Conference Voting Reps and “OMOV”

by Simon Banks

I’d like to raise a concern about something to be decided at Conference, especially as I can’t be there.

Conference in Glasgow will consider two proposals from the party establishment lumped together under the title of OMOV – one member, one vote – and both apparently aimed at bypassing those unreliable activists. The first of these, to throw open elections for key party committees to all members instead of conference voting reps, is the one that has generated most debate. I don’t have strong feelings on that: there is a real danger that the great and the good would be elected and have little time to give to Federal Policy Committee and so on, but it would be easy to require that the attendance record of candidates standing again be shared with all members and easy also to require brief statements from candidates of the sort union members will be familiar with. The change could make policy positions and voting record of candidates much more widely known.

No, my main concern is about the other proposal – to abolish the link between local parties and elected conference reps in favour of any member who can afford it being a voting rep.

There is a very small problem of people who can attend conference and want to be voting reps finding they can’t be. Whatever the number of such people – and Sue Doughty in selling the proposal has never given figures – they’re a tiny minority compared to the number of people who would be interested in influencing at least some conference decisions, but can’t afford the time or the money to attend – autumn conference at least. That’s the real big issue and the current proposal not only does nothing to help these people, it’s actually a backward step.

Look for example at my own local party, North-east Essex. Our membership wavers between 70 and 80. We’ve never used up our conference voting rep entitlement: last year at Glasgow we had one voting rep (another member was there as a party employee) and in York this spring the situation was the same. This time in Glasgow we’ll have no voting reps but the party employee will be there again. However, I know of ten people who couldn’t attend an autumn conference but would have views on some of the issues, and no doubt there are more among the non-activists. If this is anything like typical the proportion of interested members to those attending conference (whether voting or not) is roughly between 5:1 and 20:1.

The proposed change has been justified in terms of OMOV democracy (which it isn’t because of all those members who can’t afford to attend) and because it would help people who couldn’t get elected as reps by their local party or who had moved since the reps were chosen. Let’s look at these two groups one by one.

Local parties’ entitlement to voting reps has recently been increased and the current sliding scale starts at four reps for a membership of 30 to 50 and goes up to 13 plus one extra for every additional 100 members. A party of 151 to 200 members is entitled to eight reps. I find it really hard to believe there will be an excess of applicants over places anywhere now except if the conference is being held next door. And that indicates another minus. No limit on voting reps would mean a conference in Newcastle would heavily over-represent Scotland (if still in the union) and the North of England, while one in Bournemouth would heavily over-represent the South of England and the Westcountry. Not a problem on most things, but a big problem if an issue came up on which the majority view in the north was the minority view in the south.

But perhaps there are members whom local parties won’t endorse as voting reps under any circumstances? Hmm, wonder why. I suspect such cases are extremely rare – and one of the problems of the whole debate has been that the party notables promoting the change have not provided figures.

The complaints I heard at Glasgow were mostly from people who’d moved after the elections of voting reps had been held or who’d joined the party after that. But if a local party has not filled its quota, it can easily add a newcomer up to the deadline imposed by the central Conference office, and the same goes for parties which have filled their quota and then find not all the elected reps are going – as is likely. Moreover, transfer of membership is now very quick once the member notifies the Party of a new address. So the problem, such as it is, is with the central party deadlines and I can’t believe there couldn’t be more flexibility. This is not about delays for security checks as that has to be done for anyone attending, voting or not.

There is also the person who decides to go at the last moment, but under any system they’ll have problems because of security checks.

Some people may accept that the arguments for the change in terms of inclusivity are extremely weak and yet see it as an improvement – administratively simpler because it cuts out the need for the local party to notify HQ of its reps, while checking that someone is a member happens anyway; and symbolic of the Party’s wish to involve all members. That’s fair enough, but I believe there are serious negative aspects of the change.

Clearly vastly more people are prevented from participating in more than the preparatory consultations and skirmishes by the cost and time involved, than are prevented by requiring nomination by a local party. At present ALL members of a local party can ask questions of selected reps before or after the conference and the reps are required by the standard constitution (in the East of England at least) to report at the AGM. No doubt some don’t, but this provision could easily be strengthened. After attending Glasgow last year, my report was e-mailed to all our local party members for whom we had e-mail addresses. That could be made a requirement and also that all members could be alerted before Conference to who their reps were and how they could ask them questions or make points to them.

