» conference ¦ What You Can Get Away With

(not taken during today's vote)

(not taken during today’s vote)

As I said before, I couldn’t make it to Liberal Democrat Conference this year, but thanks to BBC Parliament I’ve been able to watch the debates so far, and thanks to Twitter I’ve been able to have some contribution into ongoing debates and discussions. I’m glad to see that Conference agreed the ‘one member, one vote’ proposal but with Mark Pack’s amendment that means some work has to be done before it’s introduced.

It was an interesting debate to watch, though the amount of straw man arguments and false dichotomies being put forward was somewhat dizzying to watch. As far as I can tell, there are very few people in the party who oppose widening democracy within it, but there’s a wide range of views on how to do it and so Conference made the right decision. We’ve agreed that we want the principle of one member, one vote, but now we have to agree on how to implement that before it comes into force.

The question I’ve been asking for a while – and no one supporting the proposals gave an answer to in the debate – was how are members who can’t be at Conference going to be represented under any new system? We’ve heard lots of tales of people who want to come to Conference but can’t be conference representatives under the current system, but nothing to suggest that the views of those who can’t make it to Conference because of time, money, other commitments or any other reason have any importance.

That got me thinking – why are we fixated on voting at Conference? Sure, Conference is a great event for party members to go to, and political party conferences have been around for a long time, but are they necessarily the best way of deciding a political party’s policies in 2014? If we were creating a political party from scratch, would we insist that the only way they can decide on that party’s policies is if they can get to a certain city on a certain set of dates, while paying quite heavily for the privilege of doing so? Shouldn’t we be looking at a system that suits the way people, technology and politics work now, rather than patching up a system based on the technologies and politics of decades ago?

That’s why one suggestion in the debate chimed with what I’ve been thinking over the last week or so – we need a full review and rewrite of the party’s constitution to review everything about the way the party works. The party constitution wasn’t set out in stone, and lots of things have changed in the twenty-five years since it was first written. There’s a lot that has changed since then – not least the party actually being in Government – and it makes sense to me for us to review everything about how we work in the light of all that experience. If we want a party that really empowers all its members, and gives them all an equal voice in running it, then we need to be prepared to make some real reforms to it, not just bodging together something to try and fix it up again and again.

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key_conference_votingI won’t be at Conference this year (in short: didn’t know if I’d have the time, then when it looked like I did have the time, costs had gone up so much I didn’t have the money) so my contribution will be the occasional blog post and the odd bit of long distance heckling via Twitter. Even if I can’t be there, I can still hope to influence those of you who are there.

It’s that issue of who gets to have a say that’s getting my attention first. On Saturday afternoon, Conference will be voting on an amendment that will radically alter the way the party works. It’s billed as ‘Expanding the democracy of our party with one member, one vote’ because, after all, what Lib Dem would want to say they’re against expanding democracy? Why, it’d be like declaring yourself to be against Shirley Williams!

The problem is that the principle behind the motion – giving all party members a say in policy and how the party’s run – is good and democratic, but the actual proposal doesn’t really deliver on that principle. As I’ve said before, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that democracy is just about voting for things, so therefore if more people have more chances to vote for more things, then everything must be more democratic. The assumption behind the OMOV proposals is that simply making it so that any member can vote at conference and any member can vote for party committees is intrinsically more democractic, regardless of how it’s implemented.

As Mark Pack and others have pointed out (disclaimer: I’ve seconded Mark’s amendment), the proposals that have been submitted to Conference are a mess in what they’re attempting to achieve, and don’t even address the wider issues of ensuring that the expanded electorate is an informed electorate. I don’t dispute the idea that giving more members a say in the process is a good one, or that there are some members effectively disenfranchised by the current system, but that doesn’t mean that any replacement system is necessarily better. Bringing in a dog’s breakfast of changes and crossing our fingers that there won’t be problems or that we’ll sort them out when they turn up is pretty much the same idea David Cameron has for dealing with constitutional reform.

