Opinion: Secrecy, federal committees and a lack of democracy

meetingNearly all the debates about Liberal Democrat federal committees and democracy hinge on who the electorate for committee elections should be – conference reps or all party members?

However these debates miss a big problem, which is simply that the electorate, whoever it is, knows very little about the performance of incumbents. Democracy isn’t just about the right people having the vote, it’s about them being able to cast their votes in a meaningful way.

If you don’t know what people have done, it is hard to hold them to account.

Currently there is a strong culture of secrecy over what happens at federal committee meetings. A degree of confidentiality is certainly helpful when it comes to, for example, the Federal Policy Committee discussing how well a proposed policy might stand up to attacks from other parties. Yet the secrecy goes much wider and by default.

Take, for example, the highly controversial initial decision by the Federal Executive to discourage Liberal Democrat candidates in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections (subsequently mostly rescinded) which followed a vote on the FE.

But how FE members voted was, and still is, a secret.

If you know the right people to ask you can work out how some of the FE members voted, but even then I don’t think anyone outside the magic circle has managed to put together a full voting list. Even if they have, that isn’t really the point – most of the electorate at the next FE elections won’t know.

A similar point applies to the most controversial Federal Conference Committee decision during its current term of office, namely over security checks for party conference, even if in the FCC’s case more members of the committee have been public about their views. And that is hardly enough; think how you would feel if the votes on MPs’ expenses rules in the Commons were all secret and someone told you, “Don’t worry; some MPs have spoke out in public on their views so you don’t need to know anything more”.

Most recently, the limitations of this secrecy are illustrated by the excellent initiative by two Federal Executive members, Caron Lindsay and Daisy Cooper, to live tweet an FE meeting.

This is a good advance on what has happened before, yet even careful reading of all the tweets won’t really help inform any voter as to which individual FE members may be deserving or not deserving of re-election based on what they get up to in FE meetings (save that if you like any attempt at transparency, then Caron and Daisy’s efforts would count in their favour).

Even with their efforts (which I hope they continue, for they have other valuable benefits), we still have too much secrecy.


* Mark Pack is Party President and Co-leader of the party. He is editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • agreed with the thrust of this: what concrete proposals are there to actually do something about it?

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Nov '13 - 4:26pm

    I agree Mark. It would be great for someone to push forward internal democracy and transparency, I just don’t feel that the party believes in it, besides much of the grass roots.

  • Peter Andrews 12th Nov '13 - 4:33pm

    Summary minutes should be released at a minimum, e.g. what was decided and who voted which way in any votes, even if full discussions remain private.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Nov '13 - 4:38pm

    To be realistic I would say that internal democracy can only be fully realised with more authoritarian control over who is and who isn’t a member, otherwise we’ll get people without broadly Lib Dem values, or even members of other parties, voting on party policy.

  • Well said Mark.

    The existing system just isn’t working at any level. I happen to believe that a good dose of liberalism (as I traditionally understood it) is what the country needs yet in over two decades the party hasn’t sufficiently got its act together to make a case that appeals beyond a small minority – and half of those were until recently really voting for ‘none-of-the-above’. Why would we want to continue with a dysfunctional organisation?

    Of course there is the considerable pride in the party’s internal democracy but, as you say, this doesn’t exist when people can’t vote in a meaningful way. Live tweeting or not, with or without online minutes and voting records, how many people are sufficiently anal to follow the twists and turns of Lib Dem committees? Very few that aren’t personally involved I guess. And you are right; much of this stuff must be kept confidential in any case.

    So, what I would like to see is a complete make-over to put more emphasis on leadership – including especially with respect to policy – so that ambitious and rising stars would stake out positions that might be at some variance to the status quo and then let the membership choose between their competing views. We must never again get into the situation we had with the Clegg/Huhne contest where, on the surface, there were almost no policy differences – both had to pretend to hold the official positions even though it soon transpired it wasn’t so. (Please note: I am not trying to rerun the contest here – only to say that it was an improper position to put the candidates in, one that didn’t promote adequate internal debate and that therefore did the Party lasting harm). Real internal democracy would flow from having a choice not just of individual but of direction for the party. The quid pro quo should, of course, be that a leader stays in post only so long as he correctly reads the zeitgeist of the membership and is quickly dumped if/when he looses it.

  • Jennie: That’s a very good and fair question 🙂

    Normally I don’t like saying ‘here’s a problem’ without also saying ‘here’s a solution’ but I thought this time the piece would work better at trying to persuade more people that there is a problem that needs fixing.

    I t hink step 1 in the solutions is making sure that the promised reports to be published after each of the FE, FPC and FCC meetings do happen, regularly. Then to make sure that they’re of good quality (not just “The committee met and discussed various issues”).

    Other ideas very welcome of course…!

  • Norman Fraser 13th Nov '13 - 11:48am

    We have a similar situation on the Scottish Executive where requests for distribution of the minutes have been met by a blanket refusal on grounds of confidentiality. The net result is that local parties are not involved in the discussion of issues and any actions taken are done in a top-down fashion with minimum notice. Again, because no-one knows who is doing what, individual committee members cannot be held to account when the time for re-election rolls round.

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