Tuesday, 18 August 2015

If we want to call ourselves liberals, we must vote for inclusion

One of the first votes I cast as a conference voting rep was in favour of One Member One Vote on all conference votes (rather than electing conference reps as at present). It was my fifth conference, and having been selected as a PPC, I was finally able to vote (though most of the policy I'd have to stand up and defend had already been set, without my being able to vote on it). Unfortunately it was defeated (largely because the FE royally messed up the motion) – but it’s back again now and the debate is in full flow.

I strongly support introducing OMOV. The system we have now, where local party AGMs anoint some people as conference representatives is opaque and exclusionary. It systematically excludes some groups: young people, people who move around a lot, people who aren’t closely involved with local party structures, and new members. I'd go so far as to say it's illiberal.

To be elected as a voting rep you need to be linked in with the local party where you live (i.e. if you’re involved with a local party it normally has to be the one where you live – going to all the action days for one on the other side of town doesn’t count). Young people move around more and especially in urban areas where there are lots of parties in a small area, you often end up moving parties but keeping going to your old party action days because you know everyone, and who cares about the AGM when the priority is to win elections? I now know that you can move your membership to another party even if you don’t live there – but that’s not widely known. Oh, and some local parties send invitations only by post (really) and are rubbish at updating their systems, so if you move house then good luck finding out about the AGM.

You need to be quite closely involved to know how it all works. I didn’t realise I couldn’t vote until I’d been to a couple of conferences, because I was more interested in trainings and fringe events than the conference floor, and after that had no idea how to become a voting rep. Wasn’t until the OMOV debate at conference last year that I worked THAT one out. Actually once I WAS a voting rep (having been elected in my absence at the AGM), but the local party forgot to tell me so I booked a non-voting ticket and wasn’t able to change it once I got there. So the current system doesn’t even always work for the people who SHOULD be able to vote.

Small parties with fewer than 30 members get no reps. So if you live there, no chance. Unless you’re super connected to another party and can arrange to switch your membership and get elected in time.

If you’re in a small party that only gets a couple of reps, there’s often one old guy who always goes, so all the young fry don’t get to vote.

If you can only go for the weekend, you can get a cheaper weekend ticket - but can't vote - or fork out the full amount to vote. If you're a mid-range activist looking to take your involvement up a level, that's got to come as a bit of a slap in the face - these are the people we should be welcoming and encouraging, not telling them they aren't good enough.

Many of those opposing OMOV reply to these by pointing out that there are ways around them. And it’s true, there are. If you can’t vote somewhere, there’ll be another local party with a spare slot and if you know someone they’ll let you in. But it requires you to be proactive, and quite confident (I'm not sure I'd have dared ask until quite recently) – whereas more established people or those who move house less just get to show up – and it relies on having connections. A system reliant on working your connections isn’t what I want my party to be about.

At the moment, all the analysis is on the risks of moving to OMOV – but the system now has downsides too.

All those keen new members? Most of them won’t be able to vote at conference. How will that be for enthusing our membership? 

Worse still, I believe that the system has affected our policy. By excluding half the people at conference from voting, we’ve enhanced the power of the payroll vote, which allowed the leadership to tilt the playing field at key moments (especially when they moved conference to Glasgow so no-one could afford to go). We’ve also enhanced the power of the ‘patronage’ vote – those who aren’t on the payroll but who care about climbing the greasy pole in the party, every one of whom will have managed to get a voting ticket, as compared to the ‘disruptive’ vote – those who don’t care about the greasy pole and do care about the policy.

We’ve also ended up with voting reps who are more likely to be older with established, stable lives. While younger people are more likely to be excluded. In the last few years I’ve been disappointed by our failure to take a strong stand on youth issues (housing, and particularly buy to let, is the obvious one) and to build a coherent narrative around intergenerational justice, even these issues all fall in the ‘liberal’ policy space and urban 20 and 30 somethings should be a core vote for us. I have no way to know, but I can’t help wondering if this would have been easier to change if we’d actually let the people affected by the issues vote on our policy.

The debate at conference last year was pretty unedifying. Lots of older people (mainly white men) talking about how other people couldn’t be trusted to vote (apparently we'll vote for Lembit for dictator or something). Some of the lines were depressingly similar to Victorian debates about expanding the franchise to women or the working class. 

The overall impression was of an established, comfortable elite trying to defend their position, while the excluded fought desperately to open the system – but of course only the established can vote, the excluded can’t. It’s the antithesis of what Liberalism should be about – and it made me furious.


Here’s a suggestion: this conference, for the OMOV vote only, let everyone vote – and see what happens when the excluded get a say in their exclusion.

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