It’s time to change the distinction between voting and non-voting members at Conference

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A couple of years ago, when we moved house and constituency, I had the new experience of going to Conference with a second class label hanging around my neck. I did what I could to carefully adjust my pass so that my picture and name was facing out. But these passes have always had a mind of their own and I would walk from Hall to Fringe all too often as someone labelled as ‘Member’ rather than the important or well-connected ‘Voting’ people.

And now we have thousands of new members, some of whom will be looking forward to their first conference. Pretty well all of them will be unable to vote. Nor will a good chunk of the party’s activists who have stood locally in May.
This distinction between voting and non-voting members doesn’t separate the activists from the sleeping members. It seems primarily to protect privilege, to protect the well connected, those with the ear of the constituency officers. It is a privilege in a thoroughly conservative sense.

In the meantime, the internal party debate about One Member One Vote rumbles on. It’s due to be discussed further this autumn, but OMOV is a wider discussion embracing multiple issues. The slow pace of internal reform should not be used as cover for those who want no change at all.

Change is always resisted – though it is a surprise to find it being resisted within the Lib Dems. If we looked at the situation in reverse: if we were completely democratic at Conference and every member had a vote, would we be agitating for a return to a narrower franchise? The answer is surely no.

There are good arguments for members needing to have been a member for at least a year to stop any suggestion of entryism, or that voting goes with a pass for the full conference. But these are details.

What would be wonderful, and reflect the rebirth of our party and a true welcome for our new members would be that the first motion of conference is an emergency motion or an extraordinary general meeting called to grant voting rights to every member at the conference.

* William Hobhouse lives in Bath and is co-founder of the Lib Dem Campaign for Manufacturing.

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20 Comments

  • This sounds like a lovely egalitarian idea, but there are consequences…

    It’s week known that who goes to conference depends on where it is. A Glasgow conference will have a substantially different make-up to a Bournemouth one. Would it be fair to Scotland and the north of England then, that any votes taken at a Bournemouth conference would be dominated by voters from southern England? How do we some this problem, if it isn’t via constituency quotas as it is currently?

  • “Week”= well

  • Poppy Hasted 24th Jul '15 - 11:03am

    Some of us never get to vote at conference as week can never go to conference due our impairments. I am unable to leave my bed, let lone my house so I am unable to ever vote. There needs to be some way ALL members cn tke prt, including people like me….

  • Neil Sandison 24th Jul '15 - 11:03am

    It would move conference away from being a representative conference to a rally of members.
    There are other things we can do for instance .Conference is balloted on some motions to be debated .To ensure these topical or emergency motions genuinely reflect the concerns of the wider membership they could be voted upon both electronically and in person at conference .The safeguard would be a current membership number to access the voting on line. or evidence of membership to get a ballot paper at conference.

  • Great article William, punctuated nicely by Poppy’s comment. We don’t need internal class systems and restrictions on participation, we surely need to maximise the number of members that can vote. The current system isn’t fit for the modern world.

  • Is it beyond the capability of 21st century technology to have the main hall of your conference on an internet stream and have internet voting as an available option on each vote? Voting passwords could be sold to members in place of conference registration fees that those who would still attend physically would pay, raising additional money from those members who would not have been able to attend the conference in person, while at the same time widening access to your conference.

    This would get rid of the need that MBoy points out to set limits on voting delegation sizes to prevent geographical bias and open up the conference to some of the new groups Poppy is referring to.

    Just an idea.

  • @Nick Barlow +1

    Fine, debate motions at conference, and have the social side, but put the proposal out to every member to vote on (postally or electronically). Few members have the time or money to spend a week at conference.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Jul '15 - 3:34pm

    https://williamhobhouse.wordpress.com/
    William Hobhouse says he lives in Somerset and is therefore caught by the English Question.
    Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater London have their own governance, English regions do not.
    Therefore it is difficult for regional conferences to make policy for their regions.
    Representing the local interest of a constituency party at federal level is desirable, but usually not possible.
    The deliberative policy process resulting from merger negotiations provides us federal conference representatives with plenty to read and decide on, but reporting back takes other people’s time.
    There is often a two-stage process, a fringe meeting, usually within the secure area, at which panellists are often not party members, and the audience need not be elected delegates,.
    At one meeting I was the only one, the others represented business interests.
    Because of the cost of hire of rooms these meetings usually last precisely one hour, including questions.
    The voting happens in the main conference hall the following day.
    The conference committee should not restrict questions to the leader. Nick Clegg liked to do Obama-style meetings. Hopefully Tim Farron will be as free, or freer. He does not have coalition partners.

  • +1 to what nick Barlow said

  • Ronald Murray 25th Jul '15 - 8:52am

    I remember the days pre merger with the SDP when all Liberal attendees could vote at conference. Then after the new constitution local parties had a quota. Taking us to the old Labour ideas of voting and non voting members.

    I do agree with a qualifying period before new members can vote as a safety measure. Correct me if I am wrong please.

  • Neil Sandison 25th Jul '15 - 9:19am

    We are allowed to petition our local council or parliament to put an important issue on to the agenda .So why can we not ballot Liberal Democrat members on topical or emergency motions .This does not take away the right of conference to debate and vote for the issue as a decision making body of the party. but does allow rank and file members who perhaps due to economic circumstances or work commitments cannot afford the expensive jamboree of attending conference.
    It also retains the integrity of conference as a representative body.

  • An afternoon of coding and we could have a system that would allow internet participation and end the biggest class divide in the party (who can and can’t attend conference and vote). Until that happens we’re stuck in a past that’s unfair and discriminates against the poor, disabled and working people. OMOV is just the start of what needs to happen for the party to live up to its name as regards participation.

  • david thorpe 26th Jul '15 - 2:26pm

    The lib dems have for some time perpetuated the decption that all members make policy-they don-0pt-confrerence reps make some of it-though at least one policy that was rejected by conference found itself int eh last manifesto because of a vote amongst nine people-anything that can be done to correct the great deception would be progress-and william’s ideas are a good strt

  • In my experience there is no trouble at all for anyone who wants to be a constituency rep at conference to be that. There are far more places than there are likely to be people willing to spend all that time and money.

    What is valuable, and is worth preserving even under “OMOV” so that local parties continue to elect their reps, is that the reps have a duty to report back to the wider local membership who can’t afford to go and similarly to be available to be lobbied beforehand. The vast majority of members who would like to influence policy can’t attend conference, at least the main autumn conference.

  • Richard Underhill 28th Jul '15 - 12:25pm

    Neil Sandison Emergency motions are a real problem. They have been abused. They have been ignored. They could be filtered by the conference committee, already busy at conference. They can be voted on by delegates in two stages, for a place on the agenda and for substantive debate. There can also be multiple, unconnected crises in the world, about which we may know very little, so that a policy passed overwhelmingly becomes embarrassing for lack of research and changing circumstances.
    Sorry about the problems, needing solutions.

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