Bolton’s new UKIP constitution

Henry Bolton made his proposed reforms to the UKIP constitution available today.

The need for reform has been one of Bolton’s themes since the leadership election campaign, and even more so in the run-up to the EGM next week, in which the UKIP membership will decide whether to endorse last month’s vote of no confidence in his leadership by the NEC.

I made my view on Bolton clear here. But the need for constitutional change is not just his personal obsession. 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.

So let us take a look at the proposed reforms on their own terms, before considering how, if at all, this should affect the vote at the EGM on Saturday.

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 UKIPs NEC) ever since.

The basic dilemma of Governance is that to be democratic you need an elected body with real power drawn from the rank-and-file members, and to represent a reasonable 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 any more). They don’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.

It is well established that effective executive decision-making is done by a body of 6-8 people: enough to provide a range of perspectives, 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. (Possibly the biggest structural problem we have in British politics today is that the professional politicians in all the mainstream parties have gone native and now have far more in common with each other than with their electorates. That is why UKIP was needed to get us out of the EU). So the elected body must not be sidelined either. It’s 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, then, is to strike the right balance between the powers of the part-time directly elected representatives, the smaller and more focussed executive with strategic control, and the full-time paid staff. That can be done, but I firmly believe that human nature is such that it can’t be done without a more or less permanent state of tension between the different arms of the organisation. You are winning if you manage to make this a creative rather than a destructive tension. With that in mind, how do Bolton’s proposals stand up?

This is not a wholesale rewrite of the constitution but in large part a tweaking of the existing one. The main departure is to introduce a Party Management Board (PMB) to take on the role of the executive as I described above. The idea is that the NEC is responsible for oversight and the PMB is the primary decision-making body with day-to-day control. However the NEC retains the word ‘executive’ in its name which is likely to cause confusion. Perhaps renaming it the National Committee (NC) would be wise?

Nomenclature apart what is proposed is a fairly conventional structure. The main shortcoming of the existing structure, namely that too much responsibility is placed on the amateur and part-time NEC, is fixed. But the details are scrappy. For example at 2.6 we have:

To that end it shall be the policy of the Party that the United Kingdom shall cease to be a member of the European Union or take any decision that shall involve the surrender of any part of the United Kingdom’s sovereign independence.

That it not quite grammatical. Has this taken Bolton five months to put together? Or was it cooked up in the last couple of weeks with no time for proof-reading? New clauses clip the wings of he NEC and unsurprisingly the Party Leader gains powers:

36.2 The Party Leader shall have responsibility for the direction and management of all aspects of the Party’s policy and political organisation.

36.3 The Party Leader shall be supported by the Chief of Staff and the Staff in delivering his responsibilities.

NEC members become the regional chairmen. This makes sense for a political party because both council and parliamentary elections are inherently local.

The NEC retains very few powers that can’t be vetoed by the leader. But crucially it does retain the right take a vote of no confidence in the leader, to be confirmed, as at present, by an EGM of the members. So despite the somewhat hyperbolic language it would be wrong in my view to see the new rules as nothing but a power grab by the leader. The leader is also elected by the members and the members expect him to be able to lead. The no confidence/EGM mechanism is the right one, should the NEC decide the leader has gone off the rails. The proposed constitution provides a broadly reasonable balance between the NEC, PMB and leader and (subject to consultation and amendment) gets my qualified support.

However the way this has been launched less than a week before the no-confidence EGM must raise suspicions that it is at least in part a diversionary tactic. How long would we have had to wait for a draft constitution and a timetable for consultation if the Marney text messages had not surfaced? As Bolton puts it  “This is the opportunity – reform or die”. This isn’t about me or my racist girlfriend, it’s about this new constitution. Vote for me or the constitution gets it!

But the EGM is not about reform. The only motion on the ballot is about the fitness of the leader. There seems to be very broad agreement that reform is needed, and there is nothing particularly clever about the proposed changes. Any professional governance consultant would have come up with something very similar. Why should we suppose Bolton is the only leader who could deliver it?

There is also a danger of fetishising process. Reform must happen, but what the party needs most urgently at present is sound policies and strong leadership, and Bolton has given no indication he can provide either.

On Monday night I attended a meeting of Gloucester UKIP at which Bill Etheridge (UKIP MEP), Gareth Bennett (UKIP NEC and WAM), Reece Coombes (founder of and several others spoke. The consensus among many members who had dealt (or tried to deal) with Bolton was that if you were not in his inner circle, you could not get to talk to him. He was described as aloof and arrogant. His treatment of Young UKIP in failing to listen to their concerns about raising the student membership fee from £2 to £20 came in for particular criticism. His complete failure to support Gareth Bennett in his freedom of speech dispute with the Welsh Assembly was hard to comprehend.

Perhaps surprisingly, Bolton’s private life was hardly raised as a reason for voting against him. For many activists and NEC members  the Marney affair appears to be the last straw, serving to underline the leader’s poor judgement, lack of integrity and inability to conduct himself appropriately.

Nevertheless it is clear Bolton has pockets of support around the country, particularly in the West Midlands where the EGM is to be held. Nothing can be taken for granted. If you are still a UKIP member and you think this vote matters, you have to be in Birmingham on Saturday.

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