The Usual Suspects

March 3, 2016 4 comments

Stagnant Power

deadnetworking

Local party execs sometimes remain very stable…
(photo by Okinawa Soba, Creative Commons by-nc-sa 2.0)

The Liberal Democrats is a party with a huge amount of internal democracy. However, that democracy is rarely held to account or challenged ,at all levels. Local parties stagnate, with the same small clique rotating the officer positions. One thing that’s vital as part of the Lib Dem Fightback and our influx of new members is making sure we get new voices and fresh ideas represented on our elected bodies, and empowered to make decisions.

Of course, most of our members didn’t join a political party to form committees, hold meetings and take minutes, so local parties need to push to find ways to engage members – that means understanding their points of view even if they’re not all at a meeting. This can involve members’ surveys, or social events where you can get to know people.

The Usual Suspects

Movie Poster for "The Usual Suspects"

Never mind your local party exec, meet the people who do the real work.

However, politics is the art of exercising power, and there are plenty of positions, both official and unofficial, where Liberal Democrats can hold and exercise power with no accountability to the membership. These positions are often held by the Usual Suspects – the fixers, the people who Get Things Done.

Take for example the person who has the authority to nominate candidates – this is arranged centrally by LDHQ and is a position of significant power. Or the person who ends up organising local authority candidate training and approval in a hurry, and just emails around enough of their mates to make sure the bases are covered rather than looking to a wider pool. Or the person who volunteers to represent the party to an external body such as a community group, but never reports back to the membership or executive. Or the party staffer who ends up accountable to no management chain, let alone to the members on whose behalf they supposedly operate. Or, in my own situation, the person who hosts various IT systems on which a party body relies.

I’m sure that pretty much everybody in such positions is well meaning and effective. However, as liberals, we need to maintain transparency and accountability as a principle, before something goes wrong. A lot of the scandals within the Lib Dems (and outside it too) boil down to unaccountable people becoming too important to criticise. Beyond that, the Usual Suspects are also more likely to match the pale, male and stale image of our party, and that can derail attempts to improve diversity.

The Objective

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Members old and new at a Manchester by-election, after opportunities to stand and help were advertised widely.

Everybody acting on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, whether at a local or national level, whether a volunteer or paid staff, should be in some way accountable to the membership, either directly or via a relevant elected body. Members should know who they are, what their powers and responsibilities are, and to whom they are accountable.

We should maximise liberty by promoting choice and taking actions to limit individual power. That can include having multiple people trained and authorised to do a job, making information widely available (whether it’s canvass data in Connect, or details of local community groups for candidates) and making sure that opportunities to volunteer or get involved are as widely advertised as possible. By advertised, I mean with enough background that a newcomer will feel empowered to get involved – whether that’s providing training before a campaign session, or letting people know in advance what to expect when they turn up to a Pizza and Politics night, and knowing whether there’s some kind of social activity once the Focus is delivered. Imagine you are a shy newbie who’s never been to an event like this before.

Ultimately, it’s about making sure members are empowered to achieve what they joined a political party to achieve. That might not fit in with the larger strategy that one of the Usual Suspects has come up with, but there has to be a balance between individual enthusiasm which keeps people motivated, and the worthy but dull admin work or leaflet delivery cult approach that ultimately wins us elections. And why should the larger strategy be decided by the Usual Suspects? The overall picture for our organisations should be clear, communicated to members, and open to debate and suggestions for improvement!

And yes, this is all easier said than done. A lot of these situations come about in the first place due to lack of motivated volunteers. But we always need to try and make them better, because stagnation will ultimately fail. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, even within the Liberal Democrats.

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Breaking from the Past

January 24, 2016 Comments off

If you haven’t seen Tim Farron’s first Lib Dem leadership speech, you should. It’s good in general, but I want to concentrate on something said in the first ten minutes. He came to praise his predecessor Nick Clegg, not to bury him. He explicitly said that he was proud of Nick’s achievements in Government, proud that the Liberal Democrats had gone into Coalition to do our best by the country, and that the tough five years for us as a party was nothing compared to the tougher five months for the country under a majority Tory Government since May 2015.

Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, he has said nothing of substance about his predecessors. The general impression is that Labour is a brand-new party, completely separate from the days of Miliband, let alone the days of Brown and definitely the days of Blair. Any criticism of Labour’s record, both in Government and in Opposition, is met with “Yeah but that was before Corbyn”. I don’t believe that that dismissal is valid, even if we ignore Corbyn and McDonnell’s terrible, meaningless U-turn on the Fiscal Charter (exposed neatly by John Humphrys’ interview with Diane Abbott around 2:42), and the inevitable further cock-ups and rebellions to follow. Most of the Labour MPs under Corbyn’s leadership were MPs under Miliband, and many under Blair and Brown (including Corbyn himself). They have their own power and ability to influence the party’s direction. There is a long-term threat to rebels in terms of deselection and replacement in 2020, but a party is always more than just its leader. Especially if, as Corbyn says, he wants a less Presidential style of leadership – and the Parliamentary Party still has a lot of Blair, Brown and Miliband about it.

The same sort of people who put Labour above reproach are the ones who claim that the Lib Dems are “still Tories” because Farron hasn’t actively disassociated himself from the Coalition – despite never having served in the Coalition Government – because he hasn’t disowned Clegg. We must remember that today’s Labour party is not so different from yesterdays’, or the day before that, and continue to hold Labour’s feet to the fire for their failures in Government and in Opposition.

Categories: Uncategorized

Navel Gazing? Let’s Start at the Bottom

May 12, 2015 Comments off
Post-election uses for a Risograph #2,381

Post-election uses for a Risograph #2,381

So we’ve had a bit of a rest over the weekend, which was much needed. Now we’re into a new week, the opinions are flying thick and fast. Where Clegg went wrong. What our national message should be. Who should be the new leader.

There’s a lot of media attention on all of these subjects, because that’s how the national media works. But, frankly, it’s not how our party works or should work. We are a grassroots organisation, built from the ground up. With new people joining us and keen to get involved, and without the pressure of Government upon us, now is the best possible time to examine these grassroots and make sure they’re fit for purpose. I’m going to pick three qualities that we can all try to promote in our own local areas.

Firstly, our local parties need to be engaging. At the simplest level, this means activity and communication. Any activity, from a simple social, to a Pizza and Politics night, to a regional conference, to a canvassing session. Do it, and let people know you’re doing it, and that they are explicitly welcome as newcomers. Give reminders, directions and travel information. Reach out. Make it easy for people to get involved. If there is no activity in an adjacent seat, co-opt it as your own and invite its members to your events – work through your Regional Party if you have to.

Secondly, our local parties need to be inclusive. Not every event has to be tailored for everybody’s needs, but we should aim to meet a range of interests, beliefs, incomes etc. Share events with nearby local parties and cross-invite, to avoid duplicating organisational effort. Try to make sure your events aren’t just a room full of middle-aged, white, cis men. Posh fundraising dinners are fine at the upper end of the income scale, but some more low-key events with less pressure to spend will get you more time-rich, cash-poor activists. Make sure that newcomers are welcome at your events, and that people will go out of their way to talk with them (and hopefully not bore them silly about risographs or Land Value Taxation). I heard a story recently about a volunteer who spent many evenings helping out, only to find that the existing activist team would cold-shoulder them when it was time to celebrate and wind down.

Finally, our local parties need to be rewarding. People get involved in the Lib Dems for a variety of reasons, and have a range of interests they may want to pursue within it. Part of welcoming a new member is understanding what their motivation is, and helping them discover how they can achieve it through the party. Most of us are happy to do some of the thankless work that needs doing to keep a campaign rolling, if we’re getting something out of it in other ways. I have some stories from the election campaign of keen volunteers being dropped into jobs without adequate explanation or training, occasionally facing a hostile public while telling etc., and coming away feeling that they don’t want to help any more.

Thousands of new people have joined the Liberal Democrats since the election because they want to fight for liberalism. But they can’t do it alone – they need us to show them the ropes, and help them achieve satisfaction for the urge that made them join. Many of them may need us to help them understand what liberalism is, beyond the vague sense that it’s important. It would be a terrible waste of enthusiasm to let them down.

We Must Not Repeat the Mistakes of Cleggmania

May 9, 2015 5 comments

3000 membersIt’s rumoured that over 3500 people have joined the Liberal Democrats since our electoral beating on Thursday, many of them even before Nick Clegg resigned as leader. It would be easy to be upset that these people didn’t consider that the cause of liberalism was important before polling day, but there is little that can be done about that now. We have new people prepared to put their money where their mouth is and support the party.

