- Category: Meetings
- Published on Sunday, 3 November 2013
- Written by Tim N, Secretary, Steering Committee
Secretary’s Conference Report
I have written a brief report regarding the organisation of the IS Network national meetings, based upon the experience of our recent Politics Conference, as well as drawing upon the lessons of our founding meeting and National General Meeting. This is by no means a definitive account, nor are any proposals contained set in stone; however, it is aimed to be a step towards a standard format and procedure for future meetings. The IS Network is itself a work in progress, and any systems and structures are, and should continue to be, under constant review. However, I believe an agreed-upon standard format is necessary in order to move away from organisation on the hoof, and also to set out parameters so that our democratic forums provide a space which is most conducive for political discussion. There were many issues raised during the conference itself and suggestions as to how to improve our meetings, most notably by the caucuses, but also by individuals. Other lessons became apparent in the course of organising the conference.
What I aim to do is to flag up problems which arose with regards to organisation and, where possible, make suggestions of possible solutions and options. I then suggest we take a vote upon a standard democratic procedure at our next National General Meeting, which can be used to guide us in the future.
Conference Arrangements and Communication
The intention, in the lead-up to the conference, was to have an elected Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC). We had a National General Meeting in Sheffield planned in September where we intended to vote on such a body, which would remove much of the organisation, and decisions, away from the Steering Committee. Unfortunately, the English Defence League called a demonstration in Rotherham the same day. The Steering Committee, quite rightly, didn’t think it was correct for us to have an internal meeting down the road from where the EDL were marching. This, however, meant that the CAC comprised volunteers recruited on an ad hoc basis, and individuals on the Steering Committee still played a major organisational and decision-making role. Hopefully, if we decide to hold such a conference in future, we will ensure this is not repeated by electing a CAC in advance. In part due to the problems caused by the ad hoc nature of the CAC, and in part due to the lack of foresight on behalf of the Steering Committee, a number of issues emerged from which we should learn some lessons. The CAC was not fully functioning and did not meet once in the course of the conference. In future it needs to be actively involved in organising throughout the day.
The main issue was the lack of communication with regard to the format of the meeting in advance. The CAC was formed late and decisions on format and timetabling were left until after the last bulletin, in part to ensure that the timetable reflected the discussions raised in the bulletin, and in part due to problems coordinating the CAC. This created a number of problems. The conference spanned two full days and many members are unable to dedicate an entire weekend. A timetable distributed well ahead of time would ensure that people would be more able to set aside the right time, and attend the sessions they wished to. It would also help people pay further in advance for transport and arrange accommodation ahead of time. This would cut costs and last minute organisational problems. Secondly, it was raised with the secretary and the chair that it was often unclear what the process was during the meeting, which created a chaotic atmosphere and cut down on participation due to confusion. An agenda distributed well in advance and explained clearly, both in writing in advance and orally on the day, would ensure greater clarity and increase participation.
We also had a problem with people being approached to be chairs, and accepting, but this not being followed through with an adequate explanation of what was required of them, what the procedure was, and how the meeting should be conducted. This was partly due to the late notice in appointing chairs. In future, advance notice of who the chairs will be, and proper caucusing of chairs ahead of time, would ensure a greater degree of organisation and clarity on the day.
1.If a Conference Arrangements Committee is required, it should be elected and meet well in advance, and be active on the day of meetings.
2. Agendas and procedures should be distributed and explained both in advance and on the day.
3. Better coordination, advanced notice, and caucusing of chairs.
We have fallen into the habit of “motion-mongering” at our national meetings, and this happened once again at the Politics Conference. There are a number of perfectly valid reasons for this. We are embarking on a rather ambitious project of building our own organisation from scratch - a task few of us have attempted before. All sorts of detailed organisational and structural considerations present themselves. Furthermore, most of us came from a split from the SWP, which had long-established structures and procedures already in place when we joined. Naturally, our first meetings concentrated on proposals and counter-proposals on how we should organise. Secondly, we are committed to participatory internal democracy, and want as many members as possible to take initiatives and make proposals. We also aim to avoid the strict imposition of deadlines in order to ensure that ideas aren’t bureaucratically rejected for procedural reasons. This has meant that we often collectively thrash out motions and amendments in the course of a meeting. This is in many ways quite healthy as discussion among members leads to decisions being developed collectively. This method does, however, have some pitfalls. Many of our meetings become arguments over construction of motions and amendments, and political discussion about perspectives is often squeezed out. It can also cut down on participation, as it can make meetings difficult to follow. Those unable to, or disinterested in, motion-mongering become sidelined. These people, let’s face it, are probably more interesting and sensible than those of us who enjoy that sort of thing and we would benefit from their participation. Also, it is often the case that several motions on related topics are scheduled for a session, but one or two tend to dominate the discussion (the best example of this being the Constitution and Organisation session at conference which was dominated by the debate over whether to appoint a paid worker). This can often lead to other equally important matters being ignored and motions being waved through without debate.
