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Qualifications for party membership – a response to Mark Pack

Fresh from sorting out the internal election rules of Unlock Democracy Mark Pack has again turned his attention to the internal rules of the Liberal Democrats and has come up with a new proposal for change. This time he’s looking at the qualification period that applies before someone can vote in the party’s candidate selections.

The issue here is that the current rules prevents newly joined up members from voting in candidate selections until they’ve been members for a certain period of time, usually one year. This rule was introduced to prevent individuals gaming the system by signing up lots of new members – who weren’t necessarily genuine supporters of the Liberal Democrats – so that they could vote for a particular candidate in the selection process. The party had experienced a few cases where this was suspected of happening. The theory behind the rule is that if you stay committed long enough to renew your membership then the chances are that you are genuine and so deserve a vote.

The problem is that this rule applies not only to new members – but also to lapsed members, those who have failed to renew their membership but later seek to rejoin. This has the potential to exclude from a particular candidate selection some long-standing and committed members who, for one reason or another, simply forgot to ensure that their membership was up-to-date. Actually, in one of the reports to last Saturday’s English Council I heard some evidence that this very situation has occurred in relation to the recent selection process for Euro candidates.

In short, Mark’s proposal is to keep the qualifying period rule for new members but to get rid of it for those who have lapsed.

Generally speaking I am supportive of this proposal – instinctively I would want to get rid of anything that prevents genuine members taking part in the party’s democratic processes – but I think Mark may be confusing the issue a bit in the way that he is advocating for this change. The idea that this opens up the possibility that potential candidates will make an effort to go around and renew lapsed members, and so provide a bonus for the party, is I think a bit of a red herring.

For me the issue is one of fairness and openness in our democratic processes. While it does seem odd to me that someone who has been a member of the Party for over ten years, but whose membership has lapsed for six months, gets treated the same as someone who has never been a member at all. But I’m doubtful whether the ability to recruit lapsed members, although a useful skill, should be considered as something that carries that much weight in choosing a candidate for elected office.

But it is a proposed change that is worth considering and I’m grateful for Mark for asking me to comment.

As it happens I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about what membership of a political party actually means. A person can be a strong advocate of certain political objectives or an active volunteer in a specific election campaign without being a member of a political party. So why be a member? Part of my answer to that question centres around participation internal democracy and things like candidate selection.

What I hadn’t really focussed on, until Mark asked me to comment on this, was that parties – implicitly at least – require individuals to meet certain qualifications before they can become members. Paying the membership fee is an obvious one. And in the Liberal Democrats, as things currently stand, you have to serve a “probationary period” before can get “full” membership with entitlement to take part in all the Party’s selection processes. Thinking about it further it is also implicit in my reaction to Mark’s proposal that I see a lapsed member as “more qualified”, and perhaps deserving of different treatment, than someone who has never been a member. Whether this should be the case is open to question.

Looking wider than the specific rule under discussion, I wonder whether a useful reform would be to make more explicit the “qualifications for membership” that the Liberal Democrats expect those who become its members should have?

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  1. Mark Pack 21 November 2012 at 21:24 #

    Thanks for commenting on the idea Andy.

    Interesting to see how you approach this issue from a different angle. I guess my main focus is that the rules we have for selections will inevitably favour candidates with some skills more than others. The rules also therefore encourage and entice candidates to develop certain skills.

    For example, as selections involve hustings meetings, candidates who are better at public speaking tend to do better in the contests and all candidates are more likely to put effort into honing their public speaking skills.

    In this case that’s fine as we do benefit from having more candidates who are good public speakers.

    I think the same applies to membership skills, plus also as a neat two birds with one stne effect, by encouraging more of that activity we’d end up with more renewals.

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  1. […] internal rules of the Lib Dems with regard to the rights of lapsed members to vote in selections. Proposals to which I responded.  While his proposals haven’t been adopted, Mark reports that the English Candidates […]

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