Opinion: Issues for the promised party governance review

Before the election we were promised a review of how the party operates, and if the Federal Executive is doing its job properly then we should be hearing at some point in June how each of us can contribute to that process.  Here is a little bit of my input as to where we can go from here.

Firstly we need to commission the development of a registered voting system for the Conference app that can be used for all internal elections.  The BBC and ITV have managed to develop such apps for voting in their competitions and shows and registering the vote to an individual shouldn’t be that difficult.

Secondly, all committees should be elected on the basis of one member one vote.  The idea that vested interests such as parliamentarians, councillors or specified organisations can have places reserved at the top tables in a party that prides itself on every member having the same say is nonsense.  Our elected representatives should be answerable to the party that secured their election, not stacking its committees to make it answerable to them.

Third, we should stop booking expensive central venues for Conference and move instead to the cinema network.  Votes could be taken nationally by employing the voting extension to the conference.  We could also commission development of a text extension that allows members to submit questions to the committee chairs, MP’s and other heads of organisation.  With careful planning could even be made available for use at AO, SAO, Regional and Local Party events by registering a vote question to be sent to the members eligible to vote.

Fourth, all members of the party should be able to access part A minutes of all committees pertaining to them at all levels of the party. This could easily be facilitated through the members only section of the Website or again through the phone app,  (the app is already set up to receive documents so this would just be an extension of an existing feature.

Finally we need to establish our own IRC server network so that we can hold remote meetings with automatic minute taking and the capacity to share documents and files and references during the meeting.  This is old technology, but well worth developing and there are plenty of interfaces already existing that could be integrated into the app.  

This Party used to lead on ideas and technology, lets start doing so again.

* Chair of Manchester Gorton Liberal Democrats, a member of the NW Regional Executive and the English Council and Vice President of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats

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14 Comments

  • John Roffey 27th May '15 - 9:57am

    I don’t know if all of your suggestions are possible [simple ignorance] – but there is no doubt in my mind that the Party needs to be run in a far more democratic manner with the full membership being allowed to vote on all key issues.

    The Party would not be in the mess it is today had such a system been in place over the last five years – the full membership base would have been in much closer touch with the mood in the country than the leadership in its Westminster bubble – so many mistakes could have been avoided.

    A number of commentators have suggested that the UK has become a ‘Banana Republic’ because of the laxity in the rules governing postal voting. Given the devised restrictions placed on the membership being included in the decision making process – the liberal DEMOCRATS must qualify as a Banana Political Party.

  • Neale Upstone 27th May ’15 – 9:40am

    “However, are you really suggesting we abandon the idea of meeting in person? That’s the last thing our party needs, and as a geek, I’m very clear of just how abysmal technology is as a replacement for being there.”

    I do agree that it is important for members to meet together to discuss issues – but this can be done at a fairly local level whilst the vote on proposals can be made either electronically or by post.

    This would ensure that the bulk of the members where behind the policies the Party was promoting.

  • I agree with John Roffey but for different reasons. The full membership should vote on policy. The armchair members are better plugged in to what’s going on than conference voting reps.

    By all means have a conference but restrict it to a networking event.

  • Stephen Donnelly 27th May '15 - 8:39pm

    Whilst no doubt some of the detail is debatable, your direction of travel is spot on. We need to move away from a party that can be manipulated by the time rich, to a movement that is accessible to all liberals.

  • @Stephen donnelly spot on

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 27th May '15 - 10:56pm

    @ TCO and Stephen Donnelly,

    The armchair members are better plugged in to what’s going on than conference voting reps? Really? And why would that be? Yes, by all means challenge the idea that a political party needs a physical conference, but your argument does have to be better than that.

    The Autumn Conference has, traditionally, been a fundraiser for the Party – corporate stands, diplomats, media all pay to be present. Frankly though, the cost to delegates in travel, registration and accommodation is high (or can be) and acts to make Conference, and thus policy making, less inclusive and reflective of the membership than it might be.

    I am also sceptical about the fact that politics is manipulated by the time rich. It is, I suggest, dominated by those able, or willing, to make the time to participate – not quite the same thing. Many people don’t have scope to dedicate time to political activity, and there are others who, despite the pressures upon them, make time by sacrificing other things. I have a full-time job far from politics, I have a home to manage, a social life and a family one too. I make time for some political activity because it matters to me.

  • What Nick Barlow said.

    Also: regarding the app you refer to; if that’s the conference app I won’t have it on my phone. It won’t install on android without you giving it permission to spy on everything you do and send data (including making phone calls) on your behalf. Sod that.

  • We do need to approach the issues as radicals, not just tweaking and tampering. But this assumes all members have internet access and are at ease with apps and so on. There have to be alternatives. I do, though, welcome the idea of developing internat access for decisions much more, if it can be made safe, because Conference is only open to those with a lot of time and money to commit plus people who live close to the venue. The move from local party reps to “OMOV” actually makes this situation worse because now anyone who can afford it can vote without responsibility to a group of members who couldn’t afford to attend. So broadening the basis of votes is welcome.