We’ve been in this situation before, in 2010 with Cleggmania, when the party’s membership jumped after the first ever TV debate. These new people joined across the country, both in active local parties, and places where the local infrastructure was more defunct. Between the election and the lack of action, most had no reason to stay after their first year and there was a commensurate drop a year later. Now the election is out of the way, we don’t have to worry so much about balancing targeting and growth, and can try to build critical masses more widely.

In places where we have active local parties, we need to reach out to our new members. Make sure they’re in touch and stay in touch. Introduce them to other members, and wider party bodies such as SAOs. Use social events to break the ice. Where we do not, regional parties have a role to play in bringing members together.

People have realised that Liberalism is important. Let’s make sure we help them to make a difference.

Be Excellent To Each Other

May 8, 2015 2 comments

Many Lib Dems up and down the country are feeling crushed today. Many have lost their jobs, or know people who have. We knew this election would be hard, but the results for us are worse than the worst expectations. There are now only 8 Liberal Democrat MPs in the House of Commons.

This result is less than 24 hours old. It is a big thing to process. Professional journalists get paid to form opinions quickly, not necessarily correctly. Anybody who is claiming to have a simple reason for this result is either getting paid, stupid, pushing a particular agenda, or some combination of the above.

Liberalism is not a dogma which dictates right and wrong; it is a philosophy by which right and wrong can be identified. It will take us time to contemplate, discuss and reach consensus on the right way to move forward from this. In the immediate term, the best thing we can do is look after ourselves, and each other.

It’s important to satisfy the basic needs of your human body. Some people haven’t slept since the results were announced. Before we can even think straight about things, we need to sleep, eat, and recharge.

I’ve spent some time today reaching out to Lib Dems both local and further afield. I’ve heard a suggestion that we should have a Special Conference anyway just for group hugs. We are not alone, and while our Parliamentary representation is diminished, our membership is not, and neither is our passion and commitment to Liberalism. Reach out to each other, go for a coffee or a pint, do something fun.

As those great Liberal philosophers, Bill S Preston Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan said: Be excellent to each other.

Categories: Uncategorized

Vote for Policies

February 15, 2015 Comments off

Nobody trusts political parties, and everybody’s judgement is biased. Therefore, every General Election, a number of sites appear which tell you which party to vote for, based on their policies or some other blind, seemingly unbiased test.

Choosing Policies

The Vote for Policies Logo

The Vote for Policies Logo

As a test: based on these policies, which of these parties would you choose between?

Party 1

  • giving the concerns of cyclists much greater priority;
  • cut Ministers’ pay by 5 per cent, followed by a five year freeze
  • develop a measure of well-being that encapsulates the social value of state action.

Party 2

  • increase the private sector’s share of the economy in all regions of the country
  • make sure Academies have the freedoms that helped to make them so successful in the first
    place
  • amend the health and safety laws that stand in the way of common sense policing

And a second example. Based on these policies, which of these parties would you choose between?

Party A

  • control immigration through our Australian-style points-based system
  • make full use of CCTV and DNA technology: new weapons deployed to strengthen our fight against crime
  • extend the use of our tough-but-fair work capability test

Party B

  • ensure that people are not held back at work because of their gender, age, disability, race and religious or sexual orientation
  • alcohol treatment places will be trebled to cover all persistent criminals where alcohol is identified as a cause of their crimes.
  • reduce Britain’s dependence on imported oil and gas and increase our energy security

As you’ve probably guessed, this is a trick; the policies of Party 1 and Party 2 are all from the Conservatives’ 2010 manifesto, and Party A and Party B from Labour’s. It’s a fairly simple demonstration that picking from a sub-set of policies isn’t an objective way of finding out which party matches your views. While the creators of Vote for Policies claim no political affiliation, I would be wary of any possible connection between its founder blogging about reducing income inequality and the unexpectedly high support for the Greens and low support for the Tories among the test results (which are of course further biased by who takes the test, disfavouring parties with an older and less web-savvy demographic)

Choosing Parties

The Political Compass chart.

The Political Compass chart.

