Opinion: Making our party more democratic and participative

We Liberal Democrats pride ourselves on being the most democratic Party in the UK. We were the first (and so far the only) major party to have members electing the leaders in a one member, one vote, election.  Our Conference is not just a rally; it actually makes Party policy and key committees are elected by members, not appointed by the Leader.

But we are failing to make use of technology to deepen our members’ participation in the Party.

Firstly our main conference is still dependent on people travelling from around the country to stay for 5 days debating policy, but this disenfranchises many of those who would love to take part. The ever-increasing cost of travel and accommodation rules it out for many, even before the reduction in people’s incomes due to the economic crisis.  Then there are those who are carers, are ill or very severely disabled or for whom conference is at the wrong time. Teachers are frustrated by travelling to conference for just 2 days and those fighting local elections may not want to give up a whole weekend in March.

There is a straightforward way of resolving these problem of access to Conference – we  should be using Skype  and other internet technologies to allow those who can’t get to Conference to follow it online, to speak and perhaps even vote.

Secondly we could use technology to involve party members in decisions otherwise taken by Party Committees. Should we allow Conference delegates to choose at least some of the motions on the agenda, rather than leaving the decision to the Federal Conference Committee?

Finally we could involve many more members in Policy Working Parties. Although the Party is open about asking people to nominate themselves for these, who gets selected is deeply mysterious. While there is clearly a need for a strong core of experts in the field  under review there is no reason why many more members can’t comments on draft  document, listen to the discussions at the Working party meetings and review the evidence put forward, all of which should be straightforward with the use of technology.

The Party has already made some great steps – the webcasts that have been run for members recently have been excellent. But they have been essentially a more advanced way of pushing information out. The great gain will be if we can use the web to involve members in building a more democratic, participative and accessible party.

* Simon McGrath is a councillor in Wimbledon and a member of the board of Liberal Reform.

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  • Brenda Lana Smith R. af D. 3rd Oct '12 - 9:44am

    Why not save the horrendous expenditure of much needed party funds annually spent on conferences by quitting such and e-putting the whole shebang more democratically on an all-inclusive interactive online paid-up member participative e-facility…

  • Grace Goodlad 3rd Oct '12 - 10:12am

    I too agree – although I suspect there would be significant resistance from “the establishment” as not only would this enable current not attendees to vote (whether their reasons are physical, financial etc. etc. ), it would also mean that a proportion of current attendees would stay at home and e-participate. This would cause a few things – 1) loss of sponsorship – why sponsor an event when no-one is there ? Also why pay for an exhibition stand when no-one is there? These are major revenue sources for the party – as they are for the other parties. 2)Less people there = less people on tv cameras = us looking like no-one is participating…..

  • Simon Titley 3rd Oct '12 - 10:29am

    @Brenda – The conference is essentially self-financing (through income from registration fees, exhibitors, advertising, etc.) so does not incur net expenditure, “horrendous” or otherwise!

    @Everyone else – I broadly support these views and, with modern technology, there is much greater scope to involve more party members. However, there is a risk of seeing democratic policy-making purely in terms of the formal proceedings at conference. We also need to involve more people in the gestation of policy. Simon McGrath’s point about policy working groups is well-made, but there are also many informal opportunities. Local parties should augment their campaigning activities with more policy discussions (which many already do through ‘pizza and politics’ evenings, for example), and involve more members in developing and drafting motions or discussing policy papers. This sort of activity requires no technology or expense at all, and there’s no excuse for not doing it.

    Above all, we should remember that policy-making should be a deliberative process, not just a passive vote on ‘here’s one I made earlier’ motions. So we should not confine this discussion merely to voting procedures but consider participation in the context of the whole process of how policy is formulated.

  • Part of the fun of conference is about getting people together. What is really wrong is expecting people to trek to the most convenient seaside resort for our London centric management, – all credit to those who trecked from the North.
    After next Spring can we have a total ban on south coast resorts, especially as their hoteliers don’t have any idea about standards, but do know how to bung the prices up just for our week.
    I agree entirely, Simon, about involving members in policy discussion, the self selecting approach to drafting policy is dubious. Every fringe and every consultation session produces people from the audience who are expert in their field, every policy motion has wording flaws in it, such as the housing paper, that would have been put right if the draft had been shared with Members who work in the field. A simple audit of Members’ skills and occupations would show what a wealth of knowledge we have just waiting to be made use of… and wouldn’t that help the membership to feel included?
    Reps prioritising the motions was something I pursued a few years back. FCC said there wasn’t time in the schedule, so they had to do it (keeping control?), but now with full use of email it could be a ‘respond in 48hrs’ exercise.

  • Matthew Green 3rd Oct '12 - 10:49am

    Having worked in two policy groups I can testify to the fact that it is hard enough as it is even with that limited number of people. But the idea of throwing the discussion open online every so often – in place of the consulstation sessions at conference – is a very sound one. It’s one that current policy working groups could consider right now. It does, though, depend on having a strong core rapporteur/adviser capable of taking in all the comments and evaluating their implications, etc while ensuring the whole thing is reasonably coherent – difficult since the party can afford few paid staff.

