LDV Debate: Could One Member One Vote work for Liberal Democrat Conference?

Autumn 2012 conference - Some rights reserved by Liberal DemocratsSue Doughty and Gareth Epps discuss the issues.

Sue: During the consultation at conference and before conference there were many positive reasons to support this. For example, younger members who may not have a permanent address find it difficult to maintain links with a local party and so don’t get elected as voting reps and sadly some parties didn’t notify HQ of their voting reps.  Although conference can be expensive the work by Federal Conference Committee with York Local Party meant that there was a range of cheap accommodation available too. However the main benefit would be that we are extending the vote on party policies to all members of the party, not just those who get voted for by their local party.

With the party now growing again, and the majority of members joining on line motivated by national issues just as much as local politics, we need to ensure that our newer members have full access to conference and decision making.

Conference is one the best things about being a party member, not only learning more through the great fringes outside the hall, but the opportunity to really understand key policy issues, challenge the leadership and develop our unique philosophy.  Although we voted at conference to increase the number of conference reps, you still need to live in an area with a strong local party (more than 30 members) and where the party encourages you to stand to be a rep.

In Scotland any member can attend Scottish Conference and vote.

Gareth: First, I was pleased that York Lib Dems were able to accommodate a number of members cheaply but in a way that boosted their campaign funds too. That has to be a good precedent and something to build on for the future.

Reforming voting at Conference should be one of the more straightforward elements of our democratic structures, as long as a balance is struck between enhancing democracy and the interests of the Party in encouraging attendance for the whole of Conference and preventing any abuse of this new-found freedom.

In an era where the police demand stringent security measures that sometimes threaten to interfere with our cherished party democracy, we have faced challenges (not least the end of the old facility to attend as a substitute voting rep at a few weeks’ notice, which has undoubtedly disfranchised some Conference-goers). Having recently faced the threat of the end of Spring Conference in its current form, we would not be allowed to open up voting status for those who want to just pay and turn up for one debate. Indeed, we would not want to encourage a system that risked those representing a particular interest to join the Party and turn up en masse just to skew the result of a particular debate.  This could be done in a positive way, by further incentivising the stewarding system to enable subsidised attendance for example.

However, it should be possible to find a way forward that meets these concerns.

Sue Doughty is a member of the Federal  Executive. Gareth Epps is a member of the Federal Conference Committee, Federal Policy Committee and Co-Chair of Social Liberal Forum. Responses to the Federal Executive consultation on One Member One Vote should be sent to [email protected]

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  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 31st Mar '14 - 2:46pm

    I think that a problem with OMOV for policy decisions would be that the location of conference would affect the outlook of conference. Lib Dems from different parts of the country do have difference tendencies in policy view. That is already a problem to a certain extent with the Conf Rep system but would surely be worse under OMOV.

    I think OMOV for committee elections and for policy decisions are separate matters where difference considerations apply.

  • Simon McGrath 31st Mar '14 - 3:45pm

    I am confused. What does this mean: “Having recently faced the threat of the end of Spring Conference in its current form, we would not be allowed to open up voting status for those who want to just pay and turn up for one debate”

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 31st Mar '14 - 5:35pm


    The sentence Simon quotes is genuinely unclear. Perhaps you could engage in a meaningful rather than flippant way?

  • I fully support this. Anyone who is motivated enough to take the time to arrange childcare and take the time off work to attend conference is the sort of motivated party member that will carefully read the policy motions and make informed decisions. If you plan your travel and accommodation early you can get some great deals, it doesn’t need to cost the earth.

    The rep system, which I’m sure made sense 20 years ago effectively makes a postcode lottery of whether you can vote at conference or not. We make a big deal of being a genuinely democratic party where members can vote on policy, but then deny that vote to people who happen to live in an area where there is less than 30 members in the constituency, or deny that vote to new members in active constituencies where voting rep places have already been taken.

    Going to conference really energises people to support the party for life (I know it did for me) and the more people we can get to go and vote at conference the stronger the party will be in the long term.

