Opinion: One member, one vote: What’s not to like?

As many members will be aware, votes on policy, and for members of the committees who run the party are in the hands of the conference representatives elected by local parties.  In other words, your ability to vote depends on your contacts back home. There were good reasons for this once but in this day and age it is time to take a fresh look which is why the Internal Democratic Reform Group of the Federal Executive wants to hear your views.

At present the only all member votes are for the Party Leader and the Party President, and we hope also for members of the Interim Peers Panel when this motion comes before conference.

With at least two thirds of the party now joining on line we need to be sure that they are engaged at all levels of the party.  They join because they want to get involved in Liberal Democracy and yet in areas with a weak local party, or indeed where the same people are always elected as conference reps their opportunities to participate in policy making are very limited.

Use of the internet makes it much easier to keep costs down for expensive internal party elections although of course the traditional postal vote is still needed too. At Conference where we vote on our policies it would be much more meaningful if every member who attends conference were able to vote rather than just those with that magic pass. The strong traditions of our party have been well looked after by members who attend each year, perhaps because they have the time, but we must do more to involve newer members and to draw on the strong life experiences which they bring.

It is a fact that conference is expensive, in terms of money, annual leave and time away from home and other responsibilities. In the long term we need to consider how this could be addressed in a cost effective manner to meet the needs of all members. There is also the issue that some people can only come for the weekend or indeed might only want to come for a specific policy debate and whether changes could be made by the Federal Conference Committee to the way we charge for passes.

Conference Representatives will have received our consultation paper and other members can find it here.

We are holding a consultation at York on Saturday at 13.00 in the Conference Centre.  I hope as many people as possible will be able to come along and contribute but I would also appreciate written comments from party members to r[email protected]. There is also a survey on the website that you can complete.

* Sue Doughty chairs the FE Working Group on Democratic Reform. She was formerly the MP for Guildford

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  • Jenny Barnes 3rd Mar '14 - 9:00am

    Why not let all members vote on conference resolutions? You can watch the debate on TV, and vote afterwards… Some people can’t afford the £££s to attend. Or the time,

  • Simon McGrath 3rd Mar '14 - 9:22am

    What’s realy odd is that the FE submitted a motion calling for OMOV for the interim peers election – could have been done at the same time as the Presidential election. But the FCC very oddly chose not to take it.

  • Yes Simon I’d like to see the minutes of the FCC decision on why the OMOV for interim peers motion was not taken. Perhaps one of the members of the Federal Policy Committee that likes to comment a lot on both OMOV and LDV threads could give us some idea of the logic behind that decision?

    But relevant to Sue’s initial point, I think it’s a great move that would enhance the member experience no end. A very progressive and democratic move – as Sue says, what’s not to like?

  • ** apologies in my earlier post, I meant Federal Conference Committee rather than FPC

  • Jenny Barnes’ question is reasonable. I have no objection in principle to some sort of on-line democracy within the party. However, the practicalities need to be thought through clearly.
    Jenny’s comment that you can watch the debate on TV is not strictly true.
    I have not been to a conference since 2008 but have attempted to follow on TV. Unfortunately the BBC Parliament Channel does not give straight coverage of debates. One might be watching an interesting and absorbing debate but at the crucial moment the BBC might decide that it is far more important to cut to an Andrew Neil nterview with some party big wig to go over some inconsequential Westminster chit chat. If you are lucky they might cut back to the debate before the vote, or they might not. The BBC is not a neutral body when it transmits parts of the conference; the usual BBC tendency to trivialise and patronise is seldom completely absent. Watching the Conference via the BBC is ike looking through a dirty, distorted glass.

    Many debates are only intelligible if you have a copy of the Daily Announcements sheet showing the updated resolution, with different line numbering from that published in the agenda. Not easy if you are watching the debate on the TV.

    These are just a couple of examples of how the TV experience of conference differs dramatically from being there. Voting on-line would be a bit difficult if these sort of things are not sorted first.

    I would also ask people to consider what the conference is for. It is more than a mere conference. In the Liberal Party before 1989 we went to the Annual Assembly. The words are important. The gathering together was a most important element. Confering is part of it. Debating and voting on resolutions is part of it. But there is much, much more. There is no software or TV experience which is a decent substitute for being there.

  • Sue Doughty 3rd Mar '14 - 10:11am

    Thanks for the comments so far.

    Jenny, we are going to be looking at the possibility of remote voting too. This would be a massive change in project and cost terms and something which has an impact on conference itself so any experience other organisations have of this would be really useful. This side of the general election given the tight resources of the party, both financial and human, would not the the right time to take this on but we do continue to be concerned about those who can’t attend conference.

