What could reformed Conference voting do for us?
During our consultations, we repeatedly heard from members that they find it hard to get involved with the party’s policy-making and governance. Amongst the biggest barriers are the cost, time, and physical effort of getting to Conferences.
Conversely, though, we heard that members treasure the fact that The Green Party encourages every voice to be heard — and unlike other political parties, we do not restrict our conferences to delegates.
This right of individual members, rather than delegates, to take a full part in Conference provides a form of safeguarding; by giving members a route to each other that is not reliant on their local party, we circumvent some potential conflicts. It is also a crucial channel for unbranched members. That is absolutely not to say that it tries to circumvent local parties. In fact, some of the proposed Conference models that we heard about during our consultations actually enhance the way local parties come together to be part of the policy-making process. We’ll describe that below.
However, that very desirability of universal involvement at Conference is why there is a problem if people cannot physically attend it.
The party has tried, in the past, to address the cost element, both with hardship funds and accommodation-sharing. Both have their problems, the fund being expensive, and the sharing being unpopular due to [a small number of] bad experiences. Neither of those solutions did anything about the need for time off work, or caring responsibilities. And neither did anything to help members whose physical disabilities made attending Conference difficult or painful.
Remote participation could, theoretically, solve all of these problems. So why don’t we just go for it? Well, some people have some concerns that we’re not ready yet. There are three principle areas to be addressed:
- The availability and cost of the technology
- The security of participation
- Accessibility — new methods introduce new issues
1. The availability and cost of the technology
Solutions don’t have to worship high-technology. Simple tools can allow us to extend the debates to local parties.
The idea of “live-streaming” has been much derided. Our existing system is often unreliable, which makes it unpopular. Some strident voices repeatedly object that live-streaming is always inherently expensive. Equally, some keen volunteers often counter that those costs can be avoided through open-source software. But in practice, there are still various barriers to successful live streaming, often due to limitations at venues.
We hope that those barriers will come down in the not-too-distant future. However, in the meantime, most of those barriers to live-streaming do not apply to “not-live” video. Recorded video of conference is cheap to produce and can even have the subtitles or audio description added afterwards, with quality control. It can then be uploaded to the internet, ready for viewing within hours.
Once this video is online, one proposal is that it be played at special meetings of local parties. This could be a great way to encourage lively discussion at local level — in itself a benefit to local parties. It is also a way to support members without good internet, or computer skills.
This process could take place over, say, the whole week after Conference, giving a lot of members the chance to view the debates and engage with fellow members locally.
At the end of that period, the votes would be cast. They would then be integrated with the votes from Conference floor, much like postal votes are in elections.
This would work for almost every aspect of Conference. We have heard some concerns about amendments, but of course, most amendments for substantive motions have to be prepared long before the Conference agenda anyway. It is already the case that very little brand new material of this kind can be introduced from Conference floor.
Decisions from this “delayed voting” could then be communicated to all members in the normal ways just like the results of Conference are now.
2. The security of participation
Some people are concerned that electronic voting can be insecure. However, there are straightforward safeguards that are put in place by bodies such as the Electoral Reform Society, who regularly run online ballots for trade unions, for example. These major national organisations have been persuaded that the current technology makes the ballots sufficiently secure. There will always be some measure of risk in any system. On the flip-side, one should note that the majority of Conference decisions are judged on an uncounted show of hands, observed by the Chair, and others are hand-counted by Standing Orders Committee (SOC). Electronic voting would remove an element of risk of human error.
In any case, electronic voting is not a must-have part of distributed conferences; in the model described above, the local parties could collate and communicate their votes to SOC via secure, old-fashioned post if they so wished.
Another consideration is the anonymity of voting. Since the Green Party aims to make consensus decisions, with voting almost as a fall-back, this would be irrelevant in an ideal world. But sometimes privacy is desired. In these cases electronic voting can be set up to be anonymous and in fact has far more anonymity than a public show of hands.
Electronic voting could also help at Conference itself in the future. Using a combination of members’ own smartphones, and some cheap, rentable “clicker” devices which could be provided for those who don’t have a smartphone, we could enable anonymous, accurately-counted voting from the floor as well.
Some people are not fond of the internet. Others live without mains electricity. Others have difficulty with accessibility issues with computers. There are many reasons why electronic voting can be intimidating. Of course, these factors have to be balanced with the fact that visible public voting at Conference can also be intimidating.
Ultimately, we hope that the suggestion to involve local parties will mean we can support our peers to use, for example, a computer that is brought to the local meeting.
So, are we ready yet?
The Holistic Review recommends a series of pilot trials to test out these kinds of ideas. A task-and-finish group can arrange for a small portion of a forthcoming Conference to be opened up for local discussions and delayed voting, in some volunteer local parties. Any trends in the voting that differ between those present at Conference, and those not, could be analysed to better understand the effect of these methods.