...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Day 3604: To FPC or not to FPC, that is the Election


And now for a word from Daddy Richard…

So, I stood for the FPC…

That might come as a surprise*, because I've not mentioned it on Millennium's diary, but the rules of the election said I couldn't use the Internet so I kept quiet.

So, I stood for the FPC and didn't get elected.

But I'm not downhearted.

It was (obviously) STV, and I was eliminated at stage 47; but Alex assures me that means I came "23rd" out of 63! Or seven short of elected!

And that's better than a slapped face, so I'll stand again in 2012.

After all, it took five tries to win Blogger of the Year, didn't it?

So, what are the lessons learned?

Firstly, I think I had good reasons for standing: we need a policy committee that can hold us to Liberal policies even as our ministers are being dragged to the right by the Conservatives.

I think I'm qualified to do that because: (a) I have a good grasp of economics, thanks to a background in mathematics and accounting, and I think that's vital in the current circumstances; (b) I have a good grasp of core Liberal Philosophy, thanks to years of teaching from my beloved Alex, who learned everything there was to learn (that he didn't know already) all from Sainted Conrad Russell of blessed memory; and (c) I've interviewed Nick Clegg several times and I think, think I could stand up to him if I had to.

It's easy to exceed expectations when you're expecting something fairly humiliating, but the result was (at least in my head) modestly respectable.

Even without the ability to flash Millennium's award-winning Very Fluffy Diary around, I got nineteen first preference votes (and thank you to each and every one of you) and after transfers that went up to 37.17 (and thank you as well to everyone who gave me transfers).

In both cases, looking at the figures, I reckon that's almost halfway to what I would need to get elected. Which is a decent start.

It's an STV election, so looking at the effect of transfers, on first prefs alone I started in joint 29th but finished six places higher. In fact only Gareth (who jumped up twelve places to get elected) and David Hall-Matthews (who climbed eleven places, probably with a lot of Social Liberal Forum transfers) did better from transfers. Which I think shows I have a certain amount of cross-over appeal.

So lesson number one is probably: actually I might be in with a chance if I work at this.

But looking at who actually got elected, of the fifteen people with most first preferences, all but one got on.

So lesson number two has to be: get more first preferences.

That means putting my face about more, getting more involved at a regional and conference level and (horror of horrors) making some speeches(!). But also, encouraging some people who might have voted for me had they been Conference Reps to take the step and be Conference Reps.

It also means doing a bit of what might be called "campaigning" were there an election on. Not spending money – that would be silly – but exchanging e-mails with people to see if I can get some support.

The thing is. I have to do this now, after the election because, as I said, the rules don't allow it while the election is on.

Those rules said I must not use the Internet, or specifically: "use e-mail, e-groups, cix conferencing or websites during these elections to promote [my] candidacy".

(Although oddly, the rule against using websites appears not to have been enforced for some people using the Twitter website, nor certain others.)

So I buttoned it for the course of the election.

In fact, I felt constrained from even mentioning it in any form of written electronic communication, even personal e-mails. I didn't feel able to submit questions to other candidates, in case this was seen as self-promotion. And I didn't bat any ideas around online on e-mail lists with people who might have voted for me anyway, just in case.

Which is a shame because I do a lot of my communicating by e-mail. I'm a writer: I feel more comfortable, more eloquent if I can put my ideas down in writing and hone my words. (Judge for yourself if that's successful, of course, but it's the way I feel.) And of course it's cheaper than a lot of phone calls.

I'd like to say "cheaper" may (once) have been the point. It does seem likely that in fact the rule against using the net is historical (archaic, even), rooted in the notion that it would give an unfair advantage to the well-off, those rich enough to be able to afford to make websites.

There'd be an irony there, that in the last five to ten years with the rise of free blogging sites, and Facebook and Twitter, the absolute reverse is true. The Internet provides a hugely democratic and virtually free platform: giving any candidate the ability to lay out positions on all areas of policy, without the constraints of having to squeeze everything in to a single side of A5, and with a great deal more interactivity for the voter (you can post replies and comments or e-mail the author or hyperlink to other views). Ironic, but an innocent irony.

