What to make of the new Electoral Reform Society rules?

Members of the Electoral Reform Society have been getting a weighty mailing through the post, ahead of a special meeting on 14 July to accept or reject a thorough rewrite of the ERS’s ruling documents such as its Memorandum and Articles of Association, Election Byelaws, Membership Byelaws and the Standing Orders for (Annual) General Meetings.

As the mailing indicates, 13 of the 14 Council members back the change, with one dissenting. As a result, I’ve been taking a read through all the details to see which way to cast my vote.

Overall an impressive job has been done collating numerous, sometimes conflicting, often vague, documents into one new, clean set of rules. Given my own interest in internal election rules, and my belief that they should encourage the sort of contact between candidates and voters which makes for a healthy and meaningful democracy, I was encouraged to see them generally pretty permissive and sensible.

Inevitably in the collation and updating process a lot of issues of detail are thrown up and three possible concerns caught my eye, which I’ve been asking around about the reasoning behind.

First, moving the power to set subscription levels from the General Meeting to the Council. Other organisations leave the power to set subscription levels in the hands of the equivalent of a General Meeting. For example, each year the Liberal Democrat conference votes on the party’s membership subscription level. However, in the case of the Lib Dems (and other organisations) there is both a ‘minimum’ and a ‘recommended’ subscription, so there is the flexibility to promote membership with different levels of payment depending on the initiative and the opportunity through the year in between votes. This change is designed to give a similar flexibility so that the ERS can in future promote membership through a wider range of special promotions.

Second, under the new rules the decision of the Council on whether or not to expel members is final. Again, my experience of other organisations is different. For example, I served for several years on the Amnesty International UK appeals body to hear appeals over such disciplinary matters. It existed so that there was a right of appeal to a group of people independent from the original decision and independent from the events that led up to it. That seems to me a good principle and one on which I’ve not found a good answer as to why the ERS should take a different view, save for it being simpler and so easier to do in a way proof against legal action. However, if other bodies can get the process right so as not to cause legal problems, the ERS should also be able to.

Third, the ‘standing orders’ for general meetings are in the Byelaws, and this part of them can be changed by the Council rather than having to be agreed by the meeting itself. That again is different from my usual experience in other organisations, where General Meetings / AGMs have the power over their own standing orders, and gives the Council too much power over the General Meetings for my liking.

The current standing orders have no formal standing at all, so giving them a formal status and having a clearly defined procedure for changing them is progress. It is a shame, however, that it has been done in this way.

Overall then, on my three points of concern, one seems a sensible change, one is unconvincing and one is at least a step forward. Against that are all the other good parts of the changes and the overall point that the rules do need modernising and consolidation. No complete rewrite is going to satisfy everyone on every point and of course points can be returned to in future once a new set of rules is in place.

I will therefore be voting in favour of the change – and then lobbying Council members to look at future amendments to further refine the new set of rules.

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

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17 Comments

  • Thanks for your comments Mark.

    It was pleasing that nearly all of the Council, new and old, were able to support these changes. After the AV referendum debacle the ERS has been going through a much needed transition period and this is one important step along the way.

    I’d certainly welcome any thoughts as to areas that can be approved and members will of course be able to submit amendments prior the AGM. If any readers want the full run down of the proposed changes they are up online at:
    http://gallery.mailchimp.com/d58e40644371564c40fcc7ccd/files/Council_Statement.pdf

    Andy May
    ERS Council Member

  • Jim Woodward-Nutt 9th Jul '12 - 8:39am

    The problem with these new rules is that they have clearly been drawn up by someone used to commer cial company articles, rather than those of a membership organisation.
    Mark has identified several problems; there are others as well: the new rules abolish the role of President and Vice Presidents, replacing them with ill-defined ‘Ambassadors’, who need not even be members of the Society! Over the years the President and many of the Vice-Presidents have served a valuable role in promotion of the Society outside, as well as bringing an unaligned voice to chair and speak at meetings.
    Members Meetings will lose the right to suspend standing orders to facilitate last-minute changes in business.
    The power of the Council to override the wishes of the members will be greatly increased.
    But importantly, the new rules are presented as a package in a take it or leave it manner, at 14 days notice, without any possibility of amendment.
    Yes, there are a few improvements, but it is important that there is a short pause for reflection BEFORE these rules are adopted. I urge members to vote AGAINST them, so that amendments can be made before they are adopted – perhaps even at the AGM in the Autumn.