    Do get in touch with any ideas on this .

  • John Tilley’s point about not having the Daily Announcement Sheet is very relevant, and not one I had thought of before, can arrangements be made straight away for this to be accessed via the website ?

  • Neil Monnery 3rd Mar '14 - 10:53am

    The watching the debate and remote voting issue is one that can really take the party forward alongside OMOV. There are practicalities to overcome but I see very little issue in getting the debates streamed online and then people can log in using their membership details into a secure site/section of libdems.org.uk to vote. It isn’t that straightforward I know but in all honesty it isn’t that much more complicated. I am now a voting member but in previous year I wasn’t and struggled to muster up the desire to get to certain debates etc. seeing the act as pointless.

  • Nick Barlow 3rd Mar '14 - 11:07am

    “If you have the election, but none of the rest of the machinery of democracy – open decision making and an open debate of the issues behind that election – than you have more of a beauty contest than a democracy.”

    For once, I’m in full agreement with Joe Otten – democracy’s more than just giving everyone a vote, it’s all the structures that go around it. If open elections just lead to those candidates with the most name recognition getting elected, then I’m not sure you can say that’s necessarily improved party democracy, just because more people have voted.

    And two points on Conference – if anyone who turns up can vote, isn’t that making it even more that those with the money and time to attend get heard while others don’t? (And those who live closest to the conference venue get a great advantage) But also, if there’s online voting open to all, how do you ensure that’s not just determined by people who’ve not watched the debate or even read the policy, but have just been encouraged/whipped to log on and vote in a certain way?

  • My suggestion for this is that we should restructure conference membership.

    First, there would be a one-year supporting membership of conference, which lasts a calendar year and entitles you to vote on-line on conference votes if a suitable electronic system can be established. It would also give a mailing list that conference Daily Announcements, etc. could be made available to (ie, email them a link when the paperwork is online so they don’t have to search the website and find that it hasn’t been put up yet). I’d expect this to be somewhere in the region of £20, £5 for claimants.

    Any member of the party could take a supporting membership of conference.

    These people would also be the “conference reps” that sign motions, and would be the electorate for federal committee elections – which would go a long way to keeping the costs of those elections manageable.

    Secondly there would be attending memberships for each actual conference, which entitle you to actually come to the event. You’d have to be a supporting member to do so (though you could pay for both in one go, of course). Only attending members would have to undergo any security vetting that FCC might feel to be appropriate.

    This would also abolish the whole electing conference reps business, which has guaranteed that areas where the party is very weak (ie fewer than 30 members per constituency) go completely unrepresented at conference.

    I think that the fear that large numbers of local members could be “bussed in” to vote without being elected reps would be addressed by requiring people to take out full memberships to vote.

  • What about one vote for every year of continuous membership?

  • Richard Shaw 3rd Mar '14 - 1:11pm

    The consultation paper mentions demographic bias in the make-up of elected conference reps (i.e. older, white men) and in the make-up of various party committees, but does not mention geographic bias. By which I mean bias towards London and the wider South East. Of course, this reflects the distribution of the membership but it does mean that some party regions may go unrepresented. I suggest that rather than having a national OMOV, that each party region gets a committee seat allocation proportional to their share of the national membership (to a minimum of 1 seat per committee) and that each region conducts its own OMOV election to determine a list of reps for that area. In other words, we copy our model for European Elections. I believe this approach could also be used for electing members of a reformed Interim Peers Panel to eliminate undue regional bias in appointments.

  • Richard Gadsden has the germ of an interesting, workable and democratic idea in having to have a “membership” to be able to vote online. I am absolutely sure there will be mass campaigning and lobbying and “whipping in” of the remote voters, encouraging people to vote a certain way , whether or not they have been watching it. On the other hand I’ve noticed the “men in suits” coming in at the last minute to vote at conference too.
    I think Richard Shaw’s idea is good too. Bringing in a regional element into Federal Elections and Interim Peers is a good one, and should redress the huge imbalance there is. When was there last anyone from the NE elected to a Federal Committee ? Whilst we have excellent Peers in Diana Maddock and John Shipley, Diana was one before she came to the NE, and that is it. the same could be said for other regions too, but apart from the exceptionally good fortune recently of spring conferences in Gateshead and York, is us usually too far and too expensive for many people to travel.

  • Sue Doughty 3rd Mar '14 - 3:17pm

    Gareth. The reason FE is involved is to look at democracy. Not every member comes to conference, and of course therefore is denied a vote. Of those who come to conference only elected representatives have a vote so the issue is wider than just conference. We have of course been in touch with the Chair of the FCC to both let them know that this is happening and also to ensure that we fully involve them and get as much thinking as possible. I know that you and others have been aware of this possibility since last Autumn. In fairness FE did not directly propose the abolition or curtailment of Spring Conference but we felt that just as every other area of cost in the party much be justified this was also subject to review. The feedback we got via the consultations was hugely helpful in our decision to continue to support and subsidise this. FCC does a great job in organising conferences for the party to enable as much participation as possible. We would of course be mad if we didn’t involve them in this review.

