Opinion: OMOV – think twice

The debate around the Liberal Democrats’ OMOV proposals have somewhat run aground. While its prime advocates have continued to advocate that OMOV is the panacea that cures all the Liberal Democrats’ ills, others point out the significant number of errors and omissions in the plans. Debate on social media generates more heat than light, and in this particular instance far too much name-calling.

There are three sets of issues, broadly, in the proposals as they currently stand. And while most people (including me) are in favour of some change, there are people opposed to OMOV at conferences and/or for federal committee elections.

1. Effects on Conference
The proponents of OMOV have claimed that fewer than 2% of members will vote at Conference. They are using some pretty strange statistics, as almost 2,000 members generally attend autumn Federal Conference and some two-thirds of those at Glasgow had voting rep status. The barriers to Conference participation remain, principally, time off and cost; Conference Committee trialled a local party accommodation scheme at York but there are limits to what can be done to make an event such as Conference affordable against other pressures.

However, there should be no reason in principle why all party members paying the registration fee shouldn’t be able to speak and vote. However, as Mark Pack and the Liberator blog have pointed out, it isn’t a zero-sum game and things need to be thought out rather better.

2. Accountability
The other side of the coin is OMOV for Party committees. (Interest declared as a member of two at the moment, and a third in the past). The FE, FCC and FPC all require a certain amount of dedication for their volunteer members to make meetings, and membership is highly skewed towards London as meetings of the former and latter are arranged around the Parliamentary timetable. But though elected members can come from all ranks of the Party at present given some profile, evidence suggests all-member elections are likely to favour ‘celebrity’ candidates such as ex-MPs and peers. Conference reps didn’t vote for Lembit Öpik to be on the Federal Executive. Would the same have been true in an all-member ballot?

Worse, as Mark and Nick Barlow point out, the current proposals do not extend democracy. Mark has rightly highlighted what I and others have said behind closed doors for some time: it is not democratic that blanket secrecy rules should prevent Party committee members taking to the party at large about what happens in key debates; and this needs change at least as urgently as the franchise. Nick goes further and suggests that there are a wider set of reforms out there to be addressed first. I tend to agree.

3. Coherence
The constitutional and Standing Order amendments are subject to an extensive range of amendments by the Federal Executive itself – an admission that it hasn’t got its ideas right. Because of the delays in publication of the agenda and the (entirely correct) extension of the deadline, those have not been published. Mere importantly, Conference will not have the chance to amend them. The debate will be very messy as a result.

So please think twice about what you are voting for, and what the consequences might be. At a time when the party needs to dig deep, radical changes to the constitution need to be thought through, transparent and a genuine attempt to ensure the Party is strengthened. The proposals before Conference on Saturday simply do not do that, and they need to be amended, rejected or referred back.

* Gareth Epps is a member of FPC and FCC, a member of the Fair Deal for your Local campaign coalition committee and is an active member of Britain’s largest consumer campaign, CAMRA. He claims to be marginally better at Aunt Sally than David Cameron, whom he stood against in Witney in 2001.

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22 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Oct '14 - 9:21am

    The most annoying thing about all this is that those who are normally into radicalism and breaking down power structures seem to be reluctant to apply these beliefs to themselves.

    I recognise problems with democracy and personally think people should have to pass an exam before they can vote, but I suppose OMOV is better than the status quo.

  • Robin McGhee 3rd Oct '14 - 9:23am

    Hope this isn’t an unproductive comment, but I don’t think any of these are actually meaningful arguments against OMOV. (Though of course he is right to point to potential problems with this particular motion.)

    There are lots of reasons to support OMOV, including: straightforwardly more democratic decision-making on major policy issues; more reason to become a member; more opportunities for engagement and activism by ordinary members; the possibility of making major policy decisions at any time of year and not just at conference; reduces advantage of older and wealthier members who are more likely to attend conference; the possibility of allowing membership ballots before major decisions are made by the party’s MPs, committees or leadership.

    I guess Gareth doesn’t have space to address these but his only real argument against seems to be OMOV supporters get their figures wrong about how many people attend conference.

