There was an article in the RG earlier in the week concerning some proposed changes to the constitution of the PLP, which included, according to the article, the reduction of branches from the current 36 to nine, the development of selection criteria for potential parliamentary candidates and mid-term assessments for sitting MPs. The article included statements from some PLPers that they feared the changes would lead to the reinforcement of power in the hands of Dr. Brown and his supporters.
Unfortunately the proposed changes are not available for public viewing, and as a result it seems that there are some unsubstantiated rumours concerning these proposals, lending credence to the alleged perception that these reforms are pro-Brownite. Walton Brown, in the article in question, has done his best to explain the proposals in his capacity as Chair of the PLP’s Constitutional Committee.
While the PLP (and the UBP too for that matter) has a general paranoid approach to openly discussing internal matters, along the idea that loose lips sink ships, it is my belief that the Party should be able to discuss these matters publicly without any risk to itself. Indeed, it could even benefit by having these proposals openly available online for the public to look at, showing that it has the collective maturity and willingness to do so. From what I know of the proposed amendments I see absolutely nothing in it that would damage the Party should they be made public (which they will anyway when the new constitution is made available online, should these amendments pass). Presenting them online and through the media could actually encourage greater discussion amongst members, leading to greater participation in the formal process itself. At the very least, making them public would reduce the risk rumours distorting the reality and leading credence to any perceptions of wrongdoing or gerrymandering.
What I will try and do here is expand on some of the points raised in the RG article and clarify some of the issues involved too.
The Constitution Committee
The RG article refers to these proposed amendments having been developed by the PLP Constitution Committee; I believe this actually refers to the Research & Platform Committee, which is a standing committee of the Central Committee. These committees are described under Clauses 7 and 8 (Central Committee & Duties of Standing Committees, respectively) of the PLP Constitution, of which Research & Platform is only one of eight currently existing constitutionally mandated committees. One of the duties of the Research & Platform Committee is to ‘ensure the revision and rewriting of the Constitution and Bye-Laws of the Party’ (see Clause 8, Section V, subsection C). The only involvement that Dr. Brown, as Party Leader, has over this committee is in formally appointing the committee Chairman and, in consultation with the Party Chairman, the various members of the committee (see Clause 7, Section III, subsections B and C).
Despite the formal role of the Party Leader in appointing members to the committee, in practice any member who wishes to serve on a committee may do so by simply requesting as such, the Party Leader in this capacity being merely a formality. The Leader has no further involvement in the work of the committees than that. As such it would be a mistake to believe that Dr. Brown has directed the direction or design of these proposed amendments. Whether the composition of the committee members would be described as pro-Brownite or not (which is really an artificial term, the Party is far more complicated than a simple dichotomy revolving around support or opposition to Dr. Brown), is a different question, but largely irrelevant. The committee does not exist to dictate to the Party but rather to put forward reccommendations to the Party, of which Delegates Conference is soveriegn and can reject, adopt or adapt the reccommendations as it sees fit.
The RG article states that one of the proposals is to reduce the total number of branches from the existing 36 to nine. Some PLP MPs have questioned whether this would lead to a centralisation of power within the Party and are suspicious of the motives behind it.
I’ve actually commented on the issue of branches before and the need to restructure them, either here or in other forums. When I first joined the Party in 1998 the Party had nine branches. Meetings, at least in my branch, were well attended, usually with at least fifty regular core members. Debate was lively and a sense of camaderie was well-developed. When the Party rightly set about correcting the historical anomalies that were Bermuda’s past constituency system, there was an apparent failure within the Party to anticipate the repercussions for the Party branches. The nine branches were divided up into 36 ones, corresponding with the new constituency system. This led to a number of problems, ranging from confusion about which branch one should attend, arranging meeting locations and dates, insufficient numbers to maintain functional branches and insufficient numbers of members with the experience to organise and chair branches. In short it was a logistical mess. When I returned from university I had difficulties even establishing whether a branch existed in my constituency, and when I did I found that it had only about three regular members.
