One-Email-Address-One-Vote: A Foolish Idea

We’ve all been asked to give our thoughts on the Leader’s Proposals. The suggested method is via a form with (in my opinion) hopelessly leading questions. Fortunately there’s also an email address: [email protected] and I’d encourage everyone to use that.

Let’s start with what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that no change is needed, and I’m not saying that every single thing in the proposals is awful. For instance, I think a non-voting supporters scheme would be a reasonable idea, and we need some mechanism for having a leader in the event that none of our MPs are willing to do the job.

Cargo-cultism

The party has problems. I’ve been a member since forever and I can’t recall things being this bad. And it’s only right and natural that we look elsewhere for inspiration. But expecting these proposals to turn us into the Canadian Liberals is nonsense. The Canadian Liberal Party was starting from the position we were in a century ago, of being a major party of government, fallen temporarily on hard times. We’re flattering ourselves if we think that’s us. Copying their moves in slavish detail is pure cargo-cult — imitating the outward trappings of a successful venture while ignoring the underlying reasons for their success.

People aren’t supporting us because a) they don’t trust us; b) they don’t foresee us having any power any time soon; or c) they don’t like what we’re selling. None of these proposals solves any of those problems.

Centrism

In the rush to make ourselves a “Movement for Moderates” (and thank heavens Vince dropped the “Momentum for Moderates” strapline!) we risk making our policies even more anodyne, even more bland, and even less distinctive. We come across as the party that thinks that the status quo is kind of OK. We risk being the party that thinks that half way between Labour and Conservative is always the right place to be.

Things couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re the party of radical change; of Mill, of Lloyd George, of Russell, of Beveridge. So branding ourselves as “centrists” is a really stupidly misleading idea.

“But Adam”, you say, “what about all those studies that say that 80% of voters consider themselves centrist?”. Well, I’m glad you asked me that.

There is a saying that when you’re driving, everyone going slower than you is a moron, and everyone going faster than you is a lunatic. And thus also with politics; everyone to the left of you is a Trot, and everyone to the right of you is a Fascist. “Centrist” is a nice way of saying “neither to the right of me nor to the left of me; just in the common-sense position where I am.”

Are you seeing the problem yet?

But even those people that are actually in the centre aren’t necessarily liberal. People that are economically “centrist” are somewhat to the authoritarian side of average. Do we want to abandon our policies on civil liberties? On immigration? On drug reform? On constitutional reform? On prison reform? On LGBT+ rights? Because that might be what becoming a centrist party entails.

One Email Address, One Vote

Here, I’ll speak as a computer scientist. There is no practical way for the party to verify that each “supporter” is a different person, let alone that they’re who they say they are. It is trivial for anyone to make a dozen or a hundred “supporters”. It is near-impossible to weed them out. People (especially within households) share IP addresses. Multiple IP addresses can be obtained easily. Not everyone is on the electoral roll (and anyway, unless you want to illegally discriminate against under-18s and non-UK citizens, that’s a daft thing to require). It is not hard for any programmer to automate the party’s sign-up procedure.

The assurances that the party has hinted at about verification in the consultation document are designed to reassure people who know nothing about IT security. When they say that there are systems that will identify impersonators while not falsely rejecting genuine supporters, they are either lying or — more likely — being lied to.

The upshot is that the people who will be given the biggest say are those that are most dedicated to breaking the rules. What could possibly go wrong?

But — HQ says — we’re not a left-wing or a right-wing party, who could possibly want to take us over? Well, firstly there are plenty of people who will happily cause trouble for the party not because they want us, but because they hate us. The alt-right, the rabid Corbyn-fans, the trolls and griefers, and the plain old troublemakers (remember Boaty McBoatface? Lots of the votes for that were automated too.) When Twitter is full of Tories going “I voted for Lembit five times!”, we may wish that we’d thought about this a bit more carefully.

And secondly, there’s a lot of money sloshing around for whoever can create a home for all the disaffected authoritarian centrists yearning for the return of Blair or Cameron. Some of them think we’d be a great vehicle for this. Someone — who may or not be one of these people — has offered to pay the £50,000+ that a Special Conference to rubber-stamp these proposals would cost us. If we end up with David Miliband — or George Osborne — as leader, please don’t say I didn’t warn you.

* Adam Bernard is a Lib Dem activist from Harrow. He works in the geekier sort of academia.

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28 Comments

  • Gareth Hughes 12th Oct '18 - 12:09pm

    I get four copies of any party emails sent out through the central mailing list because whenever I’ve updated my email address, they keep sending emails to my other accounts. If such management of mailing lists is continued, the system will be ripe for abuse.

