Friday, October 13, 2023
VIDEO: Vote James Kelly #1 for Alba's Membership Support Convener to democratically empower *all* party members
Thursday, October 12, 2023
Vote James Kelly #1 for Alba's Membership Support Convener: Thoughts on how to radically democratise Alba's conference
As I said in yesterday's post, part of my reason for throwing my hat in the ring for the Membership Support Convener election is to hopefully kickstart a debate about thoroughly democratising the Alba Party's internal structures. Of course if I was elected nothing would change automatically, but I'd at least be able to raise these issues and I'd have a mandate behind me to do so. The most important thing in my view is that the ruling body of the party, the NEC, should become fully elected by the whole membership. That's not the case at the moment, with only around half the spots on the NEC elected by the rank-and-file - and, as it happens, all of those positions were filled without a vote last year, meaning that the outgoing NEC has a very limited democratic mandate. But I think there is a broader test that ought to be applied and it goes beyond the issue of NEC elections. Is there any actual good reason why the members should not be in full control?
As far as the NEC is concerned, the answer to that question is obviously no. The only logical reason I can think of for not allowing most members to vote for ordinary members of the NEC is to give people an incentive to pay the registration fee to attend conference and thus gain voting "privileges", and that isn't a remotely good enough reason. It's wrong as a matter of democratic principle, because people shouldn't have to pay extra for what should be their automatic democratic rights as members, and nor should the opportunity to purchase those rights be finite on a "first come, first served" basis. But it's also completely needless, because I think we all know that enthusiasm for attending the conference would be just as great even if there was no exclusive right for attendees to elect ordinary members of the NEC. That's not the main attraction by any means.
It's the same story for the other committees being elected by the tiny subset of members who have voting rights at National Council - is there any good reason why the wider membership couldn't be making that choice for themselves? Of course not. If it's just to give the National Council something to do, well...come on. That's not more important than maximising the power of members, not by a long chalk.
As was pointed out on the comments section of the previous post, the real reason why voting rights of members have been limited in this way may be more to do with making the party more controllable by the leadership of the day. Which may well be an innocent enough state of affairs for as long as we have a leadership we all approve of (which is very much the case at present) but becomes much more of a problem in the Starmer or Sturgeon scenario where a new leader takes over and then moves the party in a dramatically different direction without any prior indication that this was what they intended. Once that happens, it can very quickly be checkmate if the internal democratic processes do not allow the members to reassert control.
Which brings me onto the question of conference, which is the supreme decision making body of the Alba Party. We use the term "conference delegates" but of course that's not accurate - they're not delegated by anyone, they're simply members who have registered for conference on a first come, first served basis. The best analogy would be the annual public meeting in a direct democracy such as the Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, where any citizen can simply turn up and be a lawmaker for the day. It's wonderfully empowering, but there is a limitation in Alba's case - numbers are artificially limited due to the size of the venue, and in any case we all know that there are people who would love to go but are simply unable to do so due to personal circumstances. Again, we come back to the principle I suggested earlier: is there any good reason why all Alba members should not form part of the supreme decision making body of the party and thus have absolute control over the party's destiny? Due to the current state of technology, the answer is inevitably and obviously no. The conference is already livestreamed for the benefit of non-attendees and it would be incredibly easy to allow those non-attendees to take part in votes on resolutions electronically. It wouldn't be all that difficult to go even further and have a properly hybrid conference with remote speakers, but voting rights are always the bottom line. Extending voting at conference to all Alba members is so obviously in keeping with the logic of a conference open to all that it's surprising it hasn't already happened.
If I'm elected as Membership Support Convener, I will be trying to spark discussion on these issues of internal party democratisation, but I also want to prioritise engagement with members, particularly re-engagement with less active members, and to help resolve some of the communication difficulties between Alba members and the leadership that have plagued the party over its two-and-a-half year history.
One beauty of standing is that even if I don't win, I can use my campaign to raise awareness of issues that are troubling members, and that might make it more likely that they'll be resolved regardless of who is elected. So if you're an Alba member and there's anything you'd like to draw to my attention, feel free to drop me a line at: email@example.com
Voting opens tomorrow (Friday) and all current Alba members can vote. You should receive an email link to the online ballot when the vote opens. It's a preferential voting system, so although I'm asking you to give me (James Kelly) your first preference, you can if you wish give me your second or third preference instead, and of course I'd be equally grateful for that!
Wednesday, October 11, 2023
Vote James Kelly #1 for Alba's Membership Support Convener to kickstart a conversation about moving to a democratic one-member, one vote system for electing the NEC
First of all, many thanks again to everyone who nominated me - there was a late flurry at the end which got me well past the required twenty mark. So now I want to share my thinking with you for putting myself forward for Membership Support Convener, and how that thinking has crystallised over the last couple of years by simply observing the way things have panned out within Alba.
As you might remember, when we were all starting with a fresh slate in 2021, I stood as a candidate for ordinary member of the NEC and was lucky enough to be elected. During that election process, a number of people complained to me about two things: a) that ordinary NEC members were not being elected by the rank-and-file membership but only by the small minority of members who effectively paid a premium fee to register for conference, and b) that other crucial elements of internal party democracy were being stripped back, for example by not having direct elections for party chair or party treasurer. I certainly agreed with the point about NEC members and made clear that I would be supportive of a change to election by one-member-one-vote. In all honesty, though, once I was actually on the NEC it was a very new experience for me - when I was a member of the SNP I had never held internal office even at branch level, so there was a process of adjustment as I got used to how everything worked, and raising what I knew would be highly controversial and unwelcome points slipped down my list of priorities.
