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Why I will not be voting for ERS’s new articles

July 1, 2012

On Sat 14th July ERS members will be voting on a special resolution to clarify and modify the rules governing how ERS operates. I fully support the wish to clarify the rules governing ERS, and recognise the considerable effort put into drawing up the proposals. The trouble is that they incorporate some changes that I find utterly unacceptable. It is a great pity that there was no consultation on these changes, and that no amendments can be put.

The general tenor of the proposed changes is to give more power to council and less to members. I find this unacceptable for a not for profit one member one vote organisation (NFPOMOVO). For profit limited companies are accountable in ways that NFPOMOVOs are not. For example they are accountable to the market, and to major shareholders. By contrast buildings societies are not; governance of the Nationwide leaves much to be desired.
The banking crisis has illustrated the weaknesses in governance in British and American companies. Banks have not been operating in the interests of shareholders.

Further considerations apply to ERS:
a. Ever since ERS first appointed a full time (unelected) CEO, council has had trouble ensuring he or she respects its wishes. Regrettably I see little evidence that the new council has been more successful.
b. ERS enjoys a substantial income from its shares in Electoral Reform Services. This happy situation did not occur by accident it was down to the efforts of those who supported proportional representation with voter choice. The society took a while to decided STV was the best system to realise this, but the principle remains. The income acts as a magnet for those who want to pursue other aims, including staff wishing to further their careers. Existing members have a moral right to defend the society’s current principle aim.

The following are amongst the specific reasons why I cannot accept the proposals:

The decision during the AV campaign to offer free membership without reference to existing members was inexcusable, and based on the council’s summary of the proposed changes, was unconstitutional. 29.4 would seem to make this unacceptable decision constitutional. Whereas it might be acceptable to give council the power to increase subscription levels, it should not have the power to decrease them.

If council wants to attract new mebers on the back of a high profile campaign, we need the concpet of associate members who can speak at general meetings but not vote, and who may not be required to pay a sub. They could always convert to full membership if they genuinely endorsed the society’s aims.

Only (full) members should be able to change the membership application wording. This belongs in the articles not the bye laws.

section 27.11 is appalling. It would allow a caucus of council members wishing to expel a member of council who held contrary views to engineer his/her removal. The possible grounds for expulsion should be defined – one could be bringing ERS into disrepute. A right of appeal is essential.

General meetings should be chaired by a directly elected president independent of council. Chair of council is elected by council.

The winding up provisions are unacceptable and likely to render council members vulnerable to litigation. If the society wanted to donate a substantial portion of its assets to a high profile campaign (section 59.1.1), surely that is not in itself a reason to wind up the society. The application of section 59.1.2(a) would be highly controversial. If the proposal were to donate the assets to Unlock Democracy that would be fought tooth and nail by those who support STV. History suggests that there would be law suits. It seems likely that council members would resign en masse to avoid getting embroiled.

The most likely situation in which the society would wish to wind up is surely that it has lost the energy to campaign. In such a situation the wind up meeting may well be inquorate. Some provision must be made to handle this situation. By providing the backstop of giving the assets to the McDougal Trust at least we would land up with a properly financed educational and reserach capability.

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