During the week the Federal Executive agreed to support a series of proposals from the party’s Acting Returning Officer, David Allworthy, to relax the restrictions on campaign in party internal elections. To quote the paper put to the FE:
These can be summed up in the following five areas:
– the introduction of Acting Returning Officer (ARO) electronic communications as per Leadership and Presidential elections
– the introduction of an ARO published e-mail and telephone contact for each candidate to encourage voter candidate contact
– the removal of the no endorsements rule for the Interim Peers Election and bringing into line with the Committee, Leader and Presidential elections for consent to manifesto endorsements
– the removal of the ban on electronic campaigning as it is no longer enforceable
– the removal of the specific question and answer requirements on the second side of the Interim Peers artwork
Regular readers may notice a certain similarity between these proposals and the ones I submitted to the rules review before Christmas. Whilst in part that is welcome news (to me at least!), I fear it also reflects the relatively small number of submissions made – and is a reminder that the party’s decision making mechanisms can often be influenced by the simple act of taking part.
A quick summary of why I think all five points make sense is:
- Electronic communications to members – good, as telling people more about elections that are going on encourages more involvement and higher turnout.
- Contact details for each candidate – similarly, making it easy for people to ask questions on the issues that most concern them may help to raise voting choices above the “I recognise that name” factor which is often very significant.
- Removal of ban on endorsements – this may sound more controversial, but as I previously put it:
The prime original motivation behind restrictions on endorsements in party election rules was a worthy one – a desire to avoid the ability of the already well known simply to 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 … 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.
- Removing ban on electronic campaigning – a similar logic applies to the endorsements change, but in addition given the current importance of decisions over policy and strategy, we simply should be encouraging a much more active culture around our elections where candidates set out their views and voters query them.
- Changing the rules on second page of interim peers artwork – simply, the existing rules have been stretched so far that they are on the verge of collapse anyway.
The Federal Executive can’t simply make the rules in its own right, but based on this week’s decision will be recommending the changes at the party’s federal conference in the autumn where there will be a debate and vote.