  • John Chandler 12th Oct '18 - 12:19pm

    Hmm. I wasn’t aware of the idea of one email, one vote. Absolutely ridiculous.

    While I’m favour of the supporter’s scheme I don’t believe they should have any voting rights. It should be about registering their interest to help the local party, who would then, hopefully, make enough of a positive impression to encourage them to sign on as a full member (with voting rights).

    Entryism is not only a very real possibility, but I would say highly likely – even for us! Labour is currently facing this situation, and it looks like the Conservatives have a similar problem in the making. Heck, there were even discussions amongst Remain groups that UKIP membership is at such an all time low it would be easy to join en masse and turn it into a pro-EU party!

  • I agree totally.

  • David Becket 12th Oct '18 - 1:13pm

    Supporters yes, supporters voting NO NO.
    What are we doing wasting time on this exercise when we should be concentrating on getting our message over, which is currently falling on deaf ears. Our Leadership is letting us down

  • David Warren 12th Oct '18 - 1:33pm

    Maybe the focus should be on involving existing members and getting back those that have left?

    As for allowing non MPs to stand for leader I am a traditionalist.

    Any UK wide party that has sufficient numbers in Westminster representation should choose its leader from amongst that group.

    To do otherwise would create a crazy situation of having to have a leader and a parliamentary leader.

  • Adam Bernard 12th Oct '18 - 1:38pm

    I’m very concerned by the enthusiasm that the leadership has for this set of proposals.

    They could have been purpose-designed for the objective “impose a leader that the membership does not want”. I dearly hope that this was not suggested to Vince as the price needed to have Umunna, Soubry, or whoever, jump ship and join us.

  • Andy Hinton 12th Oct '18 - 4:26pm

    Agree with a lot of this. For me, the risk of compromising the integrity of our leadership election is the big hangup about all of this.

    Supporters scheme? Sure.

    Wider eligibility to stand in leadership elections? OK.

    Removing the 12 months before someone can stand as a candidate for election? Maybe, I’d like to know more about the improvements to our vetting processes, given that I’m not entirely convinced by them at the moment.

    But nothing I have heard so far convinces me that HQ really know how they’re going to keep the leadership election free from shenanigans.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Oct '18 - 5:05pm

    Adam

    I agree the supporters idea must be with a small fee, a reduced version of the membership, or free, but registred means with a supporter number allocation.

    I disagree about centrism, there is a place for Liberal and other radical thinking, that, if compared to the leftward or right extremes, is in the centre left or centre right and does appeal to Liberals, my mother is yearning for this party to be it, she votes for it but thinks it is not emerging and should, she is moderate on most things, radical sometimes, more liberal than me. There are so many who are, yes, progressive, too who yearn likewise.

    Why is the party now worse than ever! You must explain such demoralising commentary…

  • Adam Bernard 12th Oct '18 - 5:16pm

    David Warren: for what it’s worth, my preferred rules for leadership would be this:

    ‣ If any of our MPs want to stand as leader, we stick with the current rules.
    ‣ If none of our MPs want to stand, we widen the eligibility to: anyone who has ever been elected to senior public office* on a Lib Dem** manifesto. That pool is big enough and contains enough talent that we are very unlikely to need to look further.

    * ie: MP, MEP, MSP, Welsh or London AM, Police & Crime Commissioner, directly-elected Mayor — these are also the roles for which the party requires candidate approval.
    ** (or predecessor party)

  • I completely agree on every point.

    Change is certainly needed and some details in the proposals have value but, taken as a whole, they entirely miss the point; they don’t begin to address the reasons the party has underperformed ever since it was formed, or which made it ‘blow up’ in Coalition.

    The way it’s organised is supposed to be democratic, participative etc. but in practice it’s the opposite. Governance and policy-making are mainly done by an interlinked series of committees with, in reality, very little accountability and which are heavily metropolitan. No wonder so much of the ‘Celtic fringe’ support has evaporated. Moreover, they still include some of the people I knew when I commuted into London 30 years ago. (That’s not intended as a criticism of those individuals but only of the inbred organisation).

    The net effect of the committee structure is reminiscent of the former Soviet Politburo in that its structure creates a lowest common denominator approach to policy, deeply conservative (small ‘c’) by default and with a political cloth ear. Also, the party has never learned how to keep in touch with its members (formal consultations with leading questions are NOT the answer). So, even the most constructive criticism is brushed aside or simply ignored because, IMO, taking it on board would require too much bureaucratic reworking. This supertanker is not for turning.