Sue Doughty, in a remarkably thin article in “Ad Lib” promoting the change, says local parties could arrange meetings with the people going to Conference. Yes, they could, but those people would be under no obligation at all to attend or to respond to comments. Local Parties might not even know who was going, other than the activists who told their colleagues. The change severs the relationship between voting rep and local party (which is not just an organisation but the whole membership in that area). The local party activist regulars will probably behave as before, but keen newcomers may not and they will be under no obligation to report anything to members who couldn’t attend or submit to questions.

So in the name of widening democracy, far more members will be distanced from Conference than will be brought closer to it.

While there are people who choose to be actively involved in party activities across the country and to be fairly inactive in their local parties, they’re the exception. Yes, most members now join for national, not local reasons. But that doesn’t necessarily mean local activists didn’t sign them up. Besides, once someone has joined, their main route to becoming an activist is through the local party. A weak local party means little activity in its area. A dead local party means even less. When Party HQ wants something done around the country, it relies on local party organisations. As the court around the Leader has grown and we’ve adjusted (rather poorly) to power, the attitude of those at the centre to local parties and local activists has become more patronising and this is a dangerous trend. They still need us. The proposal on voting reps further weakens the position of local parties, associations led by activists and including all members. Even an inactive member may turn up at an AGM, a discussion group or a social, and despite growing direct communication by e-mail, the local party is still the main link between such people and the hierarchy.

There is one more issue of concern – the conduct of the consultation. Looking at this and at the recent James Gurling consultation on the party’s communications in elections, I wonder if the Party is in severe need of basic training, of the sort any local CVS could provide, on the basics of fair and credible consultations. But then perhaps the failings are deliberate.

For a start, the proposal before Conference takes away a right from local parties. You wouldn’t expect a public body or a large voluntary one to propose such a thing and to neglect to ask the affected bodies to comment, but that is precisely what has happened. Nobody actually e-mailed local party officers to seek their views. When I reported on the issue to our local party Executive Committee after Glasgow last year, no-one else had heard of it. Then it’s rather dubious for the same person to head a consultative process and to be strongly promoting a proposal at the same time. Finally, in my book (and I’ve been professionally involved on standards in consultations between the public and voluntary sectors), a fundamental of a proper consultation is that the body consulting should publish a summary of the responses and as far as possible get it to the people who’ve responded. That hasn’t happened either – neither in the James Gurling case nor the “OMOV” proposal.

We should be concentrating on finding ways of involving the members who can’t attend Conference more in deliberations and not helping people who can afford to go to bypass duties to other members.

Posted in SLF blog

Glasgow Conference Preview for SLF

The last Autumn Conference before a General Election always looks a little different, perforce. Eager Parliamentary candidates queueing up to make a campaigning point to win a few votes, perhaps to save a local post office? Check. Debates more about nuances of strategy than big issues of policy? That too. An absence of major controversy from the agenda? Frequently.

But not a bit of it this time: the electoral cataclysm of May saw to that. So we have a number of big ticket policy items, some controversy, and perhaps most surprisingly quite a lot of introspection of a sort that will neither win votes nor address some of the most challenging issues facing the Liberal Democrats’ internal organisation. That this is sponsored by the Federal Executive (which wanted more, on the Interim Peers Panel, but was denied on grounds of time and sending the wrong message) says a lot about that body and is in itself a matter of concern. Perhaps it is the Blairist desire of some of those around the leadership to find a ‘Clause 4 moment’, misinterpreted to a spectacular degree.

But in fact for social liberals there is much in the detail of the agenda to be pleased with. In particular, a welfare motion set not around Government expediency but Liberal values – a motion sponsored by SLF and not the one we were expecting. While the motion could be amended to be stronger – particularly on the totemic issue of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ – it at least helps the party to reclaim its narrative of concern for the most vulnerable; it is hoped the leadership does not try to defeat it. The message on economics has also, belatedly and with plenty of residual concern, become more palatable to those supporting the strong SLF stance. And – hey presto – longstanding concerns about how to provide the homes we need to tackle social exclusion and build the economy in a stronger way are addressed in a motion moved by Party President Tim Farron and summated by Vince Cable.