The solution to both these problems would be for all motions to be voted upon at the end of the day in a separate (brief) session. This would allow different groups or individuals to go away, draw up counter-motions or amendments and then present them to members. Main sessions would be free for discussion of perspectives and politics, while a last session would be set aside for motions to be proposed, opposed and voted upon. Pressure for people to “move” their motion or generate and present an alternative proposal in the middle of the session would be lessened (although people could always speak to their proposals if they choose to). Discussion could flow, but proposals could still emerge out of it. This would hopefully ensure that the valuable participatory and collective decision-making aspects of our meetings are not lost, and at the same time more political discussions take place. It would also mean that less contentious proposals have an opportunity to be moved.
There is also a minor issue (but a bugbear of mine, being a professional and recreational bureaucrat) that proposals are often made in a rather inconsistent fashion. In our recent bulletins, several members buried concrete proposals under layers of text. This makes them difficult to distribute and, in many cases, meant that when they were proposed few people knew what exactly they were voting on, as they were unable to read a full essay in the few seconds before a vote was taken. The solution to this last problem is a standard format for motions. This would not be intended to result in a bureaucratic ruling out of order of motions which aren’t presented in a certain way, but rather a request that proposers go away and draw up some simple bullet points. These will be easier to digest and make clear to members what they are voting on.
1. A separate session for motions at the end of the day.
2. A standard bullet-point format for motions to be fiercely enforced with Bolshevik discipline and threats of tantrums from the secretary.
A number of issues in terms of access were raised in the course of the conference. We are attempting to improve accessibility at our events as much as possible. The bulletins were available in different formats, including an audio version, which hopefully meant more people could access them. There is certainly a lot of room for improvement however, and if we run bulletins in future we should liaise with the disability caucus for other ideas.
The room was set up in a lecture-theatre manner where all the seats faced the front. Those who wished to contribute to the discussion were forced to stand at the front to speak (in part due to the PA system being attached to the wall), an experience which many people said was intimidating and discouraged participation. It was suggested that a circular formation for seating would be more conducive in encouraging people to participate. To their credit, the LGBTQ caucus ensured the seating arrangements were changed for the second day of the conference, but we should make this the norm in future. The PA needs to be organised more in advance to ensure that it fits these requirements.
Alongside issues which arose in the course of the conference itself a motion was passed in the Women’s Liberation session which set out some ground rules which would contribute towards ensuring greater women’s participation in meetings. These included enforcing speaking limits on male members, men only being allowed to contribute once in a session, and no more than two male speakers called in a row. These instructions should be passed to all chairs in future meetings. During the report back from the women’s caucus it was requested that more female chairs be appointed. A motion was also passed which insisted that funding for transport and appropriate accommodation for disabled members should be easily available. While the Steering Committee had attempted previously to make this a priority, there were clearly failures in this regard. In the lead-up to the conference, proper communication with the members and the disabled caucus is needed to ensure that the requirements of disabled members are being met.
Lastly, it was suggested at the conference that we pool money from members and provide food at long events, as those with less money will find it difficult to afford paying for their own food at long meetings, particularly at events that last all day or a whole weekend.
1. More liaison with the disability caucus about formats for bulletins.
2. Circular seating arrangements for all future meetings.
3. PA to be organised more in advance of the meeting and needs to meet the requirements of a circular seating arrangement.
4 .Proper enforcement of motions regarding disabled access and women’s participation.
5. A 50/50 gender balance regarding chairs.
6 .Better communication between future meeting organisers and caucus reps in the lead-up to meetings.
7. Representatives of caucuses being involved in the organisation of meetings.
8. Food to be provided at long events.
The main issue that emerged with regard to the caucuses was the lack of adequate time set aside for them to meet. We passed a motion at the conference that caucuses in future should be included in the main body of the meeting, rather than at the end or during breaks. Not only does this mean that oppressed groups are not required to set aside more time for their meetings, but it also means that liberation will not be posed as an “added extra”, but an integral part of our politics. The situation whereby caucuses were not included as part of the main body of the meetings was in part down to lack of communication between conference organisers and caucus reps. Improved communication, and the proper implementation of the motion passed, will ensure this does not happen again.
We have had an ongoing concern with regard to childcare at our national events. At the first two national meetings the crèche was not properly organised, and parents either had to go home, or volunteers had to be found at the last minute to watch children. At the conference, this situation was improved, though unfortunately due to issues with the venue we were unable to run a crèche on the Sunday morning. Just generally, given our poor track record on this people are simply not able to rely upon us to provide childcare, and either make alternative arrangements or don’t come. This needs rectifying, as people need to know, well in advance of our events, that the crèche can be relied upon. This will not only mean that more people with childcare responsibilities can attend, but that more children will be in the crèche, making it a better experience for them. The crèche tends to be organised by one volunteer, who in turn approaches volunteers to staff it. Run this way the crèche will always be a hostage to fortune, dependent on the ability of individuals to organise it and the reliability of those who agree to staff it. A consistently good and reliable crèche is needed at all events. I therefore suggest that, rather than continuing on relying upon a volunteer-led crèche, we hire a crèche run by professional CRB-checked staff. This will be an additional cost, but will have to be viewed as a budgetary priority.