  • Maria Pretzler 31st Mar '14 - 6:51pm

    Three points:

    (1) The question about young people who move around and don’t easily get connected to a local party is another good reason for introducing a ‘virtual local party’ as a home for all those who, for some reason, don’t manage to fit into a local party (there are many other reasons why we should consider this)

    (2) Entryism is a worry.
    One would probably have to restrict registration of voting members to the period before the agenda is published.

    (3) The restriction of participation by cost will remain troubling. I would want us to have a look at some form of consultation of absent members, if online voting doesn’t work.
    During the debate, some people maintained that conference goers would vote after listening to the debate, which clearly was a reason to restrict the vote to those present. At least for autumn conference, this is not necessarily a good argument. People at home can watch, and watch more attentively – have you ever watched the audience in a conference hall, and also seen how many people still wander in during the debate, even toward the end, and still vote?

  • I’m also confused by the same sentence as Simon & Nick. Is it meant to read ‘should not’?

    And if it is meant to say that, I still don’t understand the point. The arrangements for spring conference are a separate issue to OMOV aren’t they? I don’t see how one relates to another.

    Gareth, can you clarify what you mean here please?

  • Richard Dean 1st Apr '14 - 12:39am

    One vote per member is the only fair system. That would be one vote per member, not one vote per conference attendee. The way to avoid disenfranchising those (the vast majority of ?) members who cannot attend a conference is to include voting by internet. The development of fair voting rights would, in my view, help to attract new members.

  • Austin Rathe 1st Apr '14 - 12:44am

    A key thing in this debate is how the party is changing. For perhaps the majority of the last 25 years the primary route by which people joined the party was directly through their local party, and it could be argued that their primary relationship was a local one.

    Now, well over half of the people who join do so online. Of course they may (and hopefully will) become involved in a local party, but you couldn’t argue that their primary reason for joining was to be part of one. It then doesn’t make any sense for their rights as a member to be dictated by the relative situation of their local organisation.

    The entryism issue is currently dealt with in another way. You can’t just join the party and come to conference (too many commercial attendees try that route to avoid paying the commercial rate) so there is a minimum membership period that is required (I can’t recall exactly what it is). You could set that to whatever period was appropriate to prevent mass joining for the purpose of affecting votes.

    And thirdly, speaking entirely personally here, those of us who value conferences should be doing everything possible to increase attendance at them. OMOV is not the whole solution to this, but in every membership survey we have done the main reason for being a party member is the ability to influence policy. Making that offer better will make the party and our conferences bigger and stronger.

  • Maria Pretzler 1st Apr '14 - 1:08am

    Austin Rathe –
    Concerning the ‘entryism’ issue – perhaps I didn’t quite choose the right term. I was not just thinking joining the party to tend particular votes. I was also thinking of party members recruiting party members living nearby in order to get their way in a particular debate. But this could be easily avoided by allowing voting registration only to the point where the agenda is published. One issue is that without internet voting, OMOV could very much increase a certain regional bias or some issues. Holding to conferences in a row in Glasgow or. for that matter, in Brighton, would seem even more problematic than it has already.

    Re. changing our understanding how people relate to their local party. Note that being a member of a ‘virtual local party’ doesn’t mean no campaigning. With phone canvassing and other activities, a virtual LP could decide o hep other campaigns, by phoning or by helping with online campaigning. It would also give members overseas a different chance to connect with the party, and it would mean that members who fall out with their LP could have a home in the party without having to find a very non-local ‘local’ party for themselves. A number of problems could be addressed in this way. And yes, it would give people without god local inks a chance to become conference reps (as long as we don’t change this).

  • Gareth.
    I am not sure what we should conclude from the records that show that for the most recent Conference at Glasgow, three times as many members registered as voted in any of the several contentious counted votes.
    But I am aware that for some crucial votes in the past (I was not at Glasgow) the “payroll vote” was often wheeled into the conference hall at the very last minute to vote after a debate they had not participated in and had not even listened to. The payrollers were just “following orders”.
    Nowadays the payroll vote within the Liberal Democrats is very large: even if you exclude all the MPs and Lords there are enough special advisors, researchers, secretaries, etc to wheel in more than a couple of hundred votes to swing a decision. Votes at Liberal Democrat conferences are not always as democratic as some might want us to believe. Maybe that is why some stay out of the hall and do not bother to vote?
    Maybe only those who have been present throughout a debate should be allowed to vote.