    We badly need innovation – in policy (Liberal, NOT centrist), in presentation (addressing voter concerns), in organisation (becoming fit for purpose). In every sphere, innovation overwhelmingly comes from the margins, yet margins are precisely what the carefully controlled and centralised Lib Dem approach doesn’t allow.

    Contrast that with the Tories approach – it’s made them easily the most successful party of the last 100+ years. Their leading politicians normally toe the party line but have their own policy ideas and will adopt other when the ruling orthodoxy starts to fray. That means that when the old orthodoxy becomes unsustainable there is a fresh strand of Conservatism to take over. We should learn from that.

  • James Belchamber 12th Oct '18 - 6:14pm

    Organisations authenticate and validate people (to various degrees) all the time – all you’re pointing out is that no system is perfect. This is no reason not to do something.

    We could have a registered supporter’s scheme (with a low barrier of entry, or none) and still have a reasonably rigorous system for authenticating supporters when they want to vote on something. It would be reasonable, for example, to expect that if a supporter wishes to vote on who our next leader would be, that they’re also registered to vote.

    “One email one vote” is a cute phrase, but it’s reductive and misleading.

  • Phil Wainewright 12th Oct '18 - 7:03pm

    While I agree with the valid points about cargo-cultism and centrism, I feel this email question is something of a straw-man argument frankly, which confuses membership of the supporters scheme with eligibility to participate in the leadership vote.

    At the consultation meeting at conference the point was made from the rostrum that further checks could be incorporated to validate identity before issuing a ballot, such as verifying a credit card account or bank account. It also seems sensible to require supporters to be on an electoral register if they want to vote for the leader. If the party does end up deciding to open out the leadership election in this way, such checks are reasonable and actually perhaps the rumoured donor could put their £50k towards the cost of this rather than an unnecessary special conference!

    Such checks should not prevent us from casting the supporters’ net as wide as possible. Indeed one point I quite liked that was made from the floor was that the supporters’ scheme could be seen as ‘reverse entryism’ and members of other parties should be encouraged to join – why not use it as a way to engage liberal-minded Labour and Tory members?

    As for the notion of David Miliband or George Osborne throwing their hats in the ring, I say bring it on. Call me a dreamer if you must, but I relish the prospect of watching their authoritarian and entitled centrism getting skewered in the harsh light of public hustings by the radical, progressive vision of the many more worthy candidates who will also put themselves forward.

  • Thank you Adam for articulating my feelings on the matter. I too thought the online survey had some ridiculously leading questions and was designed to justify an already chosen outcome.

    I am very much against allowing supporters to vote in leadership elections (or candidate selection). I am torn on the issue of a registered supporters scheme generally – I think the party currently does a very poor job of involving actual members (beyond the regulation leaflet delivering) and I don’t see how an influx of even less committed supporters is going to help beyond providing an arbitrary number to brag about.

    I am also concerned (and I know HQ haven’t properly considered this cos I asked) that it will reduce party income. If you think about the 2 recent membership surges post-2015 GE and post-Brexit referendum, it seems obvious to me that if a registered supporters scheme had been available at the time then a significant percentage of those might have registered as a supporter for free rather than join as a paying member.

  • Neil Fawcett 12th Oct '18 - 8:15pm

    Thanks for your thoughts Adam.

    Very helpful.

  • Adam Bernard 12th Oct '18 - 9:35pm

    Phil: requiring people to be on the electoral roll and to verify their identity with a bank account would certainly solve some of the problems. But, as I say above, it would have the side effect of excluding people who are too young to vote (who are also likely to lack appropriate bank accounts and credit facilities!) or who are not eligible to vote because of being non-UK citizens.

  • Speaking as a computer science student, I have raised the points raised in the last section several times to people and have been dismissed that the party will be able to deal with it by people with little to know real tech knowledge.

    Further as a CompSci student, I know for a fact that my piers (and me if I wasn’t a LibDem) would absolutly love that sort of system to try and exploit just for the fun of it. Like it shows a unbelievable naivety about both tech minded people and also internet trolls. 4chan would have a field day flooding the supporters scheme with accounts and making them support absurd policies and ideas.

    It is simply unworkable.

    I support a supporters scheme incidentally, but in order for it to properly work and be as fool proof as possible, requiring supporters to pay at least a one off joining fee or a heavily reduced subscription (like say £1-3 a year) would limit the “barrier” of people getting involved because they don’t want to commit lots and don’t want to pay loads, while ensuring that every supporter has a bank account and is as real as reasonably possible.

