Thursday, February 18, 2010

Liberal Youth: a Returning Officer, a constitution and a petition

Those of you who follow these things will be aware that recent events in Liberal Youth have been consistently interesting, if less than entirely ideal.

Following the resignation of Elaine Bagshaw as Chair, and consequent other resignations, the remainder of the Executive Committee have required bolstering with a series of co-options pending an opportunity to hold elections as specified by the Constitution of the organisation. The nature of those elections is now the matter of some debate, and I find myself in a slightly uncomfortable position.

A petition has been gathered, calling upon the Executive Committee and myself as Returning Officer, to hold a full postal ballot of the membership to fill the currently existing vacancies until the end of their current term (30 June). Martin Shapland explains their motivation here...

There are two aspects here and, in the spirit of openness, it seems appropriate to discuss them in the public domain.

Firstly, I would suggest that asking the Executive Committee to respond is unhelpful. If the request of the signatories was consistent with the Constitution, the Executive Committee would expect the Returning Officer to implement it. Indeed, as the Returning Officer, I would be obliged to do so. If, on the other hand, the request is contrary to the requirements laid down by the Constitution, the Executive Committee would be expected either to reject the request or instruct the Returning Officer to proceed in a manner contrary to the Constitution. The difficulty is, I feel, an obvious one.

Indeed, if I was to receive such a request, I would be obliged to refuse it in any event. To operate in a manner which contravenes the Constitution would jeopardise the status of Liberal Youth as a Specified Associated Organisation of the Party, would leave the elections wide open to appeal, and risk making the organisation rudderless in the run-up to a General Election. For that reason, I have asked the Executive Committee not to respond to the petition as I feel that by doing so, they risk muddying the waters.

So, that said, time to look at the Constitution...

Article 9.7 states that, for elections at conference under Articles 9.2 and 9.6 all members shall be entitled to request and receive a postal vote before close of nominations. In turn, Article 9.6 (the relevant clause here) states that by elections to fill vacancies under Article 10.6 shall take place at the earliest possible conference where election deadlines can be maintained. For completeness, the relevant element of Article 10.6 states that vacancies for members of the Executive under Article 6.1 a) – f) shall be initially filled by cooption and then by by-election under Article 9.6.

That means that these instructions relate to the election of the Chair, the four Vice Chairs and the eight General Executive Members.

On the other hand, Article 9.3 states that Liberal Youth shall elect by all member ballot, within two months of Spring Conference each year, the members of the Executive under 6.1 a) – f).

There is, I suggest, a clear differentiation between what is required for the mandatory annual elections and the casual vacancies caused by resignations, deaths and defections, and, whilst the idea of an all-member ballot might be enticing to some, it is not what was intended by the drafters of the Constitution, for if it were, they would have explicitly required it.

There is some contradiction here, in that, as a democrat first and a liberal consequentially, the ideal of a universal franchise is appealing. However, it is not for a Returning Officer to superimpose his world view on an organisation which is sovereign, has constructed its own organisational framework by democratic vote, and of which he is not a member.

And therefore, I have decided not to grant the desires of the signatories of the petition. I have not, as I see it, made a ruling, as there has been no challenge to Article 9.7, merely a request that we grant extra-Constitutional rights to members.

I am aware that this decision will be unpopular in some quarters. So be it. If Returning Officers strove to be popular rather than correct, it would make it virtually impossible to do the job in a manner which properly balances the interests of individual members and of the organisation itself. There is an Appeals Panel which has the power to overturn any ruling, or perceived ruling, made by me. And, ultimately, if the Executive Committee is unhappy with my performance of the duties of Returning Officer, it is at liberty to replace me, assuming that I would wish to continue in the role.

It is, after all, a two-way street...


hypnoticmonkey said...

Assume for a moment:

Gordon Brown called the GE and it is taking place in 2 weeks. Every moment is vital and Liberal Youth own a printer, folder and stuffing machine that works at light speed. It would be a waste of time to open every request for a ballot and return them in dribs and drabs, so the exec decide to just print all the ballots and post them out to every member, for expediency. Rule that unconstitutional, would you?

hypnoticmonkey said...

At the end of the day, 9.7 is there to ensure a basic minimum - that those who can't attend conference can still vote.

The 19th Ammendment to the US constitution reads:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

This doesn't mean it's unconstitutional for a specific state to pass a law to have universal automatic voter registration, it just provides a basic minimum right.