What to make of the new Electoral Reform Society rules?

Members of the Electoral Reform Society have been getting a weighty mailing through the post, ahead of a special meeting on 14 July to accept or reject a thorough rewrite of the ERS’s ruling documents such as its Memorandum and Articles of Association, Election Byelaws, Membership Byelaws and the Standing Orders for (Annual) General Meetings.

As the mailing indicates, 13 of the 14 Council members back the change, with one dissenting. As a result, I’ve been taking a read through all the details to see which way to cast my vote.

Overall an impressive job has been done collating numerous, sometimes conflicting, often vague, documents into one new, clean set of rules. Given my own interest in internal election rules, and my belief that they should encourage the sort of contact between candidates and voters which makes for a healthy and meaningful democracy, I was encouraged to see them generally pretty permissive and sensible.

Inevitably in the collation and updating process a lot of issues of detail are thrown up and three possible concerns caught my eye, which I’ve been asking around about the reasoning behind.

First, moving the power to set subscription levels from the General Meeting to the Council. Other organisations leave the power to set subscription levels in the hands of the equivalent of a General Meeting. For example, each year the Liberal Democrat conference votes on the party’s membership subscription level. However, in the case of the Lib Dems (and other organisations) there is both a ‘minimum’ and a ‘recommended’ subscription, so there is the flexibility to promote membership with different levels of payment depending on the initiative and the opportunity through the year in between votes. This change is designed to give a similar flexibility so that the ERS can in future promote membership through a wider range of special promotions.

Second, under the new rules the decision of the Council on whether or not to expel members is final. Again, my experience of other organisations is different. For example, I served for several years on the Amnesty International UK appeals body to hear appeals over such disciplinary matters. It existed so that there was a right of appeal to a group of people independent from the original decision and independent from the events that led up to it. That seems to me a good principle and one on which I’ve not found a good answer as to why the ERS should take a different view, save for it being simpler and so easier to do in a way proof against legal action. However, if other bodies can get the process right so as not to cause legal problems, the ERS should also be able to.

Third, the ‘standing orders’ for general meetings are in the Byelaws, and this part of them can be changed by the Council rather than having to be agreed by the meeting itself. That again is different from my usual experience in other organisations, where General Meetings / AGMs have the power over their own standing orders, and gives the Council too much power over the General Meetings for my liking.

The current standing orders have no formal standing at all, so giving them a formal status and having a clearly defined procedure for changing them is progress. It is a shame, however, that it has been done in this way.

Overall then, on my three points of concern, one seems a sensible change, one is unconvincing and one is at least a step forward. Against that are all the other good parts of the changes and the overall point that the rules do need modernising and consolidation. No complete rewrite is going to satisfy everyone on every point and of course points can be returned to in future once a new set of rules is in place.

I will therefore be voting in favour of the change – and then lobbying Council members to look at future amendments to further refine the new set of rules.

UPDATE: The new rules were passed on 14 July.

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