    However, I find the attack on representation for groups like councillors on party committees unpleasantly populist. Different groups have representation because they have something distinctive to say from their experience. Specialist groups that have their own meetings can usefully bring forward points that have been well-discussed with expertise. Then any proposals of substance go anyway to the Conference and all members (who can attend) to vote on.

    There are many other issues we should be looking at. Local party constitutions are restricted to a national template with slow and difficult provision for getting slight variations approved that meet local need. This came in at the merger because SDP bigwigs feared member power. A Liberal and devolutionist party should review this. The party runs consultations with its members for the most part badly: it should enshrine the standards in the “National Compact”, which other voluntary and statutory organisations work to. We probably have too many committees and the role of the English Party is a mystery.

  • It would be necessary to change the rules about who can be voted to committees if both one member, one vote and no “reserved places” (except for the state parties) were introduced. With a committee that has 19 directly elected members (plus 2 from each state party, the President and Party Leader) we could state that no more than two can be MPs, no more than two can be peers, no more than two can be ex-MPs, only 1 can be a member of the Welsh Assembly, only 1 can be a member of the Scottish Parliament and no more than four can be Councillors, and AT LEAST 7 have to be members not in the above groups. This would ensure than normally at least 10 members (37%) would be ordinary members and only 13 members (48%) would be Parliamentarians and ex-Parliamentarians, if the President and Vice President (from the states) were all in these groups.

    Stopping holding Federal conference at one venue would not stop only those who could afford the time from attending. If each local party where there is a cinema held a virtual conference there would still be the issue of how speakers are called from say 600 venues and their speeches are views in the 600 locations. This would involve a huge cost and we would lose the conference revenue. There is really no way that five days of conference can be seen by the whole membership, only those who can make the time will be able to watch conference. If a person will not give up three or four days of their holiday to come to the Federal conference it is unlikely that will do it either to watch it at home or a more local venue.

    The reason representative democracy replaced direct democracy was the acknowledgement that those making the decisions had to commit their time to the process and not everyone can commit the amount of time necessary.

    If we wished to help people attend conference we could reduce the fees to those on benefit to nothing, and give discounts to those with low earnings, and so reduce the amount of money Federal Conferences provides for the general running of the party.

    Publishing minutes from Committees is a must, but how we hold the members of the committees to account needs to be addressed. Would it possible to all committee members to attend all regional conferences and for them to be questioned individually at these conferences and minutes sent out to those attending the Federal conference and time given so individual members can be no confidenced and by-elections held for their positions? Would it be better to hold a one day conference that just discussed the decisions of the Committees and no confidenced those people whose voting record was sufficiently bad that the conference wanted them replaced?

    However one issue that hasn’t been addressed is having a process where Parliamentarians are no confidenced on their voting record if they voted against party policy unless they had stated during the policy making process they couldn’t support it. With new Parliamentarians they would need to publish all the areas of party policy they would vote against when standing for selection.

  • What Nick Barlow said.

    The central organisation is not fit for purpose and never has been since the party was founded; it needs a root and branch makeover. Top changes for me would be:

    Firstly, to limit ALL committees to a maximum of 12 people. Larger ones never work well in any context; they just provide too many cosy sinecures for well-connected timeservers and tend to be highly conservative. And they NEVER make policy or innovate adequately. Those are exactly the qualities we don’t want.

    Secondly, to abolish the Federal Policy Committee and make MPs responsible for leading on policy. Obviously they would have to do that with a keen ear for what the membership wanted which in turn would mean they would have to practice their policy-selling skills – which would be invaluable come election time. It would also mean that, instead of having an ‘agreed’ policy on any given subject (as developed by a policy working group and then voted for by Conference), policy would become far more organic, flexible and responsive to circumstances. The quid pro quo for MPs is that if they went materially off piste without taking the membership with them they could expect to languish on the back benches.

    Thirdly, and following on from the above, leadership elections would become genuine political contests between rival views rather than a beauty pageant between two candidate both pretending to share almost exactly the same ‘agreed’ outlook as with the Clegg/Huhne contest. It also follows that we would also have to allow MPs to dethrone the leader if circumstances merited in their judgement. That’s never an easy decision for personal as well as political reasons but the party is about advancing the cause of liberalism and not about providing a secure career for any one individual although for some weird reason that often seems to be how it works in the left-leaning parties. Leaders rarely know when they are past their sell-by date and a major reason the Tories are so much more successful is because they handle the necessary defenestrations so much better.

    Finally, it would be good if members had more and better involvement in policy-making. At present the theory says they do; the practice is that their input is minimal. The existing approach was developed in the pre-Internet age and is ripe for disruptive change and improvement. But, as I say above, the committee-driven management structure is too innately conservative – the party should have innovated in this area long ago. It’s a veritable dinosaur.

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