Elsewhere there are four policy papers and the pre-manifesto. Taking the policy papers in turn, they are a mixed bag. The Crime & Justice paper in particular, co-chaired by Geoff Payne and Duwayne Brooks, is an excellent piece of work, while the Age Ready Britain group has put together a comprehensive set of ideas to preparing for demographic change… with one exception. There is plenty of controversy around the proposal to enshrine the pensions ‘triple lock’ in law, with many deeming it unaffordable.

More controversial is the Public Services policy paper. A bitter argument has broken out about how the working group was run, well documented in Liberator. The paper is an odd document: far from being visionary like its predecessor the Huhne Commission, it is tactical and technocratic; uninspiring and not particularly coherent in presenting Liberal values. It is also very disappointing on the NHS in particular, making no clear statement about how to address the criticism of the Health & Social Care Act with all its baggage. Of greater concern still is the existence of a comprehensive alternative paper, endorsed by at least six members of the working group (but not mentioned in the paper). While views may vary on how to address the NHS sections in particular, the paper can expect a rough ride.

Elsewhere the agenda seems more rounded, with a welcome number of debates on environmental topics and – by contrast – a debate on football which will provoke some controversy and most likely generate outside interest. Internationalist topics, by contrast, are relatively underrepresented – although an emergency motion touching on the suffering of the people of Palestine is inevitable.

Attention, however, will focus on the pre-manifesto debate. There will be more to be said on that, in the two-and-a-half hours of debate and before. That reflects the number of contentious issues contained within it. Lightweight it is not; but it is not perfect. However, due to the contrived delay to its release, detailed comment on that will have to wait for now.

Posted in SLF blog

I Agree with Tim: Why we need a New Consensus

Tim Farron’s speech to the Social Liberal Forum

On Saturday 19th July, Tim Farron gave the third annual William Beveridge Memorial Lecture at the Social Liberal Forum conference in London. The title of his lecture was “building a new consensus” and it was a direct challenge to the Thatcherite consensus of the last 35 years. I agree with Tim that the contemporary political consensus has failed and that we need a new one.


The Failure of the Thatcherite Consensus

The Thatcherite consensus and its mixture of free markets, deregulation, and small state economics is something that both the Conservatives and Labour have supported for two decades. The light touch regulation of the banking industry by both Tory and New Labour politicians was one of the main reasons that led to the financial crisis in 2008. The burst of the unsustainable housing bubble and the bank bailouts showed that the Thatcherite consensus was a failure.

Since 2008, Thatcherism has gone from strength to strength; harsh cuts have been enacted on the welfare state, the market continues to encroach on public services, a new housing bubble is inflating, and the wealthy are still not taxed enough. What should have died off six years ago or perhaps 30 years ago is back. The centre-right believes that they have won the big economic argument and for too long the centre-left have let them think they have won the argument. This old broken consensus needs to be challenged by a new progressive consensus inspired by William Beveridge.


The Plight of the Poor and the Young

Nowhere is the failure of the Thatcherite consensus more evident, then in the looming social crisis that faces this country in regard to the situation of the poor and the young. One of Beveridge’s giant evils was want. There can be no greater want than the ability to be able to feed yourself and yet, there are now almost one million people using food banks run by the Trussell Trust alone. It is terrible that in the seventh richest country on Earth some people can still not afford to feed themselves. Many of the reasons why people use food banks are related to welfare reforms and benefit delays. The social security rug that was laid down by Beveridge in the 1940s is gradually being pulled from beneath the feet of those who most need it.

Youth unemployment is still a big issue facing Britain. There are still almost 1,000,000 young people out of work. Workers in their 20s and 30s are also having to struggle by with little job security, student debts, and no wage increases. Central to Beveridge’s philosophy was the belief in tackling unemployment through state intervention and economic stimulus. Today the state seems unwilling to provide a social framework through which secure, well paid jobs could be created.

For many years very few politicians have sought to reach out to the young and the poor, this has led to many of them being effectively disenfranchised from the political system as they are unwilling to vote and feel unenthusiastic for the results of democracy. Politicians need to reach out to these groups and have policies that will engage and encourage people to participate in our democracy once again.