The problem I see is that any real one-member-one-vote system isn’t actually compatible with the ‘Conference runs everything’ system we have at the moment. (For a simple example of this, imagine if every member wanted to attend Conference and use their vote if the new system comes in) At present most of those who can’t attend Conference – because they can’t afford it or because they don’t have the time – are represented there by representatives from their local party who they can influence. Change the system to the one being proposed, and how are those who can’t get to Conference going to be represented? They won’t be represented by anyone from their local party, and if they can’t get to Conference themselves, they’ve been completely disenfranchised.

The point is that just giving people the vote is only step one in the process, and no real plan is being put forward for step two and beyond. Passing the OMOV proposals in their current form doesn’t address the issue of making the party a genuine mass democracy, which would involve a lot more changes than most people want to consider.

If you’re genuinely interested in expanding the democracy of our party, then vote for Mark’s amendment or to refer back this motion so proposals that actually do that can be created. Democracy doesn’t just come about because we pass a motion and declare ourselves more democratic, and voting for this proposal as is would be to stumble forward into the dark in the hope we can make it happen.

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Let’s say you want to see the House of Lords replaced by an elected chamber. ‘Great!’ Someone tells you. ‘Then you’ll love my plan! I want the upper house to consist of three hundred senators, each one elected from a single constituency at each General Election with the same electoral system as MPs, will you support me?’ You say no, because that’s not the sort of upper house you want to see, but before you can talk about the flaws in that plan or explain a way to improve it, the proposer starts telling you that you’re clearly not interested in electing an upper house because if you were you’d support their idea whole-heartedly and then make any changes after it’s introduced.

It’s an odd example, but it’s how I feel after encountering the people who are proposing that the Liberal Democrats switch to ‘one member, one vote’ (no more local party representatives at party conference, and federal committees elected by all members not just conference reps). Various people – including me – who aren’t opposed to widening the electoral franchise or changing the way Conference works have pointed out that there are various flaws with the current proposals, and in return the response has come that we clearly don’t support the idea at all, and that if there are problems then we should support the proposal as it is and look to fix them afterwards.

The problem I have with the proposals is that they fall into a trap that’s common in British politics in assuming that democracy is about voting for things, so if we have more people able to vote for more things then we must be more democratic, right? This ignores the fact that democracy is a process, not an event, and to make something ‘more democratic’ is about more than just reforming voting procedures. Whoever the electorate is, they need to be engaged and informed about the process they’re part of, and there are no proposals to change that process.

At an electoral level, there’s no commitment to change or invest in the electoral process to ensure that members are actually able to make an informed choice about who they’re voting for. As it stands, we’re likely to get more manifestos that say effectively nothing and have to rely on individual members giving up a lot of their time to ensure there’s any scrutiny of people standing for election. If we want a more open and democratic process then effort has to be put into achieving it, not just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. (My proposal would be to publish manifestos and open campaigning three or four weeks before voting opens, giving proper time to campaign)

There are lots of other things that have been suggested (see the comments here for examples) but the point is that they should be introduced at the same time, not some add-ons to be potentially brought in at a later date. Over the years, I’ve seen too many packages of reforms in different fields that have introduced a first phase with a future second phase promised but never delivered (to go back to the beginning, look at House of Lords reforms) and I think just introducing ‘one member one vote’ without contemplating the wider implications of it is a mistake. I worry that people seem to think it’s a magic fix for everything they perceive as wrong with the party, and are assuming that ‘more democracy’ is automatically better without considering what ‘more democracy’ actually means.

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A bit of Brecht for a Tuesday.

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

I saw that quoted elsewhere as reaction to the recent mass resignations from the SWP. However, in the light of the resignations from the Liberal Democrats over the weekend (Rose, Shaw, Sands, Doctorow), the continued haemorrhage of members since 2010 and the proclamations of Richard Reeves et al that social liberals should leave the party, is it perhaps a description of Clegg’s ambitions for the party?

As Gareth Epps points out, the real split in the party at the moment is between the leadership and the activists. Perhaps the only problem with Gareth’s analysis is to assume that the leadership want to close that gap, when their actions indicate otherwise. Clegg’s attitude in his Q&A on Saturday to members who raised concerns about the secret courts legislation was – as Alex Marsh points out – pretty contemptuous, and one common feature of this and other issues is just how much of a tin ear Clegg has towards the concerns of the membership. It feels as though he’s happy to talk at the membership, but not to talk with them.

