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.