  • Working in the industry can I say the technology is not quite ready for this… There are financial, political reasons (as Grace suggests) for not doing it too but the biggest issue is the technology… At work we have a system called BeThere that is used but not for voting – it could cope with the numbers viewing and we have a texting system that could be used for voting but they are not accurate enough and would (ATM) not really allow for clear democracy or two way participation…

    I have never fully understood why we have representatives rather than one member one vote… I can see pros and cons!

  • Stuart Smith 3rd Oct '12 - 11:54am

    For the Federal Party to become more democratic it needs to adopt one member one vote for all internal party elections. Forget the technology aspect, change the rules to be more democratic.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Oct '12 - 12:35pm

    George Potter

    It can’t be right for just 350 voting reps to make policy for a party of 45,000 people and anything which offers even a partial remedy to that should be jumped upon.

    OK, but can it be right for a small number of obsessive nerdy types who are happy to spend hours on-line in internet discussion groups (amongst whom I include myself) to make policy? This sort of thing reminds me of when I was a councillor and there were people (mainly of the obsessive nerdy type) who insisted all council decisions could be made by on-line referendums. How many people have actually ploughed through a typical council committee agenda (I mean in the days before Blair abolished the committee system, so that councillors had real decision making to do)? Many of the decisions to be made are mind-blowingly tedious, and I often found it hard to motivate myself to do the reading and contribute to the decision. So it seemed to me the ideas of thousands of borough residents wanting to do that every night instead of doing what they actually do in the evenings was rather far-fetched.

    To me one of the most surprising things about the internet is the way it doesn’t seem to have improved democracy. We need only look at Liberal Democrat Voice to see how it is dominated by the same few people, whose nerdish determination to keep pressing their own viewpoint (yes, as I said, I include myself) tends to drive out others. And it has managed to keep relatively sane and well-mannered compared to other internet discussion arenas I’ve been involved in (grudging thanks to the moderators).

    The problem of finding a decision making mechanism which is inclusive and representative, and yet does not deteriorate to the dictatorship of those who have time on their hands (I don’t, but e.g. I never watch television, which gives me a few hours each day other people don’t have) remains.

  • George not saying it is that far off! Gradually getting there but of course the industry likes people meeting in one place….

  • Simon Titley 3rd Oct '12 - 2:30pm

    @Simon McGrath – “I am standing in the election for FCC…” I trust that the timing of your opinion piece is entirely coincidental.

  • Brenda Lana Smith R. af D. 3rd Oct '12 - 6:09pm

    @Simon Titley
    Sorry, Simon I do not believe your sweeping under the mat statement that conferences do not incur net expenditure, “horrendous” or otherwise!

  • Brenda – see the party accounts. Conference income is around £1.5 million, conference expenditure around £800,000

  • Brenda Lana Smith R. af D. 3rd Oct '12 - 9:00pm

    Okay… I respectfully yield to Simon Titley and Hywel… and… as the Lib Dem party conferences appear to be so profitable… over and out of this e-debate!

  • Spring is loss making but I think the party would shoot anyone who tries to cancel spring!

    Conference also has huge targets to meet, that has been challenging in recent years!

  • Andrew Suffield 4th Oct '12 - 8:52am

    In fact, conference is one of the party’s major sources of campaign funds – and anybody who proposes changing it needs to be certain that their changes won’t cause that money to be lost, and hence the seats it funds.

    After next Spring can we have a total ban on south coast resorts

    Given that there’s less than ten sites in the whole country which are large enough to host an Autumn conference, eliminating two of them would be a bad idea. It’s supposed to move around the country so that everybody has a chance to attend – not just those who happen to live in the north where hotels are cheaper.

    As for changing the voting mechanisms – keep in mind that this is a fundamental constitutional change to the party, and as such will need a well-thought-out and specific proposal in the form of amendments to the federal party constitution and the standing orders.

  • Andy Boddington 4th Oct '12 - 9:37am

    As a new member hoping to stand in local elections next year, I feel a long way from the centre of Liberal Democrat policy making. That’s not a surprise but don’t miss the point that this is exactly what many voters feel about democracy. That’s why a lot of people don’t vote.
    There is a new democratic debate building online that does not take place in the ancient structures of conference halls and committees. It is largely apolitical and issue based. But it is real people making the comments on Twitter, Facebook and blogs galore. They are all potential voters.
    If the Lib Dems are to win seats in 2015, let alone in next year’s local elections, we need to harness social media and online technology to the fullest. If the creaking, cumbersome structure of political parties were still relevant to the majority of people, party membership would be in the millions.
    The Lib Dems can lead in integrating its communications and decision-making structures into social media or limp behind. It can help lead a political revolution or chase after it. Which is to be?

  • Grammar Police 7th Oct '12 - 1:57pm

    Is a possible compromise a much more open/deliberative/online Spring conference (especially if that is loss-making)?

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