Opinion: Should all-member ballots replace conference on policy votes?

Laptop and mobileThe Liberal Democrat conference’s decision to support the use of One Member, One Vote (OMOV) in federal conference decisions is to be welcomed. It means any member who attends conference can vote on conference decisions, not just leading figures and those elected by their local parties to be conference representatives. While this is all very good news, we can go a lot further.

Instead of conference making policy decisions, it is a logical next step to give all members the power to make policy regardless of whether they attend conference. We can do this by conducting all-member online ballots.

The most obvious benefit of this is it would enormously increase participation in decision-making in what is already, by miles, the most democratic of the four biggest UK parties. It seems fairly obvious ordinary members should have a say on the policies their party proposes, without having to fork out hundreds of pounds to attend conference. Older and wealthier members are more likely to attend conference because they have more time and money, meaning policy-making is less representative. Letting all members have their say would eliminate these problems.

All-member ballots would mean members feel far more engaged with the party’s processes. It would be an exciting opportunity for new members if we told them they could make the policy of a governing party simply by voting in an online poll. At present conference can seem remote and detached for many members: the simple fact is, although *technically* OMOV at conference is equal to all-member balloting, the latter would attract turnouts of tens of thousands for decisions rather than the few hundred we see for most conference measures. For most members, in other words, this means they can actually exercise the rights to make policy they theoretically have as Liberal Democrat members.

An additional, and in my view particularly important, advantage of all-member ballots is members could be balloted on issues as they are brought up rather than waiting months to make a decision. There are numerous examples where this would have benefited the party throughout its recent history. It would create a constant lively debate in the party on policy issues, which would only help with membership engagement. It would also mean accurate polls could be conducted of party members to ensure the leadership and MPs knew how members thought before important Parliamentary votes.

These proposals undoubtedly have wide-ranging implications. They would decisively reduce the importance of conference, with many negative consequences for conference-goers. It would mean ordinary members would be making decisions on issues they might know little about, particularly as they would be less likely to attend debates. There are also plenty of practical questions: for example, how to cover the cost of sending ballots to those who are computer illiterate, or whether to let newly joined-up members vote immediately and risk an influx of people joining to deliberately sabotage policy. However, in the context of such a major change to the constitution, issues like these will always arise, and we should not let them get in the way of arguments for a radical and thoroughly liberal expansion of party democracy.

 

 

 

* Robin McGhee is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Kensington.

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60 Comments

  • Cara Jenkinson 20th Oct '14 - 4:05pm

    Robin – I would agree. We should indeed have all member e-ballots. It may be that some of these would be reserved for conference so that members can see a full debate (which they could watch online) before voting. I’m standing for Federal Conference Committee on this platform – see http://www.facebook.com/CaraJenkinsonforFCC

  • At last!

  • Yes – in fact I’m standing for Federal Executive on this platform – as it’s Federal Executive who will need to put the constitutional changes together https://www.facebook.com/LouiseAnkersforFE

    At the moment tho online voting isn’t part of the proposals, but it’s a good step to open OMOV up to all members going to conference, and also make sure that the Federal Policy Committee, Federal Conference Committee and Federal Executive are able to be voted for by ordinary members, rather than conference reps as at present.

  • How does this work in practice where there is a motion with (say) 3 amendments and a separate vote on lines 5-9?

    I might vote for amendments one and two and dependent on whether they pass vote for or against the final motion.

  • Yep 1 member 1 vote how are we all in it together otherwise???

  • Tony Greaves 20th Oct '14 - 5:28pm

    This idea is based on the primacy of referendums, for this is what it would be. It is very different from representative democracy based on deliberative decision-making. In essence it’s the rule of the uninformed mob.

    It has long been recognised by Liberals that referendums are a means by which those in power can manipulate the democratic process and entrench their power (assuming they are competent, which does no apply to everyone who proposed to have a referendum!) For this reason we have only accepted them for major constitutional decisions, and not always for those.

    If you want to hand all power in this party over to the leadership, this is the way to do it.

    Tony

  • Conor McGovern 20th Oct '14 - 6:21pm

    Sounds great, at the very least in theory.

  • Jenny Barnes 20th Oct '14 - 6:47pm

    For me the point of conference is that one can speak on the motions and amendments, if selected, and a good representation do get selected, including me, from time to time. How would members not at conference be able to speak? Or do we do the whole thing through the members only LDV forum?