  • William Jones 3rd Oct '14 - 9:43am

    I’ve heard similar spurious comments from others opposed to OMOV. That seem to be a rear guard action to muddy waters on this important reform that would allow every member attending conference whatever local party they come from to vote.

    The only downsides I can see are:

    1) More work will be rquired to gain support for a particular motion or amendment at conference.
    2) It may make party manager’s life more interesting.

    One big upside, I see is that more members may attend conference. One reason I am not attending conference this year is that I had been disenfranchised as federal delegate due to the current rules.

    Vote for OMOV!

  • @Eddie Sammon Was that a joke or are you seriously suggesting introducing something akin to the literacy test that African Americans were subjected to before the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
    http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/06/28/voting_rights_and_the_supreme_court_the_impossible_literacy_test_louisiana.html

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Oct '14 - 10:09am

    No Dave it wasn’t a joke. I would apply the test to everyone so not to discriminate. I wouldn’t recommend it until I seen what the rest of the public thought about it, but I think voters should have to know the basics on politics before they can vote on the government. It’s not one of my most passionate ideas, but others are making similar arguments by saying “people have to watch the debates” as reasons to prevent online voting. How else can we judge whether they are paying attention to the debate?

    It’s a side issue regardless, but we can’t just have climate change policy set by amateurs, so it shouldn’t be as controversial as it sounds.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Oct '14 - 10:12am

    I would even allow 14 year olds to vote if they could pass the test. It’s rational.

  • Callum Leslie 3rd Oct '14 - 10:24am

    Like Robin, I’m not entirely convinced these points are really arguments to vote against these proposals. Firstly I think you are strawmanning when you say that proponents think OMOV is the be all and end all of all our party’s problems…I also think seeking to judge who any electorate vote for as unworthy is a dangerous road to go down. OMOV will end the disenfranchisement of so many members, as the delegate system is just completely broken in practice. I’m far happier to end the delegate system and fix any problems to OMOV later, rather than reject these proposals and have them never see the light of day again.

  • This discussion has led me to think about how I arrived at the situation where I no longer go to Conference and in a strange way it sums up a lot of things that are or have been wrong with the way we organise ourselves. In general terms we think about about the structures and processes being important (which they are) but we forget about the human effect.

    My wife and I were abused and bullied by a fellow councillor on West Berkshire Council over a decade ago. As a result of that (and the inability of anyone to deal effectively with the problem) we decided to not stand for election again in 2003. In fact the bullying had ongoing effects on my wifes ability to do her job and for a while she lost all confidence in her public speaking abilities.

    As a result of that decision we decided to move away from the areas we represented in Newbury to another part of the district about 10 miles away.

    As a result of that decision we found ourselves just the wrong side of the border when the boundaries were changed and found ourselves in a Constituency with which we had and have no affinity. We are both members of Wokingham and I can honestly say that in the last 20 years or so the closest I have been to Wokingham is when driving down the M4. We challenged our forceable move between constituencies at the time (because we have no affinity with Wokingham) and were told we had no option although subsequently I have been informed that what we were told was wrong. Just be clear we have no issue with the party in Wokingham it is purely that our lives do not involve any connection with that area.

    The upshot of all that is we are no longer voting conference reps when we both used to go on a regular basis. For both of us this was a highlight of the year and as well as the policy debates we used to enjoy the fringe meetings and the social side as well. Indeed I would argue that attendacne at Conference can be a real morale boost for activisits. Anyway we no longer go and the party has one completely detached member and one semi engaged member who still tries to be involved in Newbury. Yes we could go as non voting reps but why would we do that? It is an expensive week if you go to Conference and anything that can be done to address this would be good but to have the expense and still have no say in party policy – no thank you. And why disengage the very people who you want to become engaged?

  • Peter Watson 3rd Oct '14 - 11:16am

    @Gareth Epps 3rd “Currently those most actively and constructively engaged in Party committees are barred by secrecy rules form communicating what they’ve done.”
    Is this really how a democratic party should be run or am I missing something?