  • Sue Doughty 3rd Mar '14 - 3:28pm

    Re regional representation – lots of food for thought here. One issue which might be raised by members (and we take no view on this at present) is that with FCC doing as much as possible to ensure that we don’t always stick with one part of the country there is likely to be a geographic bias according to conference venue. For example Brighton is likely to receive far fewer Northern or Scottish visitors than say Liverpool or Manchester.

    We also looked at this for the Interim Peers work (the motion is included for information in the FE section of Reports to Conference). In the end we recognised that the Leader has done much more in his term to look outside London to under represented areas and that because of the greater use of expertise as well as regional basis the next elections to the list will contain clear information about regional links. We submitted the motion about the Interim Peers nominations to the FCC after they had asked us to review the current situation but they rejected this for this conference due to time constraints for debate. Hopefully this will come back next Autumn.

  • Tony Greaves 3rd Mar '14 - 5:13pm

    How interesting that at a time when the party is on the verge of electoral collapse, some top people appear to be wanting to stuff all the main party committees with “well known national names” – which is what would happen with OMOV for all committee places. (I am not making a personal complaint because I suppose I might just get elected under such a system).

    There would also be meaningless elections in some cases in which most voters had never heard of most of the candidates and had no time or interest in finding out about them (and the stuff that candidates would be allowed to say to people about themselves would no doubt be limited to the traditional “one side of A5”).

    Result: end of any real participative democracy in the party, and rule by the powers be that be. There is already a major democratic deficit in this party and all this stuff would just make it far far worse – and all in the name of “democracy” by people who do not appear to understand the principles of participative representative liberal democracy!

    Anyway – if you want the leadership to be able to stuff all the committees in the party, this is a way to do it!

    Tony Greaves

  • Tony Greaves 3rd Mar '14 - 5:15pm

    It would also result inevitably in the formation of much more clearly defined factions in the party whose purpose was to campaign throughout the year to get their people elected to these bodies. (cf the Labour arty over the years) If this is what you want, so be it. But it might not end up being a Liberal party.


  • Sue Doughty 3rd Mar '14 - 6:05pm

    Tony, the person who asked us to look into this was Tim Farron who is the last person who would want to stuff the committees with well known national names. To be honest many well known names already know just how much hard work is done by these committees and might feel that they can’t afford to do the job properly.

    I would not have agreed to chair this group if such an agenda existed as my reason for seeking election to FE was to ensure that our party is run well on behalf of our members. To me it seems entirely reasonable that we ask our members what they think about this and so although I personally would like to see OMOV, as Chair of the group I also want to make sure that this consultation is fair and open. I don’t personally feel I represent any faction,only our members.

  • Sue Doughty 3rd Mar '14 - 6:07pm

    Sorry, I should have read through the above. I missed out ‘the time’ and so my comment should read can’t afford the time to do the job properly.

  • A lot different strands here:

    The easiest one though is the conference reps issue, If someone can be bothered to take the time off work, arrange childcare and head up to the conference venue they should most definitely be able to vote. This would actually be simpler and cheaper than the situation we have now (a perfect example of this is the fact the membership team at HQ are working til 9 every night sorting out who’s a conference rep, as many passes have been sent out accidentally as non-voting, including all the ones for my local party reps).

    I know a lot of people are concerned this means only those who can afford to go can vote, but you can do it quite cheaply. The most excellent ‘conference on shoestring’ Facebook group has some great ideas https://www.facebook.com/groups/520779404669231/

    On broadcasting the conference, as long as the venue has decent internet bandwidth, a high quality HD webcam pointing at the speaker, with audio from the PA system which is then streamed over the internet using something like http://www.ustream.tv would be more than adequate for most of the conference, particularly the fringe events. We’ve used this setup at work many times with good results.

  • Peter Chivall 4th Mar '14 - 9:35am

    That some change in the balance of direct vs. indirect election to Party committees is worth looking at and also the use of online voting, but there is a real danger of over-centralisation in the results of OMOV for all Party elections. There is also a philosophical argument if this is extended to policy debates. Why not be consistent and seek the abolition of Parliament in favour of online referenda. Hanging? Vote it through online. Withdrawal from EU? Vote it through online.
    There is also a danger for the Party in encouraging an ‘armchair’ membership that never delivers leaflets or knocks on doors. Activists may be a nuisance to denizens of the Westminster village who want everyone instantly to support every notion of their adolescent ‘advisatura’, but they are the only mechanism for keeping the Party’s feet on the ground.
    Also voting after watching a debate online, if it is to be in real time, will still exclude those like me who for 30 year only attended Autumn Conference twice, because as a teacher in a State school it would be impossible for me to get time off in September.