It often feels that the perspective of the leadership is that the party membership are merely there to do as they’re told and clap at the appropriate times when the leadership congratulate themselves in public. This centralism might be how it’s done in other parties, but people don’t normally join the Liberal Democrats to be told how to think. The raison d’etre of the party is to campaign for liberalism and liberal values, so the membership obviously expect the party to be run on those principles. And while leaders complaining about the actions of the membership have been commonplace throughout the history of the party, those arguments felt like passing spats within a generally respectful relationship of equals, whereas now the members are being expected to keep quiet and clap louder, or else coalition Tinkerbell will die.

The introduction of accreditation kept several strong liberal voices away from Conference, others have left the party and the leadership’s response to Conference’s democratically expressed position on several issues has been to completely ignore them. Is the hope that eventually people will just give up and let the leadership have its way and that a new, more malleable, membership will take their place?

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Another gathering of things people have said better than me:

I Hate It When Politicians Talk About “Hard-Working Families” – Jennie Rigg points out the flaws in a bit of politician-speak.
Democracy 2015 – The Independent’s new campaign – I was thinking of pointing out some of the flaws with this campaign, but A Dragon’s Best Friend has beating me to it.
Gathering of the damned – DoktorB on party conferences and leaders’ speeches.
Do we have to be so macho? – In the wake of David Cameron’s ‘butch’ comments, Emma Burnell questions the style of modern politics.
Comedians using their fans for co-ordinated, safety-in-numbers bullying – There’s a ‘y’ in the day, so Rick Gervais is behaving like a privileged arsehole.

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Yesterday, I learnt something I didn’t know before about British politics – the police claim the right to pre-emptively veto people attending the conferences of political parties.

I probably wasn’t go to go to Liberal Democrat Conference this year, as various other commitments and the hassle of getting to Birmingham and back likely outweighed the benefit I could get from it. So, I didn’t really notice the email about booking for it being opened and the new security arrangements that had been put in place until they created a large storm of concern amongst Liberal Democrat twitterers and bloggers.

If you haven’t heard the news yet, then this is it: to register for a Lib Dem Conference now, you have to provide a passport number, NI number or driving licence number as well as a photo that complies with passport rules. This information will then be passed on to Greater Manchester Police (on behalf of West Midlands Police) to assess whether you’re a security risk and decide if you’re entitled to come to Conference. Oh, and they’ll also want to keep the data you supply to them in one of those handily-secure databases from which information never gets leaked.

Now, I can understand these sort of rules being imposed onto the Labour and Conservative conferences without protest because – as recent political history shows – both parties are full of people extremely happy to trade liberty for the appearance of security and neither of their conferences get to decide much of importance. We, however, are meant to be different – we’re liberals, we’re against this sort of thing.

That the Federal Conference Committee and the party hierarchy rolled over so meekly at this request from the police worries me – what else is being acquiesced to behind the scenes in the name of ‘security’ that we’re not being told about? Why were we not told that anything like this was in the works before it was suddenly landed on people?

And then there’s the big question that really troubles me – why are so many people who call themselves Liberal Democrats so happy to meekly roll over and accept this? Do they not realise how ridiculous they sound when they bleat about security and how it’s nothing to be worried about because it probably won’t lead to you or anyone you know being banned? As others have said, the one thing that now makes me want to go to Conference is the prospect of party policy being set by people who are quite happy to nod their heads and agree to something like this – what else might they give away on the grounds it doesn’t really affect them?

If you’ve made it this far, then will you please sign the open letter or the petition against this?

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Anyone else going to the East of England Lib Dem Regional Conference tomorrow? There’s not really time for a full bloggers/tweeters meet-up, but if anyone fancies meeting up at the lunch break for a quick ‘so that’s what you look like in the flesh!’ moment, let me know or just come and say hello.

Oh, and don’t forget to bring some cash with you so you can come to the Colchester local party stall and buy some of chocolate – there’s still some left, if you didn’t get the chance to buy any at Federal Conference!

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