The Role of Global Corporations

During the SLF Conference, Mark Blackburn asked a question to Tim Farron regarding “corporatism.” It is important to recognise the role that globalisation has played in the Thatcherite consensus. Many aspects of globalisation are very positive, Britain has benefited immensely from global technological innovation and multiculturalism. However, some aspects of economic globalisation can be more negative. Some corporations are wealthier than nation states, and where wealth leads, power will surely follow. In 2009, according to the World Bank, corporations like Royal Dutch Shell and Wal-Mart had a bigger GDP than EU countries like Belgium, Sweden and Austria. Global corporations exert immense pressure on nation states to have favourable tax policies and labour laws. There needs to be global cooperation to ensure that companies pay their taxes, and that those companies that do not pay their workers a fair wage, or that ruin the environment are held to account.


A new consensus for Beveridge Liberals

Social liberals such as Beveridge and Keynes helped to create the post-war consensus. Once again, social liberals need to be the architects of a new progressive consensus to replace the Thatcherite consensus. This new Beveridge consensus must give everyone, young or old, rich or poor, man or woman, north or south, an equal stake in society.

It can no longer be acceptable to allow masses of younger and poorer voters to be effectively excluded from having a political voice. It also cannot be acceptable to base an economy on many people being paid low wages and many more struggling with low standards of living. Furthermore government needs to be actively preparing for the future; whether this is ensuring that enough houses are built or whether ensuring that the NHS is fully equipped for the health conditions of the 21st century.

The greatest achievement of social liberalism was the welfare state. A new Beveridge liberal consensus must protect and enhance Beveridge’s achievement. People must have enough social security to live free of poverty and unemployment. Finally the state must remain vigilant of global threats whether they come in the form of climate change or unaccountable corporations.


The Democratic Fight for the Future

As Tim Farron alluded to in his speech, a new consensus will have to be fought for. This democratic fight, must engage people with a social liberal vision for the future to replace the Thatcherite consensus and the broken ideas of the right. The Liberal Democrats must lead this democratic fight and they can only do it by sticking to their historic roots as a centre-left, social liberal, active party. The vested interests of Thatcherism in both the Tories and Labour are well dug in, but a radical social liberal agenda can help to displace them at the ballot box. Britain needs vision, Britain needs hope, and Britain needs a new Beveridge Liberal consensus.

Posted in SLF blog

Our behaviour has to reflect our values – reflections on Nick Clegg’s speech

This post first appeared on Lib Dem Voice 


One thing about Nick Clegg, rather like those inflatable Humpty Dumpties some of us had as kids – thump him and he bounces right back. Monday seems to be one such occasion. An upbeat, earnest speech, designed, it seemed to most commentators, to speak to the party as much, if not more, than to the country.

For the Social Liberal Forum, the immediate reaction to his commitment on increased infrastructure spending was, while welcoming it, to wonder why on earth he and Danny had railed against it to the extent of picking a fight with the party about it until now? But, Damascene conversions, however belated, are to be welcomed. Let’s hope this is the first of many.

I was interested in Stephen Tall’s analysis that despite not saying it Nick was still firmly trying to “anchor us in the centre ground.” I am sure he is right, although of course I do not accept that this is a position we have always and must always, hold. It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Tony Blair, but his comment on the Today programme recently that one of our problems was having produced 3 manifestos to the left of Labour we now found ourselves to the right of them. So, while Nick and co have been relentlessly trying to position us in this mythical ‘colourless mush’ centrist position, it is certainly not one many of us would accept.

On the plus side, as well as the commitments on infrastructure spending and being prepared to look at tax rises rather than welfare cuts to balance the books, I welcomed Nick’s acknowledgement when questioned that we have left young people wondering if we are there for them or not. It is heartbreaking for those of us who until 2010 proudly asserted the truth that we were the most young people friendly party, to see so many young people turning away from us. With the caveat that of course we do still allegedly have a democratic process to approve our manifesto, I welcome his commitment to putting education at the heart of it.

On the minus side I find myself (again unusually) agreeing with some of Isabel Hardman’s analysis in the Spectator. She observes:

I’ve yet to hear a politician who says ‘actually, I don’t really believe in people’ or ‘wouldn’t it be great if we were honest that being unfair is fun?’ Yet Clegg is setting up a divide with the other parties that is essentially ‘as Lib Dems we care about people, and the rest of you don’t.