  • Green Voter 20th Oct '14 - 8:05pm

    Has anyone done work on a system which could have stopped the secret courts policy?
    Unless a system meets that standard, I would suggest it deserves more thought

  • To quote Toby Ziegler, “Green Voter’s point is not entirely without merit”. If the leadership just ignore votes they don’t like why will people bother?

    Caractacus – have you got a link to the ERS doing this. There 2014 motions document seems devoid of amendments
    http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/images/dynamicImages/file/AGM%202014%20AGENDA%20BOOKLET.pdf
    (and do they have a full member ballot on motions – that they have a system of proxies suggests not)

  • David Evans 20th Oct '14 - 9:18pm

    Tony’s comment has the most merit – It will put much more power into the hands of the already powerful. If we really want that as Liberals, we have a lot still to learn.

    Until those in favour can come up with a real counter argument to this, as opposed to the optimistic, “I don’t believe it will happen”, I suggest they concentrate on helping a deserving MP who is most in danger of losing his/her seat because of the incompetence of the current leadership and get out canvassing.

  • George Potter’s idea seems reasonable; if you combined it with a proviso that members could only vote if they attended local conference events at which video was livestreamed (thus assuring that they had viewed at least some of conference) it would answer some of the concerns mentioned above about members being uninformed, security, and handing power to the centre, while at the same time increasing the number of participants and increasing accessibility. In other words, a middle ground.

  • I think having policy that is in the interests of the membership at large as opposed to just those who have been active in their local party for years will help us gain back some relevence – Our conference discussions do have a horrible habit of being horribly self-referential and isolated from the real world. It may well mean that conference is unable to give whatever leader a “bloody nose” as we seem to feel the need to do once every couple of years or so, but who cares?

    Implementing a system of online voting will not be easy, but I don’t really think there is valid argument to say that we don’t want our membership driving greater decision making given that it is now possible to do so if we would like to. It would also be quite nice to be on the forefront of political trends again for a change, rather than being the grumpy old luddites in the corner complaining about how electricity and telephones are some fad which will soon pass.

  • “Just have people register at the start of each day of conference to be sent a link to the livestream of the conference hall and to be emailed ballot papers throughout the day for each motion”

    I’m sure my employer will be only to happy to have me watching the conference livestream all day.

  • Tony Greaves and George Potter both want a democratic structure for members of the party.
    Neither of them want the situation we have had in recent years when the party is dominated by either a small faction round an aloof and unrepresentative leadership
    Neither of them wamt a party where policy making has been sold off to the hugest bidder from the world of obbyists and corporate interests.

    Liberal Democrats ever since the two former parties were merged have repeatedly patted themselves on the back for being much more democraticn than the other parties. If nothing else that was setting the bar very low.

    There has been a growing gap between the myth of a democratic party and the reality of a party, and a party conference , that are dominated by a very small group in league with lobbyists, rich individuals and large corporations.

    The influence of groups such as the IEA or Nuclear Industry lobbyists on a Liberal Democrat Conference are not exactly hidden. Yet these groups under the present free market leadership have enormous power. At the Glasgow conference this year the flexing of the muscles of the airport industry resulted in the leader himself desperately trying to undermine long established policy and what remains of any green credentials the party might have left. The same was true in 2013 with the sleight of hand manipulation of the conference to produce a policy on nuclear power which was based on “no subsidies”, but in reality provided a stepping stone to an enormous subsidy of billions of pounds over a thirty year period.

    Party members have to avoid making themselves look ike bald men fighting over the conference comb.

    However democratic the voting process at conference is we have to beware of the dark forces of groups such as the IEA. Their objectives are not Liberal Democrat objectives, their ways of working are to democratic.

    The entire party constitution needs overhaul to make the party anything like a democratic organisation that can withstand “corruption” by corporate interest or rich individuals.

    BTW – George Potter’s criticism of Tony Greaves being in the House of Lords is a bit unfair: Tony was elected by party members in the first ever election to a list of people to be put in the Lords by the leader. He is not one of those Lords who appeared on the Liberal Democrat benches with virtually no previous connection to the party beyond the darker corners of the accounts of the Party Treasurer. Now that there are more than one hundred Liberal Democrat Lords and the prospect of fewer than three dozen MPs, we could end up next June with more Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians who have bought their seat than Liberal Democrats who have been elected.

