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The rights of supporters

June 16, 2018 9:56 AM
By Mark Pack Author, 101 Ways To Win An Election in Liberal Democrat Newswire

Cable and Liberal Democrats

Last but by no means least is where similar discussions in the past have tended to start (and not get much beyond): what rights should registered supporters have compared to fully paid-up members?

Aside from the question of voting rights at conference and in ballots, there's a range of factors to consider.

Attending events: at a local level, this happens frequently already. The non-member deliverer gets invited to the thank you party. The non-member donor is allowed to buy tickets for a fundraising dinner. But for federal conference, in particular, there's an obvious change to make: to allow registered supporters to come and be inspired without having to pay the (rightly) eye-watering rates reserved for non-members who are media, lobbyists and similar at the moment. That same logic can also be applied to across other events, such as state and regional conferences, too.

Party policy working groups: these are mostly, in effect, restricted to party members. But they don't have to be, and indeed including a wider spread of sympathetic expertise in their membership could bring many benefits. Allowing registered supporters to apply to be members of such groups would still keep the safeguards of the current appointment process; it would also open up it more.

Becoming a party candidate: allowing non-members to run as official party candidates would be highly controversial and raise the question about what the point of membership at all is. However, that's not quite the same as saying you have to be a member all the way along the process. In its most restrictive form, some party candidate processes require you to be a member for 12 months before you can go through the approval process (which can take several more months) which then, in turn, means that you can apply to be a candidate.

Parts of that process could be opened up to registered supporters too, such as allowing them to apply for approval and so to learn from that process more about whether or not being a candidate is for them before kicking in the requirement to join at a later stage.

This is also, whisper it quietly, what many local parties already do: they hunt out people who would be great councillors who are not yet members and take them through a process that doesn't make joining the party and waiting months the initial step even though it does involve joining at some point. Having an easier route in than 'pay up and wait a year' has produced many great and dedicated Lib Dem councillors. The rest of the party could learn from what can work so well for local government.

Voting rights: the big one, in many ways. Should voting remain restricted to paid-up members? There's a range of voting rights that can be argued over:

  • Policy-making (votes at conference)
  • All-member ballots (used very rarely)
  • Candidate selections
  • Party committees
  • Party posts, including…
  • Party leader

In all cases, you need to be a member to stand, a member to nominate someone and a member to vote. If the debates over creating a registered supporters scheme take-off, these issues risk being the predominant ones. I've left them to nearly the end to illustrate how much else there is deserving of attention.

For what it's worth, I'm sceptical about changing the franchise rules, though ideas such as adding in a registered supporters element to the nomination requirements for a would-be leader has merit. More importantly, I believe the franchise issue is best placed at the end of the process, not the start. Create a new, effective registered supporters scheme, learn from how it develops and then address the franchise issue in the context of what we've seen and learnt. Otherwise, the risk is the process stalls before it starts..

One related reform that definitely would make sense is to push back the last date on which people can join the party in order to vote in party contests. Usually, this is the close of nominations but, just as we've seen with public elections where registration used to work to such early deadlines, there's merit in having a later date to get more people involved as they see a contest playing out. The logistics of being able to get ballot papers to people in time are non-trivial for postal ballots, but where voting is in person or electronically, a later cut off date would be a different and practical way of getting more people more involved.