  • Simon Gazeley 9th Jul '12 - 8:27pm

    Chris, it is that big a deal when, in a society dedicated to achieving democratic ends by democratic means, no opportunity is given to members to influence fundamental changes in the way that society is run. Council knew, or ought to have known, that some of the reforms proposed would be contentious. There must, for example, be specific grounds for expulsion and a procedure for appealing against it; there ought to be a requirement to endorse the principle object of the Society before membership is granted; and there ought to have been more notice of the meeting. There are other grounds for serious objection.

    Council should think again.

  • Right, I feel the need to do some myth busting here. Many of the comments both in the ‘No’ document that was sent to members and here are just plain wrong.

    Firstly, under the current rules there are no specific grounds for expulsion, in fact there are even less safeguards then there are now. If anything the changes IMPROVE the current process for expulsion and avoid a Council member being expelled by simple majority.

    Secondly, on the Vice Presidents. During the process of putting forward these reforms the ERS actually had an email from a Vice President saying what a good idea the proposed changes were. She had never been asked to fulfil any real role in the past years at the ERS and the positions are largely ceremonial. As with many of the changes bringing in high profile ambassadors who actually do useful external facing work will benefit the society.

    Thirdly, on the point of entryism. The only type of people entering the organisation in the last two years are actually electoral reforms who are sick to the back teeth of watching the ERS sit on the sidelines as a largely irrelevant and eccentric organisation. The membership has trebled in the past 3 or 4 years and a large swathe of new people have come into the organisation not with the intention of changing what the ERS is about, rather to try and make it more likely of achieving its core objectives. You might have noticed these are totally untouched in the proposals put forward.

    Fourthly, on the role of President. It is an anachronism that this role is held by someone unelected. At the last AGM a majority (though not 75%) actually voted to change this. So we are suggesting doing away with the role altogether and having instead elected ambassadors – more democracy not less.

    Fifth, we did actually consult extensively with Council, staff, former Council members, former staff members, the elections panels and lawyers. We wanted the document to be in the best possible place before going to members. Originally we had hoped to consult members but due to the situation with our processes for recruiting and retaining members it became necessary to act urgently. Our financial control systems and payment transactions are a mess. Having worked in membership and direct marketing at major charities during my career I was shocked by what a mess the systems were and how bureaucratic the system for setting membership rates is. As a result we made it a priority to make these part of a package of other important changes that basically bring the society in line with best practice in the third sector.

    I could go on, but the point I am trying to make that this is not an attempt to subvert the organisation or ride roughshod over the membership. It is an attempt to improve an organisation that is in dire need of reform.
    I’m afraid you have all been misled – by someone who had the offer of working with the rest of the Council to address his concerns, but chose instead to obstruct.

  • David Harris 10th Jul '12 - 3:46pm

    Chris Corrigan, an officer of the Electoral Reform Society, says: ‘The ERS is just trying to do a tidy up of some out-dated rules. It’s not that big a deal’.

    Pardon? Giving Council, and not the members in general meeting, the right to raise subscriptions is ‘not that big a deal’? This is just one example of why I will be voting against the special resolution.

    But even if I was fully happy with the new article I would still object strongly at the undemocratic way in which Council is trying to introduce them. For example, the meeting was called within the bare legal minimum of time, when there is no need whatsoever for such a rush. Members should have been given much more time to consider and contemplate, with votes taken section by section rather than ‘take it or leave it’. And the venue is simply not suitable for disabled members. If any other organisation was behaving like this, I would hope that ERS would be among those leading the criticism.

    Anthony Tuffin is to be congratulated for drawing members attention to what is happening. I urge any members who cannot be at the meeting to give Anthony their proxies by this coming Thursday, 12 July

  • David Smith 9th Feb '13 - 2:56pm

    I was one of those who felt the new articles were not good enough. They did introduce a Members’ Reserve power, whereby members by special resolution (75% majority) can DIRECT council to do something. Such a resolution was passed at the AGM in Nov 2012 in support of campaigning for STV for local elections. Regrettably I see few signs of compliance, and there appear to be no obvious remedies. It is early days but…

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