  • Robin McGhee 21st Oct '14 - 7:21am

    Thanks everyone for the comments and I’m glad to see they’re mostly positive (I was actually expecting lots of negative ones).

    As a general point, nobody has actually explained why these proposals would give more power to the leadership than the leadership has now, though this claim is widely made.

    Some responses:

    Cara and Louise: terrific to hear you’re standing on that platform. Apologies for not mentioning it, I haven’t looked at committee election candidates yet.

    Hywel: I think it would be fine, actually. You could just have multiple options or if really necessary just have multiple votes. It’s unwieldy already and you’re never going to get round that. Whatever the case you need substantive motions on policy, that wouldn’t change.

    Tony: I find your comment effectively stating ordinary members of the party are an “uninformed mob” very offensive. I also fail to see how a meeting of a few hundred people twice a year is a better check on the leadership than tens of thousands of members voting throughout the year on motions and policies which could be brought in response to the leadership’s actions, which is what my suggestions would allow. So long as the power to suggest motions lies with a body outside the leadership- like it basically does now- this really is not an issue. Anyway, George has already examined your views at length so I won’t go further. My final point (which George has also made) is that your own votes at conference are not actually an example of representative democracy, because you are a peer of the realm and are therefore a voting representative for life even though nobody elected you to be a voting representative. Do you vote?

    Jenny and George: lots of ways debates could be organised: online, locally, even nationally if there was demand. But I don’t support this idea of making people vote only after debates- why should they take a day off work to watch a whole, often largely ceremonial, debate and then vote? Even now conference reps don’t always watch debates. Give people the chance to see debates of course, send them a link, but centring everything on a livestream is just impractical.

    Green Voter: secret courts is exactly the sort of issue which a membership ballot would help prevent. A decisive majority against shortly before the Parliamentary vote would have helped influence our MPs. This sort of direct response is impossible in the current system.

    Iain: ?

    John: agreed.

  • @George Potter, I won’t produce a mass of text which bypasses your basic point and seeks to submerge it in a lot of verbiage, but simply ask one question. When you say “there are lots of members who might not be very tech savvy and not prepared to travel to the other end of the country for conference but who would happily chip in a tenner to go to a local event in a village hall or someone’s home to watch and vote in the debates as well as meet up with other Lib Dems,”

    What evidence do you have to support this?

  • I welcome this debate. One reason why I opposed the proposal to remove the requirement for voting conference reps to be elected by local parties was that it was not OMOV at all: it ignored the interests of members who would like to influence policy but couldn’t afford the time or money to attend a long conference in a distant place, and by severing the link with local parties, removed the right of all members to receive a report on conference from the elected reps and question and lobby them. So actually reaching out to those members unable to attend conference is welcome.

    But as Robin says in his thoughtful post, there would be problems. Conference power means that nearly everyone who votes on issues has heard the arguments well thrashed out. Personally I object to people rushing in to vote shortly before the vote is taken, but they are a minority. Anyone who’s attended a good conference debate such as the one in autumn 2013 on nuclear power will know how searching and enlightening such debates can be. All the arguments can be made available on-line, but how many people who voted would have read them, especially if anyone could post? There is also the danger of votes being managed to create a Bonapartist rather than participative democracy with the mass of membership being asked from time to time to endorse the leadership line.

    All worth much more debate. And there’s one more point. The internet opens up marvellous opportunities for people to link irrespective of geography, but so many important things must still be done based on locality – the choice of PPCs, of council candidates, the development of policy on local council matters, local campaigns on local issues, face to face debates and socials. As we develop the internet links, how to avoid our local geographical democracy shrivelling? Sorry, shrivelling further.

  • Robin McGhee 21st Oct '14 - 10:41am

    Quite a few comments, here and on Facebook, about debates. I actually think debates would be better if held outside conference because they wouldn’t have the same time constraints. If they were organised well and hosted somewhere convenient, people could take time off if they wanted to come and speak in them precisely as they do now, and then we could have them streamed.

    Geoffrey: with all-member ballots a vote on secret courts could be taken immediately before the parliamentary vote, which would be better at nudging our MPs to vote the right way. Conference votes prevent this happening.