The second problem with these sites is matching policy positions with parties. As an example, iSideWith said I disagreed with the Lib Dems because I want to replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected chamber, which has been Lib Dem policy since forever! Their evidence for the Lib Dems’ stance on various issues also seems to be taken from our ministers voting with the Government rather than the party’s policy uncontaminated by Coalition.

I was spurred to write this piece because pretty much every Lib Dem party member I’ve seen taking the Political Compass test has ended up in the “left / libertarian” quadrant, roughly in the middle – some just edge over the axis into the right wing, and some are more or less libertarian, but they’re all in that area. This might be sample bias, but I think I have plenty of Lib Dem friends representing a wide variety of opinions within the party. Firstly, this reinforces my point (assuming the Political Compass model is valid) that there’s far more that unites us as a party than divides us.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s interesting to note that none of the Lib Dem results I’ve seen match up anywhere near the Lib Dem “position” on the Political Compass website; I went to have a look at how the results are calibrated for the UK 2015 General Election, and found this quote:

The Lib Dems are now widely — and correctly — viewed as a party of few fixed principles, and their vote this time may haemorrhage more to the Greens than to Labour.

Political Compass is describing the Lib Dems as a right-wing, mildly authoritarian party, and the descriptions page seems to be written by a Green supporter. With pretty much every Lib Dem I’ve seen scoring where they put the Greens (and the Greens I’ve seen generally being further left and more authoritarian than the Lib Dems), I can’t see that they’ve calibrated on anything other than biased opinion. Also, their positioning of parties means that almost everybody who takes their test will show up closest to the Greens. I’ve seen Green supporters tell people they should vote for the Green Party on the basis of this, so it’s actively being used as a recruiting tool.

Choosing Politics

Ultimately, there’s a more fundamental problem than selection bias and calibration bias with these tools. They cater to the “supermarket shelf” approach to politics, where you pick and choose who to vote for based simply on a list of promises. This then leads to a race to the bottom with different parties just making bigger promises on the same things, which soon become undeliverable because the promise (and getting elected) is more important than the delivery or because events make delivery impossible, which leads to people becoming disenchanted with politics, which leads to bigger promises to get peoples’ attention…

Unfortunately, this is how a lot of people do decide how to vote – we get the politics we vote for, in a way. And these sites just contribute to that problem. Fundamentally, we elect representatives to the Commons to make decisions on behalf of their constituents, constituencies, and the nation as a whole; a constituency election is to decide the representative with the best judgement – as Edmund Burke said back in 1774. Manifestos and shopping lists of policies probably aren’t the best way to choose a representative.

As long as voters don’t listen to (or don’t believe) politicians talking about their values or beliefs, and do respond to these shopping lists, then taking this approach in campaigning won’t win you an election. This is one reason why I like the Lib Dems’ “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” slogan. It may not pass the negation test – no party would call for a weaker economy (except the Greens) or a less fair society (except UKIP), but it’s a statement of intent, far more meaningful than “One Nation Labour” or whatever the hell the Tories are using as a slogan these days. The Lib Dems need to demonstrate more explicitly that our record of action in Government, and our promise of more in our manifesto, come back to that core message and to liberal values.

If we can do that, then perhaps “ideology” will no longer be a dirty word in politics, and maybe we’ll see undecided voters in 2020 visiting sites like “Vote for Principles” instead.

Some Thoughts on Online Voting

October 11, 2014 1 comment
Computer says no. Or yes. It might say the same thing you say, if you're lucky.

Computer says no. Or yes. It might say what you want it to say, if you’re lucky.

Since Scotland narrowly voted to remain part of the UK, people are thinking about constitutional reform. Who should have powers over what, what democratic accountability there should be, and how we should confer a mandate on our politicians. One thing that’s been mentioned repeatedly is online voting. It’s an immediately appealing idea, but I believe a little thought reveals many problems. There are three main considerations:

Verifiable, Anonymous, Online – Pick Two

The system we have where a ballot paper is issued to a voter who fills it in in secret is pretty good at being secure and anonymous. Yes, there are index numbers on the ballot papers which allow them to be linked back to the individual voter, but this is handled by a different set of people to the people who handle the ballot papers, and so it’s a lot of effort to do it, particularly in secret – it’s only really used in cases of suspected voter fraud, under police supervision.

The obvious problem with any system where the ballot paper is filled in where somebody can see it, such as on your home computer or mobile phone, is it means the ballot is not anonymous to any onlooker. This creates the opportunity for people to be coerced into voting a particular way.

