Unlock Democracy: the elections are worse than I feared

Back in March I wrote about my concerns over the elections rules for Unlock Democracy’s internal elections:

Good news – supporters are being asked to submit nominations for its governing council. Bad news – the highly restrictive campaigning rules that make even the old Liberal Democrat internal election rules seem rather generous:

“Candidates may not produce any further promotional materials [in addition to the ballot mailing manifesto] … No candidate may pro-actively campaign for election online, or allow anyone else to campaign on their behalf … The Returning Officer may disqualify any candidate who they deem to have made a public statement to promote their candidacy.”

As for that ballot mailing manifesto, it can only by 300 words. Not even an artworked piece of A5. Other than that: sssssh!

Imagine if the government were to propose such a stringent set of campaign restrictions for public elections. Would Unlock Democracy say, “You know what, that’s a darn good idea”? I hope not – but just as campaigning is healthy in public elections because it allows voters to make better informed choices, so it is too in internal  contests.

Now having the ballot mailing for the council and for the related limited company in front of me, things are even worse. Why? Because I’m left with almost no decent information on which to decide how to cast my vote. Sure, I’ve got a vote – and it’s by STV – but it’s a hollow process if you have the trappings of democracy and no real information with which to inform it.

What’s wrong? First, almost none of the candidates have offered up any contact information for themselves. It means I cannot ask them questions and immediately makes the election feel like one where the voters are an inconvenient necessity rather than the people around who it should revolve.

Congratulations to Stuart Hill, whose statement for the limited company contest is the only one of 27 statements in total to include contact details. Yes really: 26 of the 27 statements in elections for an organisation with ‘democracy’ in its name include no encouragement for any voter to ask the candidate any questions.

Second, overall the candidate statements are pretty light on content. The pro-democracy campaign sector is not exactly short of substantive issues. What are the lessons from the AV referendum? How should the different campaign groups get along with each other, and what roles should each look to take? How important is supporting the push for Lords reform? Should campaigns for Commons reform be quietly side-lined for the moment? Should there be a push to get at least open lists for the next European Parliament elections which, measured in legislative timescales, are nearly upon us? And that’s without getting on to the specifics of Unlock Democracy.

I could go on at much greater length. But the point is a short one: the candidate statements overall leave me nearly clueless as to which candidates I should vote for in order to turn my views into the right votes.

I know quite a lot about the ages of the candidates. I know that many of the candidates say they are passionately committed to Unlock Democracy, and I’m willing to hazard a guess that those who have not written that would say just the same if asked. I know there is one candidate I don’t want to see elected (sorry, but the arrangements for issuing passports aren’t something I think Unlock Democracy should be working on) and I know a lot of the candidates sound decent people.

But choosing who to vote for? There are precious few clues of substance. A little hint on some of the issues and a little here and there when it comes to their CVs. One or two jobs sound very impressive and look to be a good fit with the sort of skills I’d like to see amongst those elected.

Overall though, it’s a mix of name recognition, lucky dip and making the most of the occasional clue.

Yes it’s democracy; yes it’s better than no ballot papers; but it’s a pretty poor form of unengaging, uninforming democracy that hardly does Unlock Democracy credit – neither the rules the organisation is operating under nor the way candidates have decided to operate within them.

Now excuse me whilst I go and pick some names from a hat to fill out my ballot paper…


* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • Chris Jenkinson 6th Jun '12 - 12:04pm

    Are the manifestos online anywhere to browse?

  • Richard Shaw 6th Jun '12 - 12:27pm

    I too am disappointed by the restrictive (some might even say archaic, in an internet age) electoral arrangements of Unlock Democracy. It’s almost put me off voting entirely, the only thing encouraging me to take part is that I know one of the candidates personally so I know enough about them to make an informed decision.

    The Electoral Reform Society elections were much better. I was able to contact candidates if I wanted and even received direct mailings from others. Unlock Democracy could learn a lot from ERS.

  • Stuart Smith 6th Jun '12 - 1:37pm

    And a major point you have failed to mention is the almost total lack of women putting themselves forward.

  • Tony Dawson 6th Jun '12 - 4:20pm

    Perhaps a referendum is coming on a name change to ‘Lock Down’ Democracy? 🙁

  • Andrew Suffield 6th Jun '12 - 7:00pm

    And a major point you have failed to mention is the almost total lack of women putting themselves forward

    Does it matter, when you can’t tell the candidates apart anyway?

  • I have a monthly standing order, but have not received any voting papers. Very unimpressive.

  • Vicky Seddon 7th Jun '12 - 10:57pm

    Thanks Mark for your pertinent criticisms. Many of us know that we need to make improvements. When we had our discussion at Council, there was concern about ensuring there was a level playing field for all candidates, regardless of their social media skill and savvy. The restrictions were seen by some as providing that level playing field.
    In the end, no one brought rule changes to the AGM in November. Any member could have done that, including yourself and other UD members who have commented. Some of us would have welcomed your input there: easy to comment from the side lines but someone needs to do the actual graft of coming up with rule changes. It is that long march through the institutions that is essential if things are to change.
    If I am re-elected (I am currently Chair ofUD) , I will be calling for a review of the rules. Perhaps you and some of the other UD members who have commented here will join us in that review? Your input would be welcomed!
    And happy for voters to contact me.
    Vicky Seddon [email protected]
    PS Re gender representation, in the Eastern Region, there are 3 women putting themselves forwards. And most constituencies will have contests including for the reserved places. We have always has a strong female presence on our Management Board: currently 50%. Can Lib Dems claim the same??

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