Mark Pack asks Liberal Democrats what needs to be done to make One Member One Vote work. I left a brief comment there, but decided I needed to expand on that thought a little more.
I’m on the record as being sceptical about OMOV, and neither the debate at conference, nor the discussions that have been had about it since have shifted me from that scepticism. However, I have continued to think about the subject and I’m coming to the position that OMOV as constituted is attempting to solve the wrong problem.
The problem we’re being presented is that the methods of accessing the party’s current power structures prevent many members from influencing those power structures. Thus, OMOV is proposed as a way to change the way the power structures are accessed: no longer will elections to federal committees and votes at conference be limited to conference representatives, now every member will have those opportunities. It seems reasonable until you notice there’s one big assumption in there: that the existing power structures are fine, and it’s just the inputs to them that need tweaking.
My problem is that I’m not convinced that is the case. One important thing to consider here is that the structures of the party have changed very little since it was founded in 1988. This actually makes the party’s structures effectively the oldest of the main parties – Labour’s structures were changed after 1994 and the Tories after 1997 – and any changes that have taken place since then have effectively been changes of procedure, not changes of any of the fundamental structures. (It’s endless tweaking and not fundamental reform that leads to organisational charts like this where things keep getting added on to what’s already there instead of replacing them)
My problem with OMOV proposals – even as Conference amended them – is that they’re yet another set of tweaks to the existing system, and not an examination of whether that system is capable of doing the job we want it to do, regardless of what inputs its getting. It’s a bit like trying to fix a car by bolting new parts onto it and changing the fuel while insisting that the engine is fine and needs nothing more than an occasional tune up.
What I think we need to do – though not till after the election, obviously – isn’t another set of tweaks that we’ll then look at in another couple of years to see if they need more tweaks, but to start again with a blank sheet of paper and work out just how a political party for the twenty-first century should work. Is it best run by a set of committees and a conference that rely on everyone being in the same place at the same time before decisions can be made? I’m much better at asking questions than designing new structures, but surely there are other ways of doing things with a much more distributed and networked power structure. The current party structure was set up at a time when hardly anyone involved had a computer at home, let alone mobiles, email, the web or social media, before 24 hour news, devolution and countless other things were part of the political landscape.
I think we do need to create a party where the members have a lot more say in how it runs and what it campaigns for, but I’m still not convinced that adding OMOV to the current system is the way to achieve that. When the election is done, we’re going to need to have a proper debate about the future of the party, and I think that debate doesn’t just need to be about where we’re going but how the party is organised and run. Rushing to introduce OMOV before the election is saying that the existing structures are mostly fine and taking that debate off the table when we most need to have it.