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Tuesday, 2 October 2012

I'm starting a campaign to make the most democratic of all the party conferences...democratic

My first experience of conference was quite some years ago, not long after I joined the party and I was invited to speak at fringe at Spring Conference. I went all the way down, spoke on the Saturday evening, then went to conference the next day, and sat through a debate.

This was when I learnt that I was, at conference, the 'wrong' sort of member, had no vote, and that some members were, in conference terms, more equal than others.

Ever since then, the vagaries of who gets a vote at conference has troubled me. All sorts of party officials get a vote, associated groups seem to have allocations, and then local members seem to get a vote if they turn up at their local AGM and ask. I know reps are meant to be elected by their local party - but I wonder how often this actually happens? This seems a fairly undemocratic way of going about things.

This seems quite wrong. I also know many people feel if they can't go to conference for the whole time, they shouldn't 'take up' a voting rep place. And of course many can't afford to go to conference for the whole time, or even part of the time.

I went to Birmingham for Special Conference in 2010. But I wasn't a voting rep that year, so I had no say in the most important decision the party had made for 80 years.

So here's what I think. I'd like to democratise conference.

I see two stages:

1. Firstly I think any member of the party who is at conference should have voting rights fo the time they are there. I simply cannot see any argument against this. The only argument I have heard is members who 'qualify' for current voting rep status are more likely to be 'informed'on the issues. What nonsense this is. We may as well say only member of the electorate who can demonstrate they have done their homework have the right to vote in a General Election.

2. And then I would go further. I would allow members of the party who wish to register to watch a debate online, and then view the debate, should be allowed a remote vote, in realtime. I think they would have to pay a mall amount to register  - but the technology is very cheap, very easy, and will not slow up conference in any way. I have seen another good blog post making this case in far more detail

Currently votes in conference often take place between a couple of hundred people. Rather more people vote in the average Lib Dem Voice survey. This is madness for the party that prides itself on being the one where the members still decide policy.

I'm considering proposing a motion at Spring Conference to make both of these things possible - although I would imagine the first would be easier to achieve than the second. I will also be starting a campaign amongst members to gather support for this.

So - are you with me? 

And why hasn't this happened before? - or am i going over old ground? Do tell.


  1. In particular regarding your second suggestion, that's actually pretty much what I'm hoping to push for if I get elected to the FCC this year.

  2. Great stuff, thanks George. So glad to hear it.

    When do the ballot papers go out for FCC elections?

  3. Good question to which I do not know the answer - but the deadline for submitting artwork for the voters guide to the candidates isn't until wednesday so I'd guess that, allowing time for them to print the papers, ballot papers will probably go out sometime in the next fortnight or so.

  4. The second idea has it's merits but you would need to try to ensure that it didn't give disproportionate weight to groups turning it from one disproportionate electorate to another.

    The first question is more complicated. Before merger one of the parties (I think the Liberal party -before my time)used to let any member in to vote. As a result the conference was dominated by members from the area the conference was at. That still happens to a certain extent, I guess there are less Scottish delegates at Brighton as opposed to how many there will be at Glasgow. But I would worry that conference would be less representative of geographies and suffer from flashmobs of people with one point of view. I've been a voting conference delegate for all but one of the past 18 years. Its not that hard but you do have to be involved in your local party, which is no bad thing.

  5. Thanks Neil

    I'll give both those points some thought and post back here on them

  6. RIchard -I completely agree - this is the main thrust of my campaigh to be elected to the FCC this year

  7. Neil, getting involved in your local party is fine if your local party isn't a hotbed of scandal, defection and pointless power struggles... In my experience most of them are.

  8. I was going to say what Jennie did. My local party meetings consist mostly of dick-waving contests, attempts to get members of one of the two ethnic minority groups who are fighting for local control into positions of power, and rules lawyering. And the AGM gets packed by various factions to the point it's hard to become a voting member even if you want to, unless you're in one of the factions (which usually means you have a particular surname).

    I'm involved in day-to-day stuff like leafleting, but the only way for me ever to become a voting member is to move house to a different area (or wait for a bunch of forty-to-sixty-year-olds to die, which might take a while). I'm extremely aware that one-member-one-vote is a shibboleth from merger times which gets some people insanely worked up (and from who those people were I think it was probably the SDP rather than the Liberals who had it pre-merger), but I find it ridiculous that I have absolutely no say in how the party's run, and never will, despite having been a member for six years.