  • Peter Watson 3rd Oct '14 - 11:19am

    Oops. I copied and pasted but accidentally left “3rd” from the date- not suggesting there are two other Gareth’s!

  • I’ve always thought that the delegate/representative system wasn’t democratic and needed to be changed back to an OMOV system, as was the case with the Liberal Assemblies (and, indeed, is again with the Scottish Liberal Democrats.) I actually don’t think it will increase the numbers attending dramatically, for the reasons noted above (I’m assuming that registration fees, which are one reason I don’t attend, won’t change) but what it will do is mean that members who are not – for whatever reason – engaged with their local party but wish to contribute will be able to do so.

  • Robin McGhee 3rd Oct '14 - 11:43am

    Interesting to hear everyone discussing OMOV only do so in the context of conference attendance. This is of course a perfectly reasonable position but given the party can ballot all members at practically no cost online, I don’t see a reason why people should have to attend conference to vote.

  • To me, Gareth’s points seem like the sort of minor issues you have just prior to having some solid legislation. There’s no death knell for OMOV here, just a few practicalities to sort out, much like Mark Pack’s post. If that’s the worst you’ve got to work out OMOV sounds like a foregone conclusion, so Gareth has given me the best hope yet that we will see these changes happen!

    I’d love to see internet voting, but we’ll see how well the voting reps take to losing their power and becoming equal to other party members. I suspect there will be quite a few people that are used to having a disproportionate say and would find it difficult to adjust to equality, this is often the case in civil rights movements. 😉

  • As had been said before it’s pretty clear these aren’t actually arguments against OMOV. More criticism of the exact proposals and a few suggestions for other changes but certainly nothing compelling against the idea of OMOV. It’s not so much a bad argument as it is not an argument…

    I personally struggle to see how a party can claim to be an internal democracy without OMOV to be honest. Also, policy votes should really not be left to Conference – not all members can attend and Conference is too infrequent and short to be adequate for true internal democracy.

  • Gareth – living in and being a member of a constituency where you have no affinity and hence are not involved and not likely ever to be so means that you are not going to be one of their elected representatives to Conference, hence you cannot be a voting rep and take part in votes on policy. Yes I could spend a lot of money to go and not vote!…but I won’t and I suspect a lot of others won’t either. My general thrust is about engaging with members and allowing them to engage rather than shutting them out.

  • David Allen 3rd Oct '14 - 3:29pm

    Peter Watson,

    ” “Currently those most actively and constructively engaged in Party committees are barred by secrecy rules form communicating what they’ve done.”
    Is this really how a democratic party should be run or am I missing something?”

    Well, my guess is that what you’re missing is the downside of allowing total openness. That would allow member X to innocently tell the whole world what member Y thinks is a secret weapon to beat the opposition. It would allow member Z to provide a misleading account of who said or did what to whom, and allow member A to create an unholy stinking public row in response.

    That said – Why not produce official Minutes, publicly available, with the occasional top-secret tactical stuff left out, and the content checked before issue by the committee members to avoid mistakes?

  • Simon Banks 4th Oct '14 - 9:24am

    Ian Donaldson’s comments are interesting. It’s welcome to see a practical suggestion about how attendance at conference might be increased, instead of the unsupported claim that abolishing the link between local parties and voting rights at conference would somehow increase participation to a meaningful extent, despite the fact that local parties currently are entitled to far more reps than they can use, given cost, time and distance. I find it depressing that the argument about voting rights has focused on what I believe can be only a very small number of people who could afford to attend conference but can’t get elected by a local party (or have such contempt for local party activists that they can’t be bothered), and not on the very large number who can’t afford to attend conference but would like to influence policy. Since local party reps’ details are available to such people and the reps have to report at the AGM, there is currently a limited route for influence by such people that the party leadership wants to cut.

    There are two separate arguments here that have been bundled together, for convenience or tactical advantage. The argument about OMOV for the election of party committees is entirely separate from the argument about changing the basis of voting rights at conference. OMOV for party committees is a good idea if candidates have to supply statements, the secrecy rules on policy discussions are abolished and the attendance record of candidates standing for re-election has to be given to members voting.

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