Secrecy, federal committees and a lack of democracy

Nearly all the debates about Liberal Democrat federal committees and democracy hinge on who the electorate for committee elections should be – conference reps or all party members?

However these debates miss a big problem, which is simply that the electorate, whoever it is, knows very little about the performance of incumbents. Democracy isn’t just about the right people having the vote, it’s about them being able to cast their votes in a meaningful way.

If you don’t know what people have done, it is hard to hold them to account.

Currently there is a strong culture of secrecy over what happens at federal committee meetings. A degree of confidentiality is certainly helpful when it comes to, for example, the Federal Policy Committee discussing how well a proposed policy might stand up to attacks from other parties. Yet the secrecy goes much wider and by default.

Take, for example, the highly controversial initial decision by the Federal Executive to discourage Liberal Democrat candidates in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections (subsequently mostly rescinded) which followed a vote on the FE.

But how FE members voted was, and still is, a secret.

If you know the right people to ask you can work out how some of the FE members voted, but even then I don’t think anyone outside the magic circle has managed to put together a full voting list. Even if they have, that isn’t really the point – most of the electorate at the next FE elections won’t know.

A similar point applies to the most controversial Federal Conference Committee decision during its current term of office, namely over security checks for party conference, even if in the FCC’s case more members of the committee have been public about their views. And that is hardly enough; think how you would feel if the votes on MPs’ expenses rules in the Commons were all secret and someone told you, “Don’t worry; some MPs have spoke out in public on their views so you don’t need to know anything more”.

Most recently, the limitations of this secrecy are illustrated by the excellent initiative by two Federal Executive members, Caron Lindsay and Daisy Cooper, to live tweet an FE meeting.

This is a good advance on what has happened before, yet even careful reading of all the tweets won’t really help inform any voter as to which individual FE members may be deserving or not deserving of re-election based on what they get up to in FE meetings (save that if you like any attempt at transparency, then Caron and Daisy’s efforts would count in their favour).

Even with their efforts (which I hope they continue, for they have other valuable benefits), we still have too much secrecy.