  • peter tyzack 21st Oct '14 - 11:22am

    there’s a way to go before this, or OMOV,can be resolved. First, if we see a future in members voting on-line, or in improving connection with members via electronic means, then we need a far better register of members’ on-line contacts. Having barely 50% of members with an email address registered at HQ means that it is only the ‘switched on’ who will have a vote.. so until at least two thirds are connected to HQ we really can’t glibly rely on members voting(or merely keeping them informed) on line.
    Perhaps another way worth looking at would be to have the debates and decisions at Conference, which is then subject to ratification by a vote of the membership, ie to either approve, reject outright, or refer back for further work.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Oct '14 - 11:42am

    One of the reasons why I don’t find “rule by referendum” or its equivalent attractive is that it leaves me in a position of fear that if I am not constantly involved I will find out that I am being ruled by a few obsessives who are. People who get obsessive over certain issues are not necessarily representative of general opinion on those issues. In a similar way, discussion groups which are not moderated tend very soon to get taken over by trolls who drive everyone else out. In practice naive “open democracy” often does tend to deteriorate into rule by those who have the time and obsession not to get bored with constant involvement. A mechanism is needed to get over this problem.

    Tony Greaves is talking from experience, so please do not dismiss him, and do at least think of mechanisms which would overcome the concerns he is expressing. Supposedly “open democratic” systems have often been used by political elites to enforce what they want and close down debate on the grounds “The people have spoken, how dare you go against them?”. That’s a reason why I raise the AV referendum again and again, because I think it is a good example of where people were conned by the powerful into voting against something that if they understood it better they would very much be in favour of.

    See too how calls for referendums in this country always seem to be on issues where the political right think they will win. For example, how come we have this constant call for a referendum on the EU, but no call for a referendum on the semi-privatisation of the NHS, or the abolition of voting powers for local councillors that the Blair government pushed through with its compulsory “cabinet” system, or much else that has actually just as big an impact on daily life as EU membership? The EU is raised as a referendum issue and other issues are not because there are powerful right-wing voices who want an EU exit. for their own reasons: they want to turn the UK into an oligarchy run by global fat cats and don’t like the way the international co-operation of the EU acts as a brake on that.

  • Thesis:

    An election campaign is like a war. It requires strategy (deciding what messages to push), tactics (how to get them across to the electorate), deployment of resources, etc etc.

    You can’t win a war by balloting the entire army on strategy.

    Therefore, the more internally democratic a party is, the less good it swill be at winning elections.

    What is a party for? Is it for giving its members a chance to play at student politics, or it is for winning elections?

  • Chris Holman 21st Oct '14 - 1:00pm

    I am not sure about this idea.
    Although it is good to open the decision process to as many as possible, this suggestion was discussed at the York Spring Conf and the view was expressed that a member’s vote cast without hearing the arguments for & against the policy might have been different if they had heard them.

  • Julian Tisi 21st Oct '14 - 1:19pm

    One advantage of the current system is that it means that in a debate the people in the room will (mostly) have listened to the arguments put and might sometimes get swayed by them – I know this has been true for me on a number of occassions. Allowing an informed debate then taking a vote at the end is to me incredibly important in helping to ensure that we make good policy based on an informed appraisal of the facts.

    Another counter is that it’s hardly difficult to get elected as a voting rep, but I do appreciate that many members will find it hard to get up to conference. One solution might be electronic voting in a short window at the same time as the voting is taking place in the hall – that way someone who has watched at home could vote (I don’t know the technicalities of this – not my expertise) but it might be possible.

    But other than this I’d be loath to replace voting after listening to an informed debate with OMOV. The upside of more people voting would be far outweighed by the downside of poorer decisions.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Oct '14 - 1:23pm

    All member online ballots are better than conference votes, but personally I don’t agree with giving members votes on policy. We should elect our leaders and our candidates – not elect our leaders, our candidates and then try to tie their hands on policy. They are there to do a job, not just to implement the party diktat.

    As Iain Donaldson says: we believe in democracy, not isocracy and as Dav says: balloting soldiers on strategy in war would likely lead to defeat, but Lib Dems seem to adopt a similar principle to politics. It is different, but not absolutely.

