The new Liberal Democrat President, Tim Farron, is committed to changing the rules for how our internal elections are conducted, as he revealed in answer to a question I posed during the contest:
Do you believe the party’s rules for elections for federal committees and the Interim Peers have the right level of restrictions on what campaigning can be done by or on behalf of candidates, and if not what would you alter?
Far too restrictive – there should be very tight expenditure limits to make sure that the well off don’t have any kind of advantage but apart from that it seems odd that a party that is so committed to campaigning makes it so hard for its own internal candidates to do any!
Agreeing in principle that the rules should change is one thing, however, and agreeing on what the new rules should be is another. So here is the letter I’m going to send to David Allworthy (Acting Returning Officer and currently doing his customary post-elections gathering in of views):
Thank you to both yourself and Kate Heywood for dealing efficiently with my recent candidature in the Interim Peers Panel election and answering my various questions promptly and clearly.
As you are now collating views on how the elections and their rules worked, I would like to give you some suggestions based not only on my experience this time but also my experience on both sides of the fence in previous party committee (and peers panel) elections over more years than you or I would want to count up!
There are three broad principles which run through my suggestions on the rules for party committee elections and the interim peers panel.
First, there is a virtue in simplicity and consistency. The combination of large numbers of candidates, the presence of many who are not used to fighting public elections and the limited resources available to the party to administer the elections means any lack of simplicity or consistency risks placing a significant burden on the smooth running of the elections.
Second, we are a liberal party and any restrictions on what a candidate or other participant can do should only be in place if there is a compelling reason. The default should be for people to be free to behave as they wish.
Third, a healthy internal democracy requires not only the passive casting of votes but also an active and questioning electorate. Where possible and practical, the rules should encourage questioning, dialogue and discussion.
Consistency of rules
The elections for the party’s federal committees and for the party’s interim peers panel take place at the same time, with the same electorate and both involve the same practical issues (postal ballots, large numbers of candidates and so on). Therefore there are significant gains for simplicity and consistency by updating the federal committee rules in line with the more recently adapted and debated in detail interim peers panel rules.
The one exception to this is that for the peers panel, two sides of A5 rather than one side of A5 is permitted in the manifesto booklet. Given that the peers panel can be a route to Parliament, this is a reasonable variation. However, the requirement that the second side of A5 answers various questions is on the verge of collapse.
As you can see from the booklets from each round of the interim peers panel election, each time candidates have pushed the format and content of the second side further. Whilst first time round that requirement saw a nearly universal approach of unformatted text presented in a simple Q & A format, by this time the second side of A5 was frequently a fully artworked piece, with in some cases the full text of the questions not even appearing on it. From the point of view of the reader, an increasing number of second sides are simply an extension of the first side, without any significant difference in purpose.
There are therefore two options: either introduce a strict implementation of the original rules or scrap the extra requirements for the second side.
It is worth emphasising that ‘doing nothing’ is not an option: look at the evolution of the second sides over the last rounds of peers panel elections and extend that into the next one (when of course candidates will once again look back to see what was done last time time). The rules will simply collapse.
Bearing in mind that the default should be for people to be free to behave as they wish, I would suggest scrapping the extra rules on the second side. In addition, any attempt to (re)introduce a strict approach to what can be on the second side would raise considerable resource issues for those administering the election as that would require careful extra checking of artwork, extra communications with candidates and potentially more appeals all in the very short time period between close of nominations and the despatch of artwork for printing.
The prime original motivation behind restrictions on endorsements in party election rules is a worthy one – a desire to avoid the ability of the already well known to simply promote those whom they favour, forming in effect a privileged class which gives those with certain personal connections a big advantage over others.
However, the rise of the internet has posed two challenges to the endorsement ban.
First, attempting to define endorsement has become extremely difficult. Is retweeting someone endorsing them? Is liking a story from them on Facebook an endorsement? Is linking to their blog an endorsement? Is it an endorsement even if the blog post is not about the party? But what if it is about an issue relevant to the elections? Or about a personal attribute of them which might be relevant to doing the job up for election? And so on.
That produces significant practical problems for defining what is and is not acceptable, a flavour of which I am sure you will have picked up from some of my questions to you this time and our previous discussions when I have been on the other side of the fence. The risk is any ban on endorsements now is that simplicity and consistency is lost – because very detailed rule changes would be required to attempt to define what an endorsement is in the internet world and also because technology does not stand still in between reviews of party rules. New options will continue to appear and be usable before rule writers can try to tie them down in details.
