one of this year’s leadership election candidates, I can certainly say there are eager supporters out there who are too quick to lose their sense of perspective and cease to act for the good of the party as a whole.

Opening up our elections to e-campaigning brings with it the threat that such campaigning may not always be responsibly carried out, but there are many alternatives to a blanket ban. One alternative would be to put in place a strict framework for what could and could not happen on candidates websites, another would be to provide a party election discussion board and make that the only place where debate could take place, yet another would be to allow candidates to organically grow e-mail lists of supporters and spread their messages through the Inbox. However we do it, whatever route we choose, before 2008 we must adopt a new set of rules that play to the strengths of both the Internet and our party democracy.

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This entry was posted in Online politics, Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters.
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5 Comments

  • Duncan Borrowman 23rd Dec '06 - 1:08am

    I have comments, but a staff would only put them in the private forum.

  • Mark Pack Doesn't Always Win Elections 23rd Dec '06 - 2:07pm

    An interesting mock ballot paper (right hand side). Many Lib Dems, especially in the South East and West, would give their 2nd preference vote to the Conservatives not to the Greens or NuLabour. Wishful thinking on your part?

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