    Best regards

  • Robin McGhee 21st Oct '14 - 1:44pm

    This isn’t being difficult: I would genuinely be interested for people to explain why it is apparently impossible to hold an effective debate except at conference. It’s been repeated a lot but nobody has said why somebody should have to be in a room, or watch a live debate, for it to influence them.

    Eddie and Dav: thanks for the alternative view, which I didn’t expect anyone to raise. Personally I prefer a more democratic system at the cost of greater flexibility in policy. But certainly a reasonable point to make, I think.

  • Simon McGrath 21st Oct '14 - 2:11pm

    @eddie Sammon “We should elect our leaders and our candidates ”

    I thought you had left the party ? So I assume you mean “”You should elect your leaders and your candidates ” ?

  • Sue Doughty 21st Oct '14 - 4:45pm

    Having chaired the working group dealing with OMOV, and more than happy to ensure that we get the constitutional issues right I have one or two concerns about the article but from the outset let me say that this is not from the point of trying to exclude people but just from the practical and logical point of view and so would be very interested in hearing constructive ways around the issue.
    1. There will always be some people who cannot attend conference or indeed spend time during the day, especially during the week to watch debates on TV or on line. Teachers of course come to mind, and some students. I mention this because we need to recognise that not all members would be able to vote on policy although at least moving to OMOV at conference should increase the percentage of members voting at conference above the less than 2% at present.
    2. Conference costs money to run. Some of that comes from charities and businesses who have stalls at conference and while it is easy to dismiss them as lobbyists, they also come to inform. The rest comes, like at any other conference, from those who register to attend. Would remote voting reduce the number of attendees at conference,?meaning that less, not more people would come and take advantage not only of the debate, but of an incredibly wide range of fringe events and of course meeting others in the party organisations, and getting some great training. Remote voting would have a cost to implement, and to those who feel that some of our new systems are taking time to bed in, we do not have deep pockets to put in the resource we would like. This would also be the case with OMOV. At least with conference the money is found from registration to provide voting facilities but as a former Change Manager, I know that getting this right is not cheap if we are to ensure that we don’t exclude those members who don’t want to vote on line or are not happy using the technology. If fewer people come to conference, the financial basis for this would be undermined, and in addition, those outside bodies who take the trouble to come to our fringes and book stalls in the exhibition might not think it worth it. I’d like to see more people coming to conference, and better arrangements for cheap accommodation. This year because I was a carer at home I watched on TV but it certainly wasn’t the same as being there. My point is that if numbers attending reduced due to remote voting the whole financial viability of conference would change. Party members made it very clear, when we looked at the finances of Spring Conference that they don’t want to lose it but the central party does not carry the sort of spare cash to put in a lot of subsidy, especially at the cost of campaigning or even having more staff at HQ to be able to provide a better service to our members.

    I feel that OMOV is a step forward even if not a panacea. How we spend our holidays is up to us and for many years I probably spent more on conference than on the same number of days of ‘normal’ holidays. That was my choice, and sometimes was a tough call when I was a single mum, with kids and a mortgage and a fixed number of days leave each year.

  • “Hywel: I think it would be fine, actually. You could just have multiple options or if really necessary just have multiple votes.”

    How would multiple options work in practice? Suppose there are three amendments and a separate vote on lines 10-13 in a motion.

    I’m in favour of Amendment 1, opposed to Amendement 2 and lukewarm about Amendment 3 (in favour but don’t really care much). I also oppose deleting lines 10-13.

    I wouldn’t support the motion without amendment 1, would oppose it if Amendment 2 is passed, and amendment 3 doesn’t make much difference.

    So I’d need options on each amendment and then conditional options depending on which of amendments 1 or 2 is passed.

    And then if someone proposes a reference back I might support that if the mood of the hall made it likely that amendment 2 would get passed but probably not otherwise.

    Yes it’s complicated but that scenarion happens now.

    Multiple votes would need several sets of ballots over a number of days and in the scenario above would be next to impossible in practice.

    Remote OMOV on conference motions will basically result in a series of straight up/down motion votes

  • Julian Tisi 21st Oct '14 - 6:12pm

    I’m all in favour of increasing member participation (OMOV as it were) beyond electing the party leader and president. I’d extend them to all party elections if possible.