Second, in addition to these practical issues, the rise of the internet has turned the original endorsements question on its head. Whilst pre-internet a ban on endorsements could be seen as protecting the ‘ordinary’ candidate, given them an equal chance up against one who, for example, had worked for a couple of MPs, now the ban actually hinders the ‘ordinary’ candidates.
That is because, if endorsements were permitted, a candidate can build up some grassroots momentum by having other members praise them, link to their blog, pass on their tweets and so on. Freeing up that ability for members to self-organise and promote is now the way to give people an equal playing field; removing it simply locks in pre-election variation.
But above all, the default should be for people to be free to behave as they wish. There is no compelling reason for restricting people’s freedom of speech in this regard. We only agree to the government restricting freedom of speech when there is an overwhelming reason to do so; the same should apply to ourselves.
The same logic applies to federal committee elections where candidates are in effect currently prohibited from even endorsing themselves with the multi-faceted ban on mentioning their own candidature. That is a significant curtailment of freedom of speech, without any reasoning that comes close to justifying the severity of the rule.
Culture of debate
In many ways I should have no cause for concern over how the electorate behaved during the interim peers panel election, bearing in mind that I was elected on first preferences, with the second highest number of first preferences ever won by a candidate in one of the panel elections and so on.
However, it should be of concern that less than 1 in 100 of the people I contacted about my campaign asked me a policy question, even though I was saying – ‘I want to be in Parliament’. My experience is very typical of candidates in that respect and should be of great concern.
Even if both candidates and voters are apparently happy with that culture of lack of debate and dialogue, it is not a culture that is in the overall interests of the party in selecting the best people and holding them to account. An active and questioning electorate would serve the party well.
There are many ways of encouraging a culture of debate which would require resources (such as online hustings) so, bearing in mind the party’s current post-Short Money position, I would recommend the following changes, none of which come with significant resource implications:
- End the ban on endorsements: in addition to the reasons mentioned above, this would allow members to critique, both positively and negatively, the different positions set out by candidates (or the absence of such positions). Knowing that, for example, standing for the FPC and not mentioning any policy beliefs has triggered a round of criticism from members will be a strong incentive for candidates to improve their approach in future rounds of elections.
- Require all manifestoes to be submitted as pdfs (along with a plain text version for accessibility) and make them available online: the widespread availability of free pdf making software programs and services means this places no undue burden on candidates and the consistency of format would make putting the manifestos online easy for those administering the election. In addition, crucially, the easy availability of the documents will encourage online debate and discussion as, for example, someone can write a blog post praising six different manifestos and link to them, allowing people to see what is being talked about and encouraging them to comment further.
- Ask each candidate to provide phone and email contact details: if all candidates are asked to provide this on their nomination papers, this set of information can then easily be reproduced on one (or more) pages in the manifesto booklet and also made available online at minimal administrative effort. Providing contact details in bulk in this way will make it easier for voters to contact different candidates with questions they wish to pose of them all (e.g. “What is your view on nuclear power stations?”) and thereby make this more likely to happen.
- Have the Returning Officer email the electorate: emails from the Returning Officer to voters have worked well in party leadership contests to let people know what is happening, to what timescale and so on. An early email linking to the pdfs and contact details along with information about what to do if ballot papers have not been received and so on would encourage debate and also help ensure that people do not miss out on their vote due to administrative problems.
Various party rules still make reference to the Conference Gazette. As it no longer exists, these references should be removed.
I have deliberately not provided detailed wording suggestions for implementing my proposals above because of the risk that would side-track the questions into matters of detail. However, if any of them are not clear – or it is not apparent how the rules could be worded to meet my suggestions – I would be happy to provide more detailed suggestions.
For other views on the rules, see the blog posts from Jennie, Mark and Millennium Elephant. I’ve not touched on the Presidential election rules in my post as I wasn’t involved on either side of the fence for once in that contest, but for what it is worth I agree with Mark’s suggestion that Presidential candidates should have access to the membership list. A business motion to the party’s Spring Conference on reforming the rules is being drafted by Helen Duffett and Liz Williams.