However, this pales into significance compared to verifiability; the average home PC is a mess of viruses and other malware. Most of the time you don’t notice it, because it’s designed not to be noticed, but your computer might be taking part in an attack without your knowledge, using its Internet connection along with thousands of others to flood websites or its CPU to crack passwords. Computers are, to non-experts, mystical black boxes. The user has no real way of knowing whether voting software is doing what they ask, or that their computer is allowing them to interact with it sensibly. They don’t know if the vote record they see on their screen is the same one that’s been communicated to the vote-counting system.

Only computer experts can audit all the software being used, including everything that runs on a typical PC (like malware) which could interfere with the process or appearance of voting. Even then, it is impossible even for experts to be sure that software being run at the time of the vote is identical to the software they’ve audited. Even if it were possible, it means that then the average voter has to trust third party experts who may have their own agenda in important elections, to assert the security and verifiability of their vote.

The polling station system we have is flawed; for example, personation is fairly simple and hard to detect while turnout is low. There are possible solutions to that but they all require further bureaucracy and different opportunities for things to go wrong or be manipulated. But there are a lot of safeguards and double-checks in the system, even if they’re not always used. A candidate can place observers at polling stations, and seal ballot boxes between the polling station and count room to ensure they’re not tampered with. And in extremis, it is possible to correlate ballot papers back to individual voters, by using two different sets of data held by two different groups of people; this is near-impossible to do in secret, even if you’re electoral staff, and when it does occur in the event of fraud, it’s done under police supervision. The entire system can be explained to a lay person and doesn’t require any secret “black boxes” whose function isn’t easily observed. No online system can say the same.

Of course, we are prepared to make trade-offs between convenience and security – postal votes are a good example of this. Postal votes are not anonymous, because somebody can watch you fill in your vote; they’re not particularly reliable because there’s even fewer checks on whether the person submitting the vote is the person to whom it was issued. From the legitimate voter’s perspective the postal system is a black box of sorts – I know voters who swear blind they’ve returned a ballot by post but haven’t shown  up on the “marked register” of people who voted. The introduction of widely-available postal voting increased turnout, but also became the biggest source of fraud allegations. However, the potential for fraud with postal votes is limited by physical access – to the address to which the ballot papers are delivered if you’ve registered nonexistent people, or to the individual voters you wish to intimidate. For online voting, elections can be swung by a single person on a different continent with a well-crafted computer virus; the risk is far greater in scope.

Why Use Online Voting At All?

There is no doubt that online voting is convenient. With Internet access almost ubiquitous, it can cut costs and time and hassle. So when would we want to use it? Firstly, when the electorate is engaged. As mentioned above, fraud is easier to detect when turnout is higher (including several attempts in the unusually busy Scottish Independence Referendum). Secondly, when the risk of being caught is worth more to the people providing your black box, than the opportunity to influence your election.

The obvious answer then is for internal elections. Sorry to burst peoples’ bubbles, but the chance of influencing who gets to be comms officer for an AO isn’t worth the risk for a reputable vote-managing organisation to take. Turnout is likely to be a higher percentage of a much smaller number, with a more committed electorate, which will make that fraud harder to hide. For the Lib Dems, it would make sense for OMOV in Federal elections, particularly if there’s an offline top-up for the people who don’t / can’t use the Internet.

Summary

Online voting is an interesting technology, and you have to understand the risks and advantages. Having laid them out, I’m clear that online voting for national elections and referendums is a bad idea; they tried it in Estonia and the system has been found insecure (unlike that article, I do not believe that online voting can be made secure). Even electronic ballot counting can be fraught with errors; it might be impossible to say who actually won the London Mayoral Election in 2008.

The main advantage, other than cost, is that of increased voter turnout. However, this is not necessarily a good end in itself; that’s a separate blog post which would either be very long, or just instruct you to read Gordon Lishmann and Bernard Greaves’ “Theory and Practice of Community Politics” (available in an updated edition from ALDC). Using online technology to help people be more aware of politics and what their politicians can do is worthy; devolving power and improving the voting system so voting is meaningful will also increase turnout. But we should not see increased turnout as an end in itself; that way lies the foolish thoughts of mandatory voting, or the risks of insecure online voting.

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