This highlights for me one of our key issues in restoring the party – our values, messaging and behaviour have to add up. Just as it is too simplistic to claim no other party cares about people, it is also a bit of a hostage to fortune when we have been seen to approve of apparently vindictive legislation like the bedroom tax and unfair welfare and legal aid cuts.

Isabel Hardman’s conclusion that his speech may not do much to reassure those in his party who fear he doesn’t have a strong definition of Liberalism, is fair. I for one would have liked to see more reference to those values expressed in our constitution and more about what we would actually do differently to demonstrate that we genuinely care about everyone. That kind of reminds me of the ubiquitous Anglican prayer for world peace – so broad as to be in danger of becoming meaningless.

Whether he has done enough to re-endear himself to his critics in the party, or more importantly, the public – remains to be seen.

Linda Jack is a member of the SLF Council.

* Linda Jack is Chair of Liberal Left


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Long term gains from short term arguments

This post first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice

Most participants in the post-election debate have concentrated on specific changes they want now: the Leader, his advisers, the communications team, the detail of policy issues etc.  I firmly believe that the underlying issues are systemic rather than one-off and that we should use the opportunity to establish structures for the future which minimise the likelihood of problems arising and improve our capacity as a democratic Party for dealing with them.

Some key targets:

  1. Agreement by the Party in advance on the elements which underpin construction of a coalition agreement: what are the elements to build into any future agreement about separate identity, resolving policy differences (or not), when and how to go beyond an agreement, responding to immediate challenges (e.g. in foreign policy)?  The fixed term Parliament was an example.  The time of negotiation, when a potential partner is eager for government, is the time to write on these conditions.
  2. The President: her/his role as “principal spokesperson of the Party” has been sidelined.  The next Presidential election creates an opportunity to spell out that responsibility and to get any and all candidates to sign up to an explicit job description, including the President’s role on behalf of the Party in negotiations, during coalition, and in relations with the Leader.  The job is not a stepping-stone to the Leadership; nor is it a role for representing the Leadership to the Party rather than the other way round; nor is it about being any sort of figurehead or symbol.  The President has the position and the power and should have the authority to speak the Party’s truth to the Party’s leadership.
  3. The supine nature of the current FE is scandalous.  It has a central position in the Party (NOT just one particular role in relation to organisation matters, but across the Board).  Its key role is governance (in the context of the Constitution, which is both federal and has some separation of powers).  Its responsibility, often through the President, who should be its creature, is to ensure that the whole structure comes together, problems and tensions are resolved and the Party’s staff carry out the Party’s will.
  4. Something that happens to all parties in elected assemblies (parliaments; councils, etc) is that the short-term agenda and timetable of those bodies takes over the party’s policy priorities.  All parties in government become even more obsessed with short-term policy choices as formulated by departments of state.  It’s inevitable and necessary; but it means that a strong party needs strong, independent machinery, outside assembly members and government, to build its own ideas, directions and policies.
  5. There is the belief, nurtured by the broadcast and print media, that a political party has “bosses” and that theLeader is the boss of bosses, the “capo de tutti capi”.  It’s the Leader’s responsibility to respond immediately to any challenge to the party by “ordering” an enquiry or a set of actions, regardless of whether the Leader has the power, the responsibility or even the knowledge.  Disagreement is reported as treason; argument is a “rift” or a “challenge”.  Any attempt at open debate is judged by which side a Leader is on.  What egregious nonsense!  In fact, Liberal and Liberal Democrat Leaders have managed to hold out better than most against this corrupting influence, but it’s hard when the principles and dynamics have not been thought through and accepted in advance.  The answer is not simply to have a different Leader – it is to ensure that any Leader is constrained, checked and balanced in an open, democratic, vibrant party.
  6. Over the next five years, the party will have to re-establish its long-term activist base – where will we find those people, what is needed to give them the long-term motivation that underpins long-term commitment, what are we asking them to do – certainly not just doing what they are told by a cadre of campaign technicians?
  7. The community politics idea is not just about using technical skills to get elected and then faithfully representing their views, prejudices and fears, while dealing with casework.  It is about helping people in their communities to take and use power.  That means engaging with them from the base of our own beliefs and philosophy and therefore a commitment to a revived political discourse at every level, but crucially based on starting from where people are and moving on from that.
  8. A Party which is strong and sure in its core beliefs and the policies which give them effect can rightly be confident that its leaders will articulate those beliefs.  Increasingly, we have substituted specific policies for basic beliefs in our debates.  Where are the fora in which those ideas are formulated, rehearsed, articulated and developed so that all members understand and are comfortable with their creed?
Posted in SLF blog