  • @ Gareth Epps 1st Apr ’14 – 8:48am
    A further thought. Records show that for the most recent Conference at Glasgow, three times as many members registered as voted in any of the several contentious counted votes. Where were those not in the hall – and what does this fact tells?

    I think it tells us people aren’t attending every single vote, and nor should they. For me specifically I had family and childcare issues that weekend and drove to York for the Saturday PM sessions as that’s all I could get to.

    @JohnTilley – Absolutely there’s a payroll vote. At Glasgow last year when it came to the 50p tax rate vote suddenly a load of faces I recognised appeared in the chamber – and the vote to return to 50p was defeated by 4 votes… Having said that a similar thing happened when the child porn filter proposal of Floella Benjamin was defeated, the chamber was chock full of young grassroots supporters and LGBT activists.

    Its not perfect and yes certain votes do attract special interest groups, but they’re members just as much as anyone else and are entitled to be interested (or not interested) in whatever issues matter to them

  • Simon Banks 1st Apr '14 - 10:09am

    I find it surprising and depressing that the debate on this ignores two major factors. First, that the number of people who want to go to conference and can’t because they haven’t got elected by their local party is minute compared to the number who would like to influence policy decisions but can’t afford the time or money to go to conference. OMOV is actually a step back for these people since at present the model constitution for local parties (at least in the East of England and I assume elsewhere) states that AGMs should receive a report from conference reps. It’s easy to see that people elected by a local party to go to conference have a responsibility to the whole local party membership and the bottom line for this could be enforced. Under OMOV the link to the local party is entirely broken and people attending conference would have no responsibility to report back or to consult with the wider membership in advance. Something could be put in constitutions to say they should, but it’d be completely unenforceable. No doubt some local party conference reps ignore their responsibility in this direction, but that can be dealt with. Regional parties could require evidence of reports and people who failed to report might not get elected again.

    Secondly, the rights of local parties have been treated as unimportant. Since OMOV would involve taking away a power they currently have, it would be fundamental good practice for local parties to have been consulted directly through their elected officers, but this does not seem to have happened. Conference votes on party business decisions and constitutional matters that directly affect local parties. Under OMOV they would be unrepresented in these votes.

    I appreciate that the reasons for people joining the party have shifted, but if we are Liberals believing in participatory democracy, we must not treat local parties as unimportant. People joining for national reasons may – should – get involved in their local parties. I joined the Liberal Party for national reasons as a student. It didn’t mean I was uninterested in getting involved in my university Liberal Club or in my local association. Besides, many of our members joined way back for local reasons. I’m not at all sure I’d want someone who wanted to affect national decisions but couldn’t be bothered with their local party to be voting at conference: the right comes with a responsibility. The problems that have been mentioned with the present system can all be dealt with and a start has been made by increasing local party representation.

    If we become a party with a Bonapartist version of democracy in which local democratic groups are bypassed, I’d have to wonder if this was any longer a political philosophy I could work for.

  • Sue Doughty 1st Apr '14 - 10:45am

    Some interesting points here. Skewed voting where conference could be influenced by an increased attendance from members living locally is always a possibility, but in practice when you look at where attenders come from this happens already. Attendance by Scottish members is always very low although it increases the further North conference is held and one might assume that attendance by Southern and South Western members decreases when it is in Glasgow.

    I understand the point about representatives reporting back to their local parties about conference but I’m not convinced that there is a strong tie between this requirement and the nomination of conference reps. I don’t think that OMOV can be used as a tool to improve the need for local parties to follow up on what people do at conference, and indeed our reps are not mandated by local parties to vote in a particular way. The rights of local parties are important but in practice I suspect that if no report is received by a local party not much will follow.

    Our local party has long had a tradition of holding a pre conference event to discuss the agenda and this has been a really great opportunity for local political debating.

