Opinion: About those low Conference voting figures…

When 444 votes were cast in the 50p top tax rate debate and 413 in the nuclear power vote, some comments were made about these appearing to be low figures compared to past conferences.
However the rush to judgement on them were flawed for three reasons.
First, there were rather more votes cast in the Trident debate (550 – thanks to the get out the vote operation by the party leadership not misfiring that time.)
Second, attendance at federal conferences is always lower in Scotland than when it is in southern England, reflecting the relative travel distances for the bulk of the party’s membership. Comparing Scottish to English figures is liable to mislead.
Third, that is not just a theoretical risk, for we have had federal conferences in Scotland before, and the vote totals this time round compare well to what they were back then.
For example, the Autumn 1995 conference was in Glasgow, and checking through my notes I can only find one counted vote held then. It saw 477 votes cast in a very high profile debate about the party’s attitude to the National Lottery. Those with long memories may recall it is the debate in which Charles Anglin used a great phrase to attack those who wanted to oppose the lottery, warning that the party would be adopting a ‘heat seeking boomerang’ in opposing a popular idea.
You will note, by the way, that the Trident debate’s 550 is higher than the 477 from 1995. Evidence can be inconvenient at times…
By the way, in checking through the paperwork for this, I discovered I’m in part responsible for those written reports from the Parliamentary Parties we have at each conference. It was a constitutional amendment at Glasgow 1995 which introduced them, moved by Kiron Reid and summated by myself. That is one change which has stood the test of time well.

* Mark Pack is a member of the Federal Board and editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire. He is a candidate for Party President.

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34 Comments

  • Harry Hayfield 19th Sep '13 - 9:22am

    There is a very simple way around this. Allow people who are conference voting reps to vote online whilst watching the conference on BBC Parliament (which is now I have been keeping tabs of the conference this year, and admittedly every year since I got the channel in 2002). After all we pride ourselves on being a tech savvy party. Now, the question is, how do I raise this point with the party in order for it to happen (Can someone point me in Julian’s general direction)?

  • What Harry said

  • I agree with Caracatus and to some extent with Harry. I’ve been watching it on BBC Parliament while having a new boiler installed at home. – or rather keeping an eye on it. It does seem a pity that the outcome depends on who can afford to go and, if working, can get the time off.

  • martin hogan 19th Sep '13 - 11:38am

    As Trident can’t be used without US approval, what is the point of having it? it isn’t the UK deterrent, it’s the US deterrent. On top of that, the majority of the nuclear work is now French and US, so UK jobs are not really an issue. Costs – I have worked in defence and the whole set up has no cost control to speak of, no way of monitoring it, let alone controlling it

  • Peter Watson 19th Sep '13 - 12:30pm

    @Mark “attendance at federal conferences is always lower in Scotland than when it is in southern England, reflecting the relative travel distances for the bulk of the party’s membership.”
    This gives the impression that it would be possible for party policy to be manipulated in favour of those who choose the venue (e.g. hold it in Aberdeen to avoid an embarrassing defeat before a general election or to push through a contentious policy). Does the party have procedures to prevent this? (e.g. choose venue so far in advance that nobody could predict what issues would be contentious, venue chosen independently of leadership, policies to rotate venue, etc.).

  • Don’t matter how many votes. Just look at Tuition Fees, the NHS and the Secret Court fiasco, they just do it the Tory way anyway. Some party of Democracy.

  • Harry Hayfield 19th Sep '13 - 7:30pm

    I am so glad that my response to this post has been taken in the right way (compared with my last post which seems to have turned into an agrument about the ins and outs of the Fixed Term Parliament Act). I am hoping to attend the Welsh regional conference near Newtown in November (lifts permitting that is) and am wondering whether or not I should get the ball rolling by suggesting to my local party that we put forward the idea of online voting for conference resolutions. If so, do we have to go through a certain procedure

  • Paul Griffiths 19th Sep '13 - 9:13pm

    Genuine question: Does anyone know of a political party (of a size like ours or above) that decides its policy by online voting? Or even postal voting for that matter?

  • From time to time people say can members vote online at conference. Also there are some that say can all members vote online. Conference raises money for the party and if you can vote online why bother spending the money to get there and pay for accommodation? Also if there was voting online there would be a delay in knowing the results of votes and judging the vote will be more difficult. I think that Conference should be made up of representatives but I wouldn’t mind changing the constitution so there is one representative per 10 members. However if people want to vote they have to turn up. Maybe some of the profit from conference could be used to get discounts on accommodation for representatives from Local Parties but not the other groups in article 6.1.

    You could propose a business motion instructing conference committee to look at the issues involved. There is also the Democratic Reform Group, a Working Group of the Federal Executive which is examining the democratic processes of the party so maybe you could instruct them to look at it.

  • Andrew Suffield 19th Sep '13 - 11:22pm

    Allow people who are conference voting reps to vote online whilst watching the conference on BBC Parliament (which is now I have been keeping tabs of the conference this year, and admittedly every year since I got the channel in 2002). After all we pride ourselves on being a tech savvy party. Now, the question is, how do I raise this point with the party in order for it to happen (Can someone point me in Julian’s general direction)?