But I think what happened last year puts beyond all doubt that the current election system is not fit for purpose and has to change. National Office Bearers on the NEC (including the position I am currently standing for) are elected by all Alba members - but that doesn't count for much if there is only one candidate for each position and no election is held. That is exactly what happened in 2022. Not a single vote was received by the Leader, the Depute Leader, the Women's Convener, the Equalities Convener, the Organisation Convener, the Membership Support Convener or the Local Government Convener. It's highly likely that all or most of the people who took or retained office would have been elected anyway - but the bottom line is that members had no choice to make. With glorious irony, though, there then followed an extraordinarily competitive election for ordinary members of the NEC, but most Alba members had no say in that either. From memory, it was only something in the region of 5% of the membership who were both eligible to vote as conference attendees and actually did so. To add insult to injury, there were severe problems with the vote, so even some of the people who tried to vote didn't succeed. There were separate ballots for female and male candidates, and some people submitted their form without twigging that they'd only voted in one of the ballots. They then weren't able to make any changes and were effectively stuck with an unintended partial abstention. As one of the unsuccessful candidates (I managed mid-table respectability in sixth place out of eleven on the male ballot, thus missing out on one of the four spots available), I didn't raise any complaint because it seemed highly unlikely to me that the glitches made any difference to the final result - all candidates would have been affected equally. But from a voter's point of view, that sort of episode just isn't good enough. If you have to pay extra to be able to vote, you certainly have every right to expect that your vote will be recorded.
So we ended up with an Alba ruling body that quite simply was not elected by the membership. Half the people on it simply 'emerged', while the other half were only elected by a very small premium-paying selectorate. That's part of the reason I felt it was important to stand for one of the National Office Bearer positions this year, because if I ensured that there was a minimum of one challenger to the incumbent, members would at least have some kind of choice for one spot on the NEC. But I also felt it was important to give the whole Alba membership an opportunity to express support for one very simple proposition - that the entire ruling body of the Alba Party should be elected by the whole membership. There is no justification for members being denied their right to choose the ordinary members of the NEC as well as the National Office Bearers. Any party that does not allow its members to elect the ruling body is not a truly functioning internal democracy. Frankly, I think the current system only looks vaguely justifiable to people (or to some people) on the basis that it's "slightly more democratic than the SNP, at least on paper", but that's not really good enough. There's not much point in starting a new party unless the intention is to lead the way and create something genuinely superior to what has gone before.
I hesitate to use the phrase "de facto referendum" (ahem), but if I am elected Membership Support Convener on the basis I have just set out, I would claim that as strong evidence that the party membership as a whole is not satisfied with the current arrangements for electing the NEC and that there needs to at least be a conversation about moving to full one member, one vote (with the exception of the position of parliamentary group leader, who I would agree needs to be on the NEC as of right). And hopefully I might help to start that conversation even if I am not elected, but obviously the more votes I receive, the more likely that will be to happen. My own personal view, actually, is that all of the party's national committees should be elected by the whole membership, but the really important thing is that the ruling body should be democratically elected.
Our occasional commenter Keaton has made the point a number of times that even if the people arguing that Alba needs to totally replace the SNP as the leading party of independence get their way, Alba would then just turn into the SNP Mark II as a result of careerists joining the gravy train, and we'd end up back to square one with independence on the backburner. What is the only protection against that danger? The membership having total democratic control over their own party. A party with constitutional structures that allow it to be "managed" by the leadership of the day will always be vulnerable to a takeover by cliques or vested interests, as we have seen in the SNP in recent years.
More broadly, I think I would bring a distinct perspective to bear as Membership Support Convener, because I am one of the people who due to personal circumstances haven't been able to attend in-person events regularly, so I know what it feels like to be part of an "invisible membership" who are on the outside looking in as an 'in-person core' effectively get on with (to all intents and purposes) being the party. The other day I saw an NEC candidate being castigated on the basis that "we never see this guy, who the hell does he think he is putting himself forward?" That attitude is a massive part of the problem. There are a million and one good reasons why some people simply aren't able to pound the streets at by-elections or attend in-person LACU meetings, and telling those people they have no contribution to make is incredibly alienating, not to mention ableist. This is 2023, folks, technology has advanced, and there are many ways that people can make a contribution if you would just allow them to do so. As Membership Support Convener, my first priority will be to re-engage that wider "inactive" membership and make them realise they have a genuine stake and a role. Even if you truly believe that only in-person active members have any value, the goal should surely be to increase that base of active members, and you're not going to do that by saying to people "this is our party, not yours, so butt out". It's also not the way to stop inactive members from ceasing to be members at all.
I think it's fair to say that internal online communications between the party and the membership have at times left a lot to be desired, and I have heard the word "shambolic" being used. I'm no more perfect than anyone else, and I'm sure I would make mistakes and sometimes people would still feel dissatisfied, but nevertheless I do feel confident that with fifteen years of experience as one of Scotland's leading pro-independence bloggers, I would be able to find creative ways of engaging the party membership by email communications, and hopefully I could help ease some of these ongoing problems.
The vote opens on Friday, and there will be a preferential voting system. Obviously I'd ideally like you to give me your first preference vote, but if you don't want to do that, you also have the exciting opportunity to give me your second or third preference vote, and I'd be equally grateful for that!