One of my tasks this morning has been filling out my ballot paper for the elections to the governing council of Unlock Democracy. This is not as easy an experience as it should be.
Some months ago I received an offer to join Unlock Democracy free for a year. I have a keen interest in issues of constitutional reform and have been impressed by some of the campaigning work the organisation has done, for example on Lords reform, so I thought I would take up the offer and see if I could be persuaded to become more actively involved.
Since signing up I’ve received a number of pieces of communication from the organisation – but the ones that stick in my mind have been those about participating in the organisation’s internal elections. While it’s great that I’ve immediately been given the chance to have a say in how the organisation is run – sadly I’ve not been all that impressed.
The rules by which the elections are conducted are extraordinarily restrictive. Not only do they prevent candidates from carrying out any form of traditional campaigning they make even the simplest use of online media impossible. They even warn you to be carfeful about how you tell your friends that you are standing! Here’s a quote from the election rules:
“No candidates may proactively campaign for election online, or allow anyone else to campaign on their behalf. This includes….pro-actively “tagging” friends with status updates about their candidacy….Candidates may inform their existing friends and social contacts that they are standing and may answer direct questions about their candidacy, if asked. This rule applies to the informal use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) However, there is inevitably a thin line between informing and campaigning via social media and there are circumstances in which a candidate may not be able to control how their communications on social media are subsequently related by others….. For these reasons, the returning officer advises candidates to take great care in communicating via social media their decision to stand.”
These rules seem to be even sillier than the very silly rules that until recently the Liberal Democrats had for their internal elections. The prevention of any form of campaigning makes it very difficult to decide who to vote for. Something not helped by the quality of the candidates statements received with my ballot paper.
This is a bit of a “me too” post.
Some other bloggers (both named Mark and one with far more right to complain about these things than I have) have been making similar points. Mark Pack has written that “the elections are worse than I feared” and Mark Valladares, an out going member of the current Unlock Democracy Council, is equally frustrated. I don’t want to echo too much what they have said – but I did think it was worthwhile to make a contrast with the recent internal elections for the Electoral Reform Society.
Last year when the ERS was going through a similar process under much freer rules there was a degree of public discussion about individual candidates merits and more importantly the future direction of that organisation. With a background of the failure of the AV referendum, a genuine debate took place, mainly via blogs and other online media, between those who wanted to challenge what they saw as failures in strategy and organisation and an “old guard” who wanted to defend their record. I may simplify that a little, but nevertheless there was a pretty vigourous election campaign with a number of candidates setting out clear positions and attempting to raise their profile.
This gave those paying attention the ability to have a clear choice about who to vote for – but I think more importantly it was a somewhat cathartic process for ERS itself. Irrespective of who got elected, that process of debate has strengthened the organisation by airing and resolving important issues and helping to inform the choices that the ERS needs to make about its future direction.
I wrote about that debate in this post; “Voting in the Election of the Electoral Reform Society Council” – an article a number of people have told me they found helpful in deciding who to vote for. All this is denied to those participating in the Unlock Democracy election.
My main point in this post is to emphasise something that I think is extremely important but so often gets forgotten; democracy is about debate as much as it is about voting.
A truly democratic process requires not just a choice of candidates – but an informed choice. Facilitating meaningful debate and argument is as important a part of unlocking our democracy as reforming our institutions to make them more representative or changing our democratic processes to make them fairer.
I want to continue to support Unlock Democracy. I am likely to pay a subscription and renew my membership when the time comes. But the impression I’ve gained of its approach to internal organisation sadly has not inspired to want to get more actively involved.