    This idea is often raised by people and well-known to everybody involved in the matter. There are practical, technical, and constitutional difficulties with making it happen, and that’s before we even start asking whether it’s really a good idea.

    It gets shot down at the first hurdle because we cannot create or obtain a reasonably secure online voting system. There are lots of reasons for this. It’s not quite technically impossible but it’s far beyond the party’s ability to accomplish and I’m aware of no organisations accomplishing it without being composed entirely of software engineers.

  • Richard Dean 20th Sep '13 - 12:53am

    The first hurdle is easy. Indeed, the entire system would probably cost less than £50k, and you’d get the money back the first time it was used, through the online ads. The real problem is getting past the people who’ve already decided they don’t want it.

  • Ron Tindall 20th Sep '13 - 8:04am

    Cost should not be a factor, My fare from Hemel Hempstead to Glasgow was £14.50, and the hotel costs roughly the same as elsewhere. My best guess is pressure of work.

  • If voting could be online, then one member one vote would be possible without any need for “reps”. Any mechanism that stands in the way of 100% representation reduces democracy, so at some point conference (already quite an archaic and selective model) will need to adapt.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Sep '13 - 9:37am

    As I said on the other thread, people should not resist an idea because it isn’t 100% secure. I don’t think anything in life is 100% secure. Liberals of all people should understand the benefit of freedom and democracy over security.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Sep '13 - 9:40am

    People could have resisted democracy years ago saying “but how do we know there won’t be fraud at the polling station”. I have been surprised to find such entrenched conservative attitudes ingrained into the party’s psyche.

  • Andrew Colman 20th Sep '13 - 10:48am

    I am a conference rep for a constituency in SW England. I considered going to Glasgow and would have liked to have gone but decided not to when I realised it was going to cost c £500, £150 for travel, £200 for accommodation and £150 for the conference fee. I could not book early because of work commitments but this would have only saved me about £100.

    I think online voting would be a great idea which could bring many more members into the voting process. Perhaps in order to minimise security risks, mini conferences could be held at various locations with an IT link to the conference hall, perhaps one per constituency.. Reps could register at the location and cast votes online .

  • Michael Parsons 20th Sep '13 - 12:02pm

    I suggest this reveals yet again how the expression of the Will of the People is stiffled by our wretched political parties, all of which have a tiny memberships compared to charities and Civil Society organisations; yet are influencing nominations, promoting place-men, and bank-rollng elections for their various sponsors. The system needs replacing by radical democratic procedures. Dwarfed by popular movements and charities, these parties seem now hell-bent on strengthening their monopoly even further by outlawing civil-society and voluntary-group expenditures, so preventing the expression of more truly popular policies out of their control which might offer an alternative choice for the voting public. No wonder – with their outrageous claims to represent us through their petty membership and their backing from out-of-sight donations from the UK oligarchy – this “democracy of the parties” and fake “repesentational politics” is increasingly shunned.

  • There were actually many more people entitled to vote who didn’t, because they were in training sessions, networking or other events which ran parallel to the conference. I’m not necessarily arguing for reducing any of these but perhaps it is worth thinking about?

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Sep '13 - 7:07pm

    The first hurdle is easy. Indeed, the entire system would probably cost less than £50k, and you’d get the money back the first time it was used, through the online ads.

    Sorry, I’m a professional in this field and your numbers are wildly off. The cost would be between ten and a hundred times that amount, and ad revenue is about a tenth of that amount. And that is assuming the party has the institutional ability to deliver such a system at all, which (as an engineering professional who has worked with the party before) I can assure you it does not.

    As I said on the other thread, people should not resist an idea because it isn’t 100% secure. I don’t think anything in life is 100% secure.

    How about if it is 100% insecure, and every single vote is crooked? Should you resist it then?

    If voting could be online, then one member one vote would be possible without any need for “reps”. Any mechanism that stands in the way of 100% representation reduces democracy, so at some point conference (already quite an archaic and selective model) will need to adapt.

    We have voting reps for very specific reasons; they are not a bow to practical limitations but rather a deliberate choice to create certain effects in how the party is run. I’m not going to delve into this topic at length here, but any proposal to change this will have to engage with those reasons and come up with some good answers – they can’t just be ignored in pursuit of “democracy”.

    Notably, your proposal will ensure a party of London, for London, and run by London. Distribution of members is not geographically smooth and the current system is explicitly designed to ensure that the south east of the country does not dominate decision making.

    Online or electronic voting, or vote-counting, in national elections is near-impossible to do well because of the conflicting requirements of secrecy and verifiability. However, Lib Dem conference votes aren’t secret, so this should be easier.

    Sadly, once you deal with the fact that we can’t make it online-only because of the need for all members to have access, it becomes quite a tricky and subtle problem (the main exploit path is the people who never voted). I think I could probably design one, but it couldn’t be built for any amount of money that the party can plausibly spend, and it could never be delivered by our party structures.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Sep '13 - 7:31pm

    Andrew, you are right – our disagreement is about relative security, not absolute security versus absolute insecurity.

  • Richard Dean 20th Sep '13 - 7:46pm

    What a load of rubbish, Andrew.