    But then, of course, what I find ridiculous doesn't matter, since I don't have any say at all.

  9. Andrew, Jennie - what you say encapsulates exactly the problem I think needs solving. Why can't we all have a say at conference.

  10. I disagree profoundly with your first suggestion, that any party member at conference should have a vote.

    Currently, each local party is entitled to a strict quota of voting places according to the size of its membership. This ensures that the conference is reasonably representative. If any member could vote, as you propose, it would skew voting in favour of local parties that are geographically closer to the conference venue or those with a more affluent membership.

    Also, I’ve been around long enough to remember the Liberal Assembly in Eastbourne in 1986, when delegates overturned the leadership’s position on nuclear weapons. This led to allegations that “anyone could walk in off the street” to vote. It was a false allegation, since constituency parties had quotas of assembly delegates, and anyone with a vote had to be a bona fide delegate. However, the quotas were so generous that, in practice, any party member who was able and willing to attend had a vote.

    So we must beware that a lax regime for allocating voting places undermines the legitimacy of the conference, since it makes it easier for anyone to attack the conference as “unrepresentative” whenever they don’t get their way.

  11. Thank you Simon, several people have alluded to the point you make but you put it very plainly.

    I am not sure I agree but i will pen a proper reply in due course to make my position clear on this area.

  12. People who don’t attend the conference should be able to vote. It is a nonsense in the 21st century for someone to have to turn up in person a distant place to vote. It makes sense for each local party to have a quota of votes but there needs to be care that parties in largely urban areas do not dominate over parties in rural counties.

  13. Far from undermining the legitimacy of conference I think one-member-one-vote would enhance it. You could put in place measures to defeat entryism such as, say, a 1 year minimum membership qualification. But it is surely *much* harder to claim legitimacy whilst simultaneously disenfranchising 90% of members. That goes equally for elections to the various party committees.

  14. Here Here John R - I couldn't agree more.

  15. " Firstly I think any member of the party who is at conference should have voting rights fo the time they are there. I simply cannot see any argument against this. "

    Then frankly you've barely looked.

    I've volunteered at conference, sat on the registration desk several times, beena substitute voting rep and been a full blown voting rep. I'm currently not a voting rep, but appointed a proxy to attend on behalf of my local party to vote on my behalf.

    Pick an issue. Pick any contentious issue. Then see a bunch of single issue campaigners picking up on it and asking all their supporters to attend conference for that one day and vote on that one issue.

    That'd cause the makeup of the conference hall to be vastly disproportionate to the membership overall for that one vote. I've seen attempts at this more than once already, the rules are deliberately designed against it, and this is for very strong reasons.

    Then you have the idea that any member can vote. Does that include members who turn up on the day to join and register? Single issue pressure group members who join a month or so in advance just to go to conference?

    You don't need to attend a LP AGM to become a voting rep, you do need to inform the Secretary that you'd like to be nominated.

    There's a VERY good argument that the rules and procedures LPs have to follow in electing their voting reps should be reformed and that such elections be properly promoted and monitored.

    But to make voting at conference a free-for-all is to throw away a basic principle of liberal representative democracy in favour of illiberal, populist democracy.

    We are the Liberal Democrat party, not the Democratic and slightly liberal party.

    Reforming the system for selecting reps makes sense. Makign it more open and transparent makes sense. Ensuring local parties make sure all members are involved in the selection of reps makes sense.

    Abolishing reps in favour of letting anyone turn up and vote? No. Really bad idea for many many reasons, not least it'd favour further those that can afford to travel, those that live near the conference venues, and the single issue campaigners that'd pack the hall excessively.

  16. Hi Mat, thanks for you extensive reply. I don't agree with all you say but you make some salient points. i am writing a fuller further post and I will attempt to answer all your points there. But I think one key thing i do agree with is members just joining 'on the day'; that probably isn't right.

  17. I fully agree with your sentiments that the party decision-making process should be more democratic. However one member one vote for conference votes would be a logistical challenge. In addition to some of the comments above the party would need to hold the debates in a large football stadium to give every member an opportunity to turn up and vote.

    OMOV for internal elections should be much less of a logistical challange, as long as a way is found to avoid having to pay tens of thousands of pounds in postage in all member mailings and return envelopes.