    But making policy is where I would draw the line. There are good reasons why we make policy on the Conference floor – the debates are properly aired, if you make a speech you have a genuine chance to actually change minds and in turn party policy and for those voting there’s an opportunity to hear and judge on the arguments which are cross-examined in front of you. This is really important to me and I know that many people who go to Conference would not go if the debates were charades as the voting had already been decided by members sending in their postal returns, without the opportunity to hear the arguments cross-examined. If you knew that the people in the hall had little effect on the vote, why bother speaking. Our conference would become like the other parties – the speeches just there for show. More importantly, it would certainly make for bad policy-making.

    In summary, YES to increasing member participation in voting between candidates for all sorts of party posts. YES (if it can be done in a cost-effective way) to online voting for people sitting at home watching the debates. NO, No, No and No again to poorer policy making in the name of increasing mmber participation.

  • “The most obvious benefit of this is it would enormously increase participation in decision-making in what is already, by miles, the most democratic of the four biggest UK parties.”

    But just how democratic is the Party really? Oh, I know that in formal terms it is indeed streets ahead. But in reality? As we have seen the leader can and does ignore the membership not just on details where there might be good reason to do so (e.g. because circumstances have changed) but on the entire thrust of policy. And the party culture is such that a majority of members continue to support the leader regardless so I would say that Tony has a good point. Now that this precedent is established future leaders will feel entirely free to disregard conference whenever it suits them. Contrast that with the Conservatives where the leader is given the freedom to manoeuvre but goes against the sense of any significant part of the party at his peril and knows that he will be instantly defenestrated if he gets it wrong or even if he proves to be politically inept. It may not look terrible democratic but it actually is.

    The way the party is run must be democratic in reality but it must also be EFFECTIVE and we clearly fall down there – the record shows that the Lib Dems are easily the least EFFECTIVE major party in the UK to the point where after the next election we will no longer rate as a significant party. It’s remarkably reminiscent of the terminal mess the Co-op Bank got into when a narrow and dysfunctional version of democracy was elevated above other considerations. The comments by Dav and Eddie Sammon apply.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Oct '14 - 8:56pm

    Hi Simon McGrath, I am a member in spirit, sometimes I use the word “you” sometimes I use the word “we” when I talk about the party. I don’t wish to get into a debate about it. There was no intended trickery.

    Regards

  • Tony Greaves 21st Oct '14 - 9:38pm

    Interesting that George Potter turns his argument into a repetition of ad hominem attacks on me! (for what I am not what I say or do). Also interesting that some people seem to think we should hire the village hall or local community centre for the duration (or a five-day conference???) and get all the local members to turn up there to observe the debates and carry out remote voting. Not the most practical idea, I would suggest.

    Actually, democracy is complex and messy. Referendums are a way that people try to cut through this, but in doing so they remove large parts of what democratic debate, campaigning, decision-making, carrying out decisions and accountability are all about.

    In doing so they hand power to the people who set the questions and the terms of the debate, and who decide what action to take after decisions have been made. And no, our present system is very far from perfect. /There is, in my view, a serious democratic deficit in the party.

    Tony

  • Sue Doughty 22nd Oct '14 - 1:29am

    Tony Greaves is right about the democratic deficit (and yes, it is totally unfair to attack him because he is in the Lords – rather akin to saying that we won’t participate in elections because we don’t like fptp). What we can do is to try and gradually progress things and voting against something because it isn’t perfect doesn’t actually make any difference in the long run.

    Gareth, sadly one of the jobs of FE is to try to ensure that the party isn’t bankrupt and we were forced to look at every single line of the budget. We asked the party about Spring Conference and got our answer. It isn’t accurate to say that we ‘wanted’ to get rid of it – of course we didn’t but we had a particularly difficult budget to set for the reasons we all know, hence the question was asked as it is Spring Conference which doesn’t always make a profit. We were more than happy that the financial situation improved (not having ‘wanted’ to get rid of it in the first place). One of the jobs of FCC is to decide what to debate at conference, and what amendments to take. Again we might not like the decisions but when you are trying to balance the calls on time, tough decisions need to be made, and some which we might like, even though we need to respect the fact that FCC are elected to make those decisions which can have a far reaching impact.

    I strongly support what Julian and Gareth have said about conference and the richness of the experience. I don’t see how meeting locally deals with the issue of the time poor members not how we would give those members access to all the other aspects of conference. Arranging training locally might seem like an answer but finding a time and a venue while keeping costs down is hugely challenging.