So I'd like to say that, but a little bird tells me that actually these rules are all quite new, just introduced in the last half-dozen years (not, say, dozen or more).

When we have the Federal Executive making the rules for their own election, there's a great danger that they appear to neither like nor understand the opportunities for participation that modern technology continues to unfold. And that they can get elected very nicely on the old rules, thank you very much.

We seem to be actively ruling out the greatest form of democratic access of our age. And when one candidate is able to say "look for my column in the Guardian", that's really not a level playing field. (And that's really not to have a go at Evan, who is a much loved and unjustly-defenestrated former MP, but come on…)

The rules aren't even consistent: candidates for the Peers' panel were permitted electronic campaigning, and to set up websites; candidates for FE and FPC and so on were not.

It's all grown up organically, which is lovely and very Liberal, but it's a hotchpotch, a mess.

It's like the changes to the Presidential election rules, expecting a much larger number of nominations to be gathered in the same small window (which is what, apparently, kept Jennie out of the race, I think unfairly): it favours the people with power and access (and who are tipped the wink) over those at the bottom starting from scratch. And that's not very Liberal at all.

People have been looking to see if there's an "alphabetical bias" (i.e. do you do better if your name is at the top of the list) and with such huge lists it's easy to see how that can happen, particularly if – like me – you filled in preferences all the way down. Those difficult middle rankings are where it's all too easy to just list one or two people in the order they appear on the paper. I imagine.

But surely it's clear that there is a bias: a bias in favour of "the great and the good" (and a bit of a regional bias too). And that's a problem, because MPs already have representation on the FPC, and Peers already have representation on the FPC and the regions already have representation on the FPC.

Fully one third of the elected members are accounted for by two former MPs, a nearly MP, a Peer and a former leader in the Welsh Assembly. All of them decent people, but we need these committees to be cracking open the establishment, not acting as consolation prizes for the establishment.

So we need to regularise the rules so everyone plays by the same rules, and open things up much more to the grassroots members by allowing much greater use of the Internet. I'm not alone in this: Mat and Jennie have said similar things and I've already got one or two others working along similar lines: keep an eye out for more pieces on Lib Dem Voice and other blogs. And I notice today that the lovely Honourable Lady Mark has also added a voice of authority along the same lines.

At the very least, Internet-based campaigning would crack down on some of the inanities of the manifesto booklet.

My third place pet peeve for the manifestos is people – some of whom are lovely – standing for, and getting on, multiple committees, reducing their own effectiveness and reducing opportunities for other people. Show a little heart for those of us who can't even get on one, guys!

My number two peeve is the "I'll be a strong voice for… (name your compass point)" line. It seems bizarre to me, and yet it's clearly successful, that people can bypass policy discussion by appealing to regional solidarity. It concerns me that it is possibly code: either code for policy positions – perhaps opposition to fishing quotas or support for shipbuilding or affordable rural housing; it's not like there aren't policies that would be of greater significance to one region than others and that should be voiced… but then voice them! – or and I think this would be worse, code for "we're not those London elite".

Besides, I'm all for some geographical diversity, but (e.g.) "The North" could mean anywhere from Manchester to Orkney. Some people think it means Islington! Someone standing up to say "I'm a proud Yorkshireman, and I believe in greater diversity, youth engagement, and pies" gets my vote; someone saying "I am the voice of the Angel of the North" goes straight to the bottom of the list, thank you.

But running some way ahead, I must admit, my number one peeve is the tendency to write up "my faaabulous CV" rather than anything suggesting why you should or could do the job you're applying for. If places on these committees are not consolation prizes, they certainly shouldn't be long service awards, either – I don't care how many Focus you've delivered since joining the party as a foetus, if you're standing for the FPC what will you contribute to policy?! Sorry…

Aaaaanyway, does any of this mean that I think that the FPC will not do its job?

