The Bolton Legacy: Reform Of The NEC Is Needed
On Saturday I attended the UKIP EGM at which Henry Bolton was removed from the leadership, and Gerard Batten replaced him as interim leader.
I voted against Bolton, so I was satisfied with the result: the members were right to conclude that he was no longer a tenable leader.
But I don’t want to pick over the flaws of the Bolton leadership. That is now in the past. I want instead to concentrate on one thing that I think he got right, that we are in danger of losing sight of as we move forward.
He was right about constitutional reform, it is needed, and he was broadly correct about the form that it needs to take. I was not recording or taking notes so I may not have got this quite right, but I remember him to have said this:
“You can’t have the the day-to-day running of a modern political organisation in the hands of a body that meets for three hours once a month”.
He was, of course, talking about the UKIP NEC, and he is surely correct. Nigel Farage has also called for reform, memorably calling the NEC total amateurs who come to London once a month with sandwiches in their rucksacks.
Bolton’s supporters had tried to paint the EGM as a battle between the leader and the NEC, and furthermore a battle about reform vs the status quo. In response, his opponents trashed his “back of a fag packet” new constitution, and it was fairly easy to do so. But thoughtful members on both sides recognised the need for reform, so let us try to see what we can retrieve from the wreckage.
I have a long-standing interest in the Governance of representative organisations, having been one of the authors of the constitution of the freelancers’ trade association IPSE (formerly PCG) in 2000, and a member of its Consultative Council (the rough equivalent of UKIP’s NEC) ever since.
The basic dilemma in the Governance of a democratic organisation is that you need an elected body with real power drawn from the rank-and-file members, and to represent a cross-section of views it needs to be quite large. But such a body is by definition amateur. (If you were to pay them a salary, even if you could afford it, they wouldn’t be ordinary members anymore). So they won’t have time to spend more than a few hours each week keeping up to speed with developments, and they can’t react quickly enough to keep pace with the media cycle.
On the other hand, it is well established that effective executive decision-making is done by a body of 6-8 people: enough to provide a range of views, but not so many as to induce paralysis. And you need a professional full-time staff to implement those decisions, issue press releases, write briefings, produce newsletters, answer the phones, give interviews etc.
So your directly elected body can’t run the organisation on a day-to-day basis, and should not try. But professional politicians and administrators necessarily have quite a different perspective to the ordinary voters they are paid to represent, and may not always accurately reflect their concerns. So the elected body must not be sidelined either. Its members are not professional politicians but they will often be professionals in their own fields with a wealth of experience to bring to the organisation.
The problem, common to many organisations, is to strike the right balance between the powers of the part-time directly elected representatives, the smaller and more focused executive with day-to-day control, and the full-time paid staff.
The problem with the current UKIP constitution is the one that Farage, Bolton and others correctly identified, namely that the NEC is effectively all-powerful and the leader is, therefore, unable to lead without fear of being overruled by the next monthly NEC meeting.
So the basic idea of a Party Management Board (PMB), with clearly defined responsibilities for the PMB, the NEC and the leader is valid. Indeed I think any professional Governance consultant would have come up with the same idea in one form or another. It is not rocket science.
The PMB must have day-to-day control and must be able to decide the party’s response to political events without having to wait for NEC approval. The leader is also elected by the members and the members expect him to be able to lead. Conversely, the NEC should be consulted about, and have a role in formulating new policy initiatives. Direct involvement of the membership in the policy process via the internet should also be written into the constitution. The role of the NEC should then be primarily one of oversight. In order to do that it must be kept informed and consulted. Annual budgets should be approved by the NEC. Day-to-day expenditure should be in the hands of the PMB, etc.
How can we address the perceived democratic deficit involved in ceding day-to-day control to the PMB? There are a couple of ways. One is to have the PMB members appointed by the NEC, or appointed by the leader subject to confirmation by the NEC.
The other mechanism to keep control ultimately in the hands of the members is the one we exercised on Saturday, namely the EGM called as a result of a vote of no confidence by the NEC. (Bolton’s proposed constitution retained this power). This power should be used rarely, but the possibility should be enough to ensure that the leader and the PMB do not go off the rails or compromise the principles of the party and the interests of it members. It worked this time.
In summary, while Bolton’s proposed reforms were hastily thrown together and contained some ill-advised novelties, to dismiss them in their entirety as Stalinist is misguided. Any serious attempt to address the shortcomings of the present rules is going to have to include the main features discussed here. The division of powers between the NEC, PMB and leader needs to be carefully formulated and widely discussed.
The main priorities of the interim leader should be to project a clear policy agenda, re-assert UKIP’s place in the debate about of leaving the EU and energise the party to fight the local elections in May. But in parallel with that, a working party of the NEC should be tasked with turning Bolton’s draft into a document ready to be put out to consultation with the members. This can be put off no longer.