Statement following SLF AGM

Yesterday the SLF AGM was held in Reading. Despite reports to the contrary no emergency motions were submitted and no resolutions passed. The claim in Andrew Rawnsley’s piece in the Observer today stating that the SLF are planning to call for a special conference is wrong. This is not and has never been the case.




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Letter published in The Times, 29/05/2014

There’s no escaping just how strongly the electorate has rejected our party’s offer in the European and local elections, with a few welcome exceptions. Such heavy losses can’t be attributed just to no longer being a party of opposition, even if governing as a junior member of a coalition means supporting policies many of us disagree with. Nor is it just down to the Lib Dems being an isolated voice in taking on UKIP’s dangerous populism. So it’s right that the party seriously re-examines its strategy, how we deliver it, and what we will be offering to the electorate at the General Election in 2015 – and it is right that this debate should include who leads the party. As a democratic party, the membership will hold the key to this re-examination, and we acknowledge that views differ on how to approach these issues within the party – as they do within the SLF.

But resolving this debate and reviving the party matters because the electorate risks losing the only voice capable of representing values of freedom, community and social justice as a national political force. British politics deserves an effective liberal presence, especially in the face of rising populism at home and in Europe. Social liberals cannot stand by and see this voice fade.   So the SLF will lead the discussions that rightly follow, to ensure the Lib Dems present a mix of policies in our manifesto that chime with the values voters expect from a liberal party – and that we have a leadership in place that people listen to.

Social Liberal Forum

Posted in SLF blog

Action on welfare and food poverty

Work to write the crucial Liberal Democrat pre-manifesto will be stepping up as we move into summer.  Social Liberal Forum campaigns on welfare and food poverty illustrate the need for that document to look forwards as well as back; to solve problems left by Conservatives’ espousal of regressive policies.

As we move into the final week of the local and European election campaign, we will continue to work to ensure the strongest possible policy platform to stand Liberal Democrats in the best stead in 2015.

To do that we welcome the views of our supporters on policies for the 2015 manifesto and especially your feedback at our AGM and Conference.

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Independent, 14/05/14: Nick Clegg under pressure from Lib Dem activists to water down Coalition’s welfare reforms

The Social Liberal Forum (SLF), the biggest left of centre pressure group inside the party, is pressing Mr Clegg and other Lib Dem ministers to make changes after a wholesale review of the Coalition’s approach to welfare.

“The so-called ‘bedroom tax’ should certainly be reviewed, and the evidence I have seen supports radical reform if not outright abolition” said Gareth Epps, [SLF co-chair]

Kelly-Marie Blundell, the Lib Dems’ prospective parliamentary candidate in Guildford, said: “There is absolutely no excuse, no reason for people to go hungry, especially not in a First World country.”

Read the full story here

Posted in SLF in the media

Faith Leaders Speak Out on Food Poverty Campaign Led By SLF

The Social Liberal Forum, which backed the motion on Food Poverty passed unanimously at Liberal Democrat Spring Conference earlier this year, applauds and welcomes further pressure by End Hunger Fast and faith leaders on this issue which so gravely concerns all of us.

Faith groups are well-represented among those working on the front line in offering support to those in need.  It is clear that support traditionally offered by the welfare safety net is failing far too many and it is incumbent upon government to investigate and take action now.   Others have already gathered evidence.

Once again, we add our voices to those who are rightly calling for an immediate review of policies that may be causing hardship, for a system of emergency aid for foodbanks and  a package of measures to offer support those for whom the welfare safety net is failing as well as the implementation of a Living Wage. Liberal Democrats unanimously at their Conference  last month supported these measures and today sees a significant step in the call for the Coalition Government to take action.

Posted in SLF blog

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