Only a few branches remained sufficient masses, mainly in the East End and the West End extremities, and these branches began to influence the Party more than they really should have. Branch vitality was largely gone, and this led to a change from a lively grassroots bottom-up dynamic for the Party to a very top-heavy one. While before branches actively developed policies and resolutions that went upwards to Central Committee, now the branch system become mostly a means for dissemenating information down from the Central Committee. The Party had become centralised and a shell of its former self, with the parliamentary group, especially the Cabinet, now dominating the Party, without an effective grassroots branch counterweight.
Far from centralising power within the Party, to me, the return of the nine branch system has the power to help decentralise power and redevelop the branches as a lively and effective counterwieght to the parliamentary group who at times forget that they are supposed to represent the Party membership and not their own interests.
It is important to stress that even though there would only be nine branches, the individual constituencies would remain, and it is these individual constituencies that would elect their respective candidate. Presumably, in the event of their not being any active members within a constituency, then the branch could elect the candidate, but even the least PLP populated constituency there are sufficent numbers to reduce that possibility to nil. What the branches would enable though is greater mobilisation of resources, logistic wise, leading to more effective canvassing and growth throughout their range. Similarly, delegate numbers for Delegate Conventions would not be changed as a result of these proposed changed, they would still be calculated as they are now. But having one large branch, able to meet regularly, should help lead to more active membership throughout their range, leading to greater participation. And far from allowing for the party machinery to be abused, as it currently risks, this set-up should be more resistant to tampering.
In practice this system of four constituencies combining to form a large branch already occurs from time to time, especially concerning constituencies in UBP strongholds, or for regional meetings/rallies.
From what I have seen of the proposed change from 36 to nine branches, I am very much in favour of the change.
This issue seemed to be more controversial one, at least judging by its inclusion in the headline and some comments by unnamed MPs. Despite that, this seems to be a case of confusion borne by rumours surrounding the proposals. There is absolutely nothing in the proposals concerning mid-term assessments. At all.
I think this developed from a proposal stating that all constituencies should have a candidate selected and in place, actively canvassing, by the mid-term point between elections. To me that is a no brainer and is how it should be anyway; you never know when an election (snap or by) will occur, and its best to be prepared. Afterall, proper preparation prevents poor performance. Additionally, having a candidate out there canvassing, even in a non-PLP constituency, is the best way to develop and grow a foothold in such a constituency, as well as ensure that citizens in that area have a good connection with the Party. This is largely a benign amendment and nothing controversial at all.
Despite there not actually being a mid-term assessment, not really at least, I actually think it is a good idea. MPs should indeed be accountable to their branch and, to a larger extent, their constituents. If the MPs are doing their job, representing the constituency and actively canvassing, there shouldn’t be a problem at all. Perhaps delegates should consider adding a more obvious right of recall system into the party constitution.
Candidate Selection Criteria
The RG article notes that under the proposed amendments that candidates for parliament will have to meet specific criteria in order to be approved as candidates (and from there going to the constituency for compete with other approved candidates for election in that constituency). The RG article gives a background of public service as an example of a criteria that would have to be met.
The proposed amendments don’t actually specify what these criteria would be. Instead they would give the Candidates Committee (see Clause 8, Section VII of the Constitution) the power to develop, amend and publish (for prospective candidates) the list of criteria for candidates to meet. The only criteria that is clearly stated refers solely to the membership level of candidates, which is understandable, to reduce certain levels of opportunism.
I am slightly uncomfortable with the idea of setting forth criteria for candidates to meet. I understand the sentiments behind it, but I wonder whether it would have a counterproductive effect, turning some prospective candidates away on a technicality of sorts. Ultimately it risks reducing the potential pool of candidates and making the candidate slate too homogenous. I would prefer it if the wording was changed to make the criteria ‘reccommended’ instead of rigid ‘must have’ as it could be interpreted as is.
There are many more proposed amendments than the three covered by the RG article. Most of them are commonsense housekeeping matters, although some have the potential to cause minor controversy. For the most part however the proposed amendments look set to widen the democratic base of many internal party decisions, and far from centralising power within the office of Leader actually does the opposite. Ultimately though, I don’t see anything within the proposed changes worth getting in a fuss about, and I certainly don’t see any shadowy attempts to centralise power by Dr. Brown or his supporters.