  • If the supporters scheme is ultimately unsuccessful then the party can scrap it. If successful then great. Attempting to Widen the leadership election makes sense. Plaid C’s recent election only attracted 6k votes and the Greens only 9k. A pathetic participation level in my opinion!

  • I just paid over my membership fee for the year. I can’t say I’m a very active member at my advanced age. I don’t do much beyond delivering aa few leaflets and sitting outside polling stations taking numbers. I also live most of the year outside the UK and am not, therefore, entitled to vote in UK elections, so I’m not on the electoral register.
    It would seem, from the comments above that I would possibly end up with FEWER rights within the party than a “supporter” who had done nothing more than clicking in a box on an online form…
    I also really resent being railroaded into a move which has obviously already been agreed by the leadership. The “consultation” survey was full of very slanted questions, and I really have no confidence at all that contrary views will be heard or listened to.
    I’m not completely opposed to there being a supporters scheme (although I’d much rather see a serious push to increase real membership, perhaps with a reduced “introductory” membership fee) but I really feel that decision-making within the party ought to be restricted to those who have made a full commitment to the party…

  • Neil Sandison 13th Oct '18 - 11:52am

    Adam well thought through article that reflects many of both mine and my local party members concerns .Regardless of position selection of any candidate needs to be fair,open and transparent and should not be weighed in favour of those who are the most technically able to exploit the system .I would probable go further and insist any potential leader should be endorced by at least 1,000 signatures from paid up members and not just be restricted to MPs ad Peers .A stand alone supporters organisation able to be consulted on policy and campaigns is fine but at the end of the day decisions are made by one member one equal vote by the membership.

  • Christopher Curtis 13th Oct '18 - 1:41pm

    We live in a time where well-funded and well-organised entryism is a reality. It’s the cheapest way for rich people, and possibly foreign governments, to push their selfish agendas through ostensibly democratic means. It has become clear, for example, that there were genuine Russian agents organising events in America during the last Presidential campaign, to which genuine voters went, believing the organisers were American students. If people will go to those lengths, manufacturing several thousand false “supporters”, complete with superficially verifiable ID, would be a doddle.
    It’s probably true that we’re not currently powerful enough to be worth bothering with, but that could change very fast if the political arithmetic gives us any role in a balance of power, and we’re still a target for those pushing a general chaos and confusion agenda. I certainly would not put it past Aaron Banks to seek to encourage people to join as supporters to vote in a less Euro-positive and more economically liberal leader.
    The naivety of the proposals bothers me greatly. With good vetting, I’m happy to see a one-year qualification period waived. I’d certainly like to see us be very much better at communicating with members and supporters but creating a political “movement” is dangerous unless you can define what it stands for and hold people to it, and hold them to proper levels of integrity in running it too.

  • Like James Bliss, I have had my concerns about that particular issue handwaved away with an airy “Oh I’m sure it’ll be fine”

  • paul holmes 13th Oct '18 - 3:37pm

    Agree very much with the concerns you so eloquently detail Adam.

    The online ‘Boaty McBoat Face’ school of decision taking does not have good precedents.

    I also have strong doubts about the idea that there are ‘Messianic’ Saviour/Leaders out there who were just too busy doing other things until now, but would quite like to come and have their Andy Warhol like 10 minutes of prominence leading us to……..where? Such people would see us a vehicle for their short term purposes rather than having our long term interests at heart. Would such a Leader have the faintest clue how UK Politics works in reality? Just look at the abysmal 2016 Referendum campaign and the AV Referendum to see what happens when you go for non political personalities to run a political campaign. Or indeed the current ‘People’s Vote’ campaign as commented on in today’s Guardian by John Harris.

    Various commentators above have made the point that whoever controls things in Great George Street also controls the electronic database and the heavily skewed messages and ‘consultations’ that are sent out. None of this is new. At the height of New Labour, when members were leaving Labour in large numbers, Peter Mandelson proposed creating a new online digital membership managed by ‘clever’ people like himself in London, with the added bonus that it would circumvent all those tedious Constituency Parties and activists who didn’t agree with his pearls of wisdom.

  • Adam Bernard 13th Oct '18 - 5:07pm

    Jennie: I have likewise been “reassured”. It’ll all be OK, don’t worry your little head about it.

    Sometimes I wonder if we should just rename the party Libby McDemFace and be done with it. It’d get us “engagement”, after all.

  • Neil Sandison 14th Oct '18 - 1:05pm

    Adam Bernard You know Libby Mc Demface may assist us to bring some common sense into this debate a little well aimed scorn can go a long way.

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