  • Sue Doughty 4th Mar '14 - 10:06am

    Gareth The title is a challenge, not a statement of anything else. I look forward to discussing this with FCC in a constructive way, and comment like this give concern. We have known each other for many years, and I hope that you by now understand that this consultation is genuine with all members at all levels having the right to put forward views. With so many people now joining on line we need to look at how we engage all of them.

  • Sue Doughty 4th Mar '14 - 10:14am

    The cost of conference attendance is worrying and I’m sure that should we move to abolishing the idea of conference reps the party and in particular the FCC would also want to consider the possibility of weekend or day voting passes.

    Cadres is an interesting point as is the whole idea of whether national face recognition is an asset if you are standing for election to a committee. Currently I am quite convinced that if you a well known member of one of the party committees, conference reps will vote for you anyway under the present system and one might argue that this works against those members who do not go to conference. In practice I would hope that all members of key committees attend conference anyway as it would be hard to do the job well without participating at conference. On policy, I’m quite sure that cadres exist under the present system with well organised votes on both sides seen in recent years in health debates and also defence.

  • Gareth Wilson 4th Mar ’14 – 9:32am. Makes extremely good point when he says — “. . . If someone can be bothered to take the time off work, arrange childcare and head up to the conference venue they should most definitely be able to vote.”

    When it comes to being a PPC or membership of the House of Lords the top of the party does not disbar those with spare time and a wad of cash. Why are they so restrictive about voting reps at Conference?

  • Phil Rimmer 4th Mar '14 - 12:06pm

    Quite frankly friends, speaking as an ordinary party member, discussing one person one vote for internal committees just now, sounds to me like the band playing on must have sounded to the soon to be dead on the Titanic. A pleasant noise signifying nothing.

  • Sue Doughty 4th Mar '14 - 6:18pm

    That is why we are consulting Gareth – we want to hear from everyone on this as the really useful comments will give us a much greater insight. Our members views matter to us and we want to see Lib Dem members feeling that their views matter which is why this is a very open discussion.

  • Simon Banks 4th Mar '14 - 8:16pm

    Well, I just lost a whole comment because the system had decided for once to demand my details and I couldn’t go back and retain what I’ve written.

    There are good arguments for and against the suggested changes, and they need careful consideration.

    Involving more people through the internet is a very good idea, but for conference votes they’d need to have access to the entire text of the debate. At Glasgow I changed my intended vote on the nuclear power issue (from yes with safeguards to no new nuclear) because of the debate and in particular one powerful argument from one speaker. Anything less than the full text and I might have missed that – and if people get less than the full text, either the media or the Party will have a huge opportunity to unfairly influence votes.

    On all members who attend conference voting, Nick Barlow has a very good point. In addition, it would undermine the responsibility of voting reps to the whole local party membership. At present local party constitutions state that reps should report to the AGM, and of course they’re elected by the AGM. Other members attending and voting would have no such responsibility and it would undermine the worth of the report from the elected reps.

    One of the most dangerous aspects of Thatcherism, in my opinion, was the attempt to crush intermediary bodies such as trade unions, local councils and even university governing bodies, radically weakening civil society in favour of a simple model of elected central government interacting with individual consumers (sorry, voters). No democracy can survive that way.

  • Well said Tim

  • Tony Greaves 6th Mar '14 - 4:50pm

    Democracy is more than a simple majoritarian vote on the basis of little or no information.

    Tony Greaves

  • Tim Oliver —
    Your assertion that -“…It is harder to rig 10,000 electors than 100. ” does not really stand up to examination.
    Within the UK trade union movement there was once a long tradition of rigging tens of thousands of votes. In my youth the factions within the electricians union (both right and left) turned rigging tens of thousands of votes into an art-form. I think the Electoral Reform Society once published a paper on how much more difficult it is to rig a vote when there is a small electorrate. Parish council elections are often far more democratic that larger scale exercises in democracy. In a small electorate in which many of the voters know each other’s views it can be obvious when there has been any serious stuffing of the ballot box. Rigging is not so obvious in large scale more anonymous votes.

    Saddam Hussein used to hold elections in Iraq on an OMOV basis. Membership of the Baath Party was VERY INCLUSIVE. If you did not vote you were in trouble. Tens of thousands of votes were cast. Was it more democratic?

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