  • “I strongly support what Julian and Gareth have said about conference and the richness of the experience. I don’t see how meeting locally deals with the issue…”
    Two key issues encapsulated in these sentences from Sue.
    1. The richness of the experience of conference — from my own experience I know that people who I have taken to or encouraged to attend the conference over decades have been transformed by the experience. If nothing else you meet some very interesting Liberals. I once bumped into an interesting bloke from the Isle of Wight at a conference in the late 1970s. He ended up moving to Kingston, becoming a fellow ward councillor here in Canbury Ward, as well as our parliamentary candidate and Liberal Democrat majority leader of the council. Roger Hayes is still a key member of the local party but would he even be here if the two of us had not gone to the same conference thirty something years ago?
    2. Local party meetings are a great idea IN THEORY. But how many constituency parties can even drag a significant proportion of their members out to meet once a year for their AGM? Since Clegg became leader the party has been hollowed out a local level.
    The building bocks of democracy in the party have been “slashed and burned” by the Clegg Coup. Vast swathes of the country effectively have no local party. The reduction of numbers at conference is simply a reflection of the dramatic reduction in numbers of members. If we managed to get 800 to Glasgow that was probably one out forty of the entire membership (once you have removed the ghosts and those who have left the party but have been issued with a free membership to fiddle the figures).

  • My main concern on meeting locally is that won’t help the people who are in quieter local parties.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 22nd Oct '14 - 1:36pm

    I suppose that, in principle, the idea of encouraging participation is a good thing. But, as Tony Greaves points out, participation is an active process, which involves doing something rather more than casting a vote. In the old Liberal Party days, Assembly was rather more inclusive than Conference is now. That said, power still effectively accrued to those who could attend – it wasn’t the radical free for all that some people allege.

    Let’s not get too carried away by the attendance at Glasgow. My Local Party – Mid Suffolk – sent precisely nobody to Glasgow this year – it was too far, too expensive and the prospects of being in Glasgow potentially just after a vote for independence didn’t appeal much. We’ll probably send people to Liverpool and Bournemouth next year because the travelling isn’t as onerous and the weather is likely to be better.

    I would suggest that having a vote does not, in itself, a democracy make. It is a prerequisite, true, but only the starting point. A meaningful democracy requires an engaged, participatory and, above all, informed electorate, and I would suggest that the Liberal Party’s notion that you had to be there to participate was a sound one. And yes, technology means that you don’t have to physically be there, but unless you are present for the debate, you are less likely to be informed.

    I also agree with Gareth – if introducing such a reform jeopardises the very existence of Conference, then apart from the other potential losses he highlights we may end up with a more centrally controlled policy making function than ever before – with policy-related communication run from, and by the centre and access to the building blocks of campaigning – the voting register – available only to the leadership.

    This may be one of those reforms that in addressing an issue which might not be as much of an issue as its proponents suggest, actually creates many more problems – a bit like NHS reform, I guess…

  • So rather than taking the week off work to go to Glasgow I have to take the week of work to sit in my front room watching BBC Parliament?

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 22nd Oct '14 - 11:31pm

    @ George Potter,

    So, having lodged an ad hominem attack on Tony Greaves – you are either brave or foolhardy, I can’t tell which – you tar every argument you don’t like with the word spurious. Well, whilst you learn some manners, let me note that those who have indicated some reservations have been around an awfully long time and might just be applying some of the experience they’ve gleaned over that period.

    That doesn’t mean that they’re right, mind, but you might do better laying off the patronising tone and sticking to the argument.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 23rd Oct '14 - 8:52am

    @ George,

    Where to begin? I haven’t had your experiences, in exactly the same way that you haven’t had mine – as a BAME member of the Party, I wouldn’t presume that your experiences are less valid than mine when discussing diversity, for example.

    You were the one who raised Tony’s status as a Parliamentarian – it wasn’t part of his argument- and described his warning as illogical and unsubstantiated before going on to question his right to vote at Federal Conference. He’s there because the Party elected him in a ballot of Federal Conference delegates brought about by a policy motion passed by Federal Conference.