Not necessarily; there are good people on there. But I am concerned that there is a strong "establishment" presence, accidentally shored up by the system, and that the voices of the grassroots members may end up marginalised as "wacky".

These next two years, this new FPC have the opportunity – and obligation – to set the groundwork for how we are going to be distinct from the Tories at the next election.

So what should they be doing?

Well, here are some key areas for starters, for a bit of joined-up Lib Dem thinking:

As a country we're already falling behind in the green revolution, when we have nothing but opportunities and this should be looking to be the manufacturing growth area of the Twenty-First Century. We already have the suggestion to use old shipyards as the new wind turbine factories, but we should go further and look to the next generation of North Sea rigs not prospecting for oil, but using wind-generated electricity to crack hydrogen from sea water. Hydrogen, like oil, can be used in fuel cells or in zero-emission cars, to make energy when we need it, not at the whim of nature and is the logical next step in renewable technologies. Those next-generation rigs can be a whole new start for manufacturing, from the shipbuilding areas of the North East and Scotland to new electric car plants in the Midlands, and we can repay some of our debt to the next generation by supporting engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships in those new industries.

We need a structured plan to withdraw from wasting lives and billions of pounds in cash on the "War on Drugs". In Afghanistan alone we make the situation impossible by fighting both the Taliban and the peasants who grow poppies, when we would be better off buying the crop ourselves and, for example, considering more reasonably the medical use of opiates in alleviating terminal pain. And even while remaining mindful of the dangers of schizophrenia, particularly in young black men, the case for looking again at cannabis is surely now unanswerable. Speaking as someone whose flat was nearly blown up by an illegal cannabis farm on our estate, I'd much rather see some licensed (tax-paying) farms, perhaps in the South-West of England where the economy could do with the lift.

We should not be wasting money on Trident; we should not be wasting lives in Afghanistan; and a Strategic Defence Review based on the premise that we need to "project power" globally is a joke. Instead we should be looking to bring Germany and Italy and Poland (for starters) into the defence pact recently signed with the French.

More than anything, we have got to begin the work of addressing the intergenerational divide that sees more assets held by and more resources tied up supporting an ageing generation of baby boomers at the expense of overworked, under-rewarded young people. We as Liberal Democrats are going to get a kicking for breaking our pledge on tuition fees. And we deserve it. We need to break with Labour's prescriptive target of 50% university entrance – academia isn't for everyone anyway – and offer genuine alternatives, like the apprenticeships mentioned above, like support for City and Guilds, like more overseas service. We can't honestly say that it's essential to cut the country's debt and at the same time pile debt onto graduates. It may be better than Labour's scheme but it looks absurd. And in the long term, we have got to start figuring out how to say "no" to the grey vote before the situation slips from unfair to impossible.

*Of course, it might come as a surprise because you only think of me as the "larger" gentleman who wanders around conference with a big stuffed toy and what's he doing standing for a serious Party committee… in which case you've probably not read much of the blog… and didn't get a chance to in the election, for reasons stated above.


1 comment:

Mark Reckons said...


I was very sorry to see that you did not get elected but congrats on getting pretty close at your first attempt.

I can't help but feel that if online campaigning had been permitted then you might well have made it on first time as you have a lot of very sensible and liberal ideas that should be represented at the highest levels. I was particularly struck with how as far as I could tell, you were the only person standing for election who even mentioned drugs policy in their A5 blurb. That was very heartening to see from you but also quite concerning that nobody else either agrees with you, or alternatively perhaps wants to put their head above the parapet.

Anyway, hopefully these ridiculous online campaigning rules will be changed soon and you will have a fairer crack of the whip next time. I very much hope that you are wrong about the reasons for the rules not being changed though. The idea of a bunch of Lib Dems sitting on a committee and keeping the voting rules to suit them to the disadvantage of others has far too many parallels with the approach of Labour and the Tories to the electoral system for the Commons for my liking....