    Isn’t it amazing how every argument in support of entrenched privilege has the same ring to it – “the change is impossible, here is one reason why, and anyway there are agreements in place which would have to be changed, and actually there’s lots of other reasons which I won’t go into here because you’re thick to understand”.

    I’m a professional too, and I’d certainly accept a contract to do it for £100k. Timescale one year. All the LibDems have to do is provide a sensible spec. I can help with that too, of course.

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Sep '13 - 11:32am

    I’m a professional too, and I’d certainly accept a contract to do it for £100k. Timescale one year. All the LibDems have to do is provide a sensible spec. I can help with that too, of course.

    And the reason we can’t deliver it is in no small part because somebody at HQ would believe an offer like that without understanding how to scrutinise it, and we’d end up with something that doesn’t really work. The party can’t handle on-spec contracts, only OTS purchases that can be evaluated ahead of time.

  • Interesting. A quick Google brings up a commercial system advertised at $10,000 a year for an unlimited number of online ballots, which makes me wonder about the assertion that the cost could run into millions.

  • Richard Dean 21st Sep '13 - 2:47pm

    @Gareth Epps.
    Would that comment be what you might call “cogent argument”?

    @Andrew Suffield
    So now your argument is that you are incompetent, ergo it can’t be done?

    God help the LibDems, if that’s possible in a secular context. Alternatively, I could add in a course – only 10k more – on how to develop a spec and scrutinize a proposal, and how to check that the final deliverable meets the spec.

  • daft ha'p'orth 21st Sep '13 - 6:00pm

    @Chris
    The cost and complexity of building a voting system varies with the accuracy that you are prepared to accept.

    If you want to be sure that nobody is stuffing your ballot box or thieving other peoples’ votes or whichever, then it will not be a £50-£100k problem. If you don’t really care, if your application is such that for example the result is “advisory” or “broadly indicative”, then you can use a system that you are aware has known fragilities and it will not do any particular harm if somebody exploits that. The majority of voting mechanisms online are used for such purposes and although they are exploitable to a greater or lesser extent, the fact that the majority of online polls are (frankly) dead boring and nobody really cares enough to stuff ’em means that the results vaguely approximate accuracy in a lot of cases.

    If on the other hand you really, really care, in the sense that you are seriously going to use these results to decide who governs the country, who loses their jobs and who gets millions of quid in governmental subsidies, then you had better be a little bit more cautious than that. Because in this instance there would be significant motivation to identify and use system exploits, your risk assessment looks entirely different. It is clear that people will be seeking to find and use exploits in whatever system you have designed and so you need to find a solution that cannot easily be exploited. How sure can you be that the voter is who they claim to be? Is there risk of coercion? Multiple votes? Can auth tokens be guessed or generated (do they follow a predictable pattern?) or insecurely transmitted (e.g. by email, which is a big no-no since email is unencrypted?) What about man-in-the-middle attacks?

    So it’s all down to how you assess those risks and how you define your requirements. Doing it right, as Andrew Suffield says, is difficult and expensive, but building or procuring some half-assed email-based online poll is cheap and if the application is unimportant then good enough is good enough. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Personally, I suspect that LD conf votes don’t have a great deal of impact and would take the view that one might as well reflect that in the choice of platform, but then, I am a cynic (although I am also idealist enough to hope that LD members view the thing more positively).

  • “Personally, I suspect that LD conf votes don’t have a great deal of impact and would take the view that one might as well reflect that in the choice of platform, but then, I am a cynic (although I am also idealist enough to hope that LD members view the thing more positively).”

    I’m pleased that you said that, because I was getting ready to ask you which category you thought they fell into!

    Anyhow, the point of my comment was just to provide an actual figure from the real world for comparison. I thought it might be a useful addition to the arm-waving and numbers plucked out of thin air.

  • daft ha'p'orth 22nd Sep '13 - 3:33pm

    @Chris
    For various reasons, not least the fact that I’m not a member, I avoided giving an opinion on that one.

    Personally I would be tempted to look for alternatives to a web-based poll for the majority of cases, keeping that sort of approach as an accessible fallback. That’s mostly because of a personal opinion that web polls don’t necessarily get a considered response alongside an observation that many/most LD members don’t actively engage with the existing web presence. 42,501 members reported in end 2012; 1,500 members are registered with LD Voice; 700 members responded to the latest survey – a perfectly reasonable number for a survey but a small sample in terms of voting participation. Using LDVoice to host votes would presumably exchange one LD subdemographic (‘people with the money, time and inclination to meet up in Glasgow’) for another (‘people with the time, technical skills and inclination to spend time on social websites’). Anyway, choosing a technical mechanism is probably not the place where I would start on this one, because you’re not really looking for clickthrough stats so much as active participation. I like the idea that members could meet/vote at local meetings, so that they could also participate and exchange opinions, perhaps with a backchannel to the central event, but don’t know how many people would attend.

    @Caracatus
    With sample sizes this small it wouldn’t take many fake votes to dramatically skew the results. The 50p tax rate debate ended in “Lib Dems reject 50p top-rate of tax by just 4 votes, 224 to 220”.

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