    But, returning to the point, Robin’s proposal is an interesting one and, in isolation, attractive. The catch, and one that you insist on deriding as spurious, is that there is no consideration of the potential consequences – and I emphasise the word potential here. Might giving people the right to vote remotely impact on physical attendance and thus the financial viability of Conference? I don’t know – it’s possible. Will party rebels have the same opportunity to lobby members before a big policy vote? Given your implied view of those who currently run the Party, are you confident about that? I’m not.

    Deference is not sought, Mr Potter, and certainly not by me – I’ve spent too much time in roles that nobody else wants to do to be particularly bothered about that – but a little respect would be welcome. If you find the challenge to your certainty such that you feel it necessary to discredit those doing the challenging, perhaps your certainty is unjustified.

  • George Potter
    It is possible to favour change without going along with everything you say.
    I hope there are some comments in this thread that you do not dismiss as spurious.

    For the last six years I have not been able to go to any LIberal Democrat conference, but I do suffer withdrawal symptoms when I sit alone at home watching on TV.
    The richness of the experience as described by Sue Doughty and others cannot be under-estimated and cannot be replicated by local or regional meetings.

    So where do we go from here? 
    I welcome your ideas even if I do not agree with them all. At least you are attempting a radical switch for the status quo. I think such a change is needed. The present conference is dominated by money, lobbyists and the media.
     It would appear that we have even got to the crazy stage where at our conference media people and lobbyists outnumber Liberal Democrats by more than two to one.

    After the General Election disaster that even the optimists in the party are now predicting we will be in a very different place.
    Hopefully the delusions of Coalition Government will be a thing of the past.
    With far fewer MPs, and a number of former ministers (some of whom will have lost their seats), only one MEP, but more than 100 hundred Lords, the traditional party conference will be much less appealing to the media and the lobbyists. 
    If we come fifth in the General Eection – as seems only too possible from this week’s opinion polls, we will be lucky if BBC Parliament televises our conference. How much of the Green Party Conference did you see this year?

    Conference loyalists (for want of a better description) seem to want to stick with what we have because anything else might be worse. I understand why they say so and am not unsympathetic, but something will have to change otherwise conference will be full of a lot of bores who used to be ministers thinking that gives them some special knowledge or understanding. 
    This and the large number of unelected Lords in the party will create an odd pecking order when chairs chose speakers in debates. 
    Something has to change in the post Clegg world.
    The party will have to rebuild itself or die. 
    The constitution, internal structures, internal elections and the Conference will all need to change because the compromises of the newly merged party of the late 1980s are no longer relevant or workable in 2014.    Some elements are already little more than a charade. 

    After Clegg – the party superstructure will need to slim down dramatically to fit a party of 40,000 members and maybe even many less than that. 
    The party also needs to adapt to the very real cultural changes that have been brought about by the technological changes of the last twenty years. 
    We cannot pretend that we still live in the age of the steam train and the telegraph, as if communications have not moved on since 1970.

  • Robin McGhee 24th Oct '14 - 9:28am

    Pleased to see my post has, in LDV terms, been successful- lots of ranting in the comments!

    To clarify a couple of things from my perspective, I think having people only voting remotely during conference is a bit pointless. Why would anyone take time off to watch on TV? It defeats a major point of having votes outside conference, which is to make them responsive to immediate political issues and address policy issues as they arise. Meanwhile, still nobody has explained why it is apparently only possible to have debates when people attend them in person at conference. As I have explained, conference actually severely constrains available debating time, and two sides could make calls for speakers in advance and host debates which could then be streamed for members to watch, precisely as happens now, only with far more time to debate.

    The noble Baron, my Lord Greaves has not retracted his outrageous statement that the overwhelming majority of party members are an “uninformed mob”. I have no interest in debating a party member who describes other party members in such terms, especially someone as senior as him who should very much know better.

  • ” Witness the likes of 70s radical Young Liberals trot our trite, ill-informed analyses of modern issues which they know nothing about and then ignore any counter argument they’re presented with.”

    So what are these modern day issues George? Immigration, Economy, Welfare State, NHS, Europe, Education, Civil Rights, Law and Order, Defence, Enviroment, Pensions, Child Protection etc. These are the things voters are interested in – not their new Apple gadget – and they have been around a fair time. Shirley Williams has most likely forgotten more than you will ever know about most of them and I’m damn sure she knows more about sexual harassment and how to deal with it than you do.

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