    This is in any case off set by those people, especially those who do not own their own home who float between local parties as they change their accomodation – and they have real problems securing nomination.

    Entryism does happen, but we have to be cautious about being over sensitive. Those of us who have joined up members on the special offer at Freshers Fairs know that this could be used to create a political caucus but more importantly we always find ourselves with one or two people who get really excited about politics and enricch what we are doing. In any case, due to security requirements joining on the day and getting into conference is not so easy and we would need to take advice from FCC about how this would work best.

    Online voting? We are not ready for it yet, technically, resource wise and most importantly the impact it would have on conference attendance. Perhaps FCC could consider taking texts and emails, Question Time style but this is a matter for them, and again adds a level of complexity on top of the already complex work they do.

  • Simon McGrath 1st Apr '14 - 11:46am

    @Gareth Epps
    “A further thought. Records show that for the most recent Conference at Glasgow, three times as many members registered as voted in any of the several contentious counted votes. Where were those not in the hall – and what does this fact tells?”
    That people go to Conference for lots of different reasons, not just sitting in the hall. In Glasgow (and in York) where there are many other attractions people will go to see them. Certainly many people in York combined politics with visiting the Minster/railway Museum/shops and I am sure the same applied to Glasgow.

  • An interesting debate behind which lies an unstated assumption of an Athenian-style participatory democracy whereby every free-born male citizen conference rep has a vote. That’s widely valued of course but the risk is that party members have great fun making policy but finish up talking only to themselves. Meanwhile, Parliament is a representative democracy which works to a different logic; representatives are elected and then, for good or ill, exercise their judgement but get fired after an interval if they get things too wrong.

    Participatory democracy is fine for a small party in opposition but – at least in its current version – doesn’t work so well in government as we have seen. The baked-in assumption is that conference makes policy which elected representatives then seek to implement – except that they don’t necessarily do so to which may be for good reasons (circumstances have changed or they have better information) or bad ones (they have their own agenda, distinct from the party as a whole). Of course, if the payroll vote (as above) is successfully deployed the form but not the substance of constitutional proprieties may be observed.

    As a small party we should turn that lack of size to advantage by being extra nimble in policy matters and exploiting close connections to the people to respond to their concerns – this works at local level and is the bedrock of our success there. However, at national level we have instead a cumbersome and bland policy-making process most notable for how disconnected it can sometimes be from reality. I remember as Lehmann’s was collapsing in autumn of 2008 watching TV news reports from conference of spectacular irrelevance to the growing crisis which wasn’t addressed remotely adequately because, in simple terms, it wasn’t on the policy timetable and no working party was reporting on it.

    What this also means is that when there is a contested leadership election all candidates must support the Party’s official policy even if they have some fingers crossed behind their back. This inevitably tends towards grey conformity and militates against the vibrant debate we should have. Even Mao did better (albeit only briefly!) with his “let a 100 flowers bloom” idea. What we really need is to have rising stars of the future come up through the system and demonstrate their ability to both capture the zeitgeist and win elections, both talents impossible to judge on the basis of an overly bureaucratised approach. We also need the ability to fire leaders when they stray off-piste without good reason (think Blair/Iraq).

    So, the problem should be to build on the strengths of the existing approach of involving the membership while steering clear of the particular pitfalls the system is prone to currently. My own preference would be to give more leeway to rising-star MPs in return for a stronger role for Conference in holding them to account if they go too wrong.

  • Maria Pretzler 2nd Apr '14 - 11:19am

    Gareth Epps said:
    “I would not, either, be too pleased at what Austin Rathe reports regarding membership recruitment. It is not a good thing; for one thing, members recruited centrally if not on Direct Debit are much less likely to renew than those signed up locally. It may also reflect other recent trends in the shifting of the membership base, which is not good for those who want to be a broad-based party. ”

    While I take your point about direct debits, I don’t quite understand what you are trying to say when you suggest that members who join the party centrally, and online, somehow would work against a ‘broad-based party’.

    I would have thought that the opposite is true?

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