Saving the Soul of Libertarianism in the UK – Part 2

The critique that libertarianism equates to lawless chaos has often been rebuffed with the phrase ‘rules without rulers’. Libertarians don’t love chaos any more than anyone else (arguably they are great proponents of terms and conditions, and contracts) and they do accept the rule of law as a key concept, but as the Cato Institute explains :

“The rule of law means that individuals are governed by generally applicable and spontaneously developed legal rules, not by arbitrary commands…”

One of the great threats to the soul of libertarianism in the UK is the potential to reverse this notion. Even ‘libertarian’ organisations can behave as though they had ‘rulers without rules’ and lacking adequate formal procedures, within the scope of very loose Constitutions, may at times act in ways that seem closer to arbitrary command rather than by developed rules.

The really sad part, when considering specific controversial examples, is there is no Constitutional requirement for them to behave in this way. Yet there is  sometimes no Constitutional barrier to it either. Recent events in the other UK based libertarian party have given cause to reflect on the apparent universal nature of the problem where UK political parties claiming the name ‘libertarian’ are concerned. This time it was the sudden removal of Stephen McNamara from the Scottish Libertarian Party (SLP), just over a week ago, that was both surprising, and disappointing in how it allegedly occured.

Stephen described what happened on his blog:

“Very late on Sunday evening I was woken by multiple phone calls from some of my supporters. It was all over social media that I had been expelled from the party. The public statement from the Party read almost like I had voluntarily resigned! This was clearly designed to be very vague and misleading. It also appeared to be timed to avoid as much negative publicity to the Party as possible, at the end of a busy week when most people have already retired to their beds to prepare for the start of a new working week.”

I must have been one of the first to see the public announcement because the SLP Facebook post linking to it was only a couple of minutes old when it appeared in my newsfeed. I contacted Stephen about it and he told me the SLP hadn’t even said it was their decision to boot him and had worded it almost as if he’d voluntarily resigned, which wasn’t the case. In terms any reasons given by the SLP for their decision to expel Stephen he told me “I’ve had nothing. No warning. No formal allegations. Nothing!”

The following day, when Stephen responded to events in a statement on his blog, he shared the email via which the SLP had informed him of his explulsion and pointed out that it was wholly inadequate, in that it gave “No accusation or reason. No date of decision. No vote result. No invitation to make representation in defence of any allegation. Absolutely nothing. Zero. Not even a single warning.

I could hardly believe it. I was disappointed to find the SLP, who ought to stand for something better, behaving in this way. To find that both libertarian parties in the UK seem to have a problem dealing with member issues in a fair and reasonable way was almost too much to bear. It was doubly disappointing because the SLP had, until then, been able to hang on to some sense of moral high ground in my mind, and might have proven me wrong about the unsuitability of the political party model for libertarianism. Instead they proved me right.

The picture of the whole thing appears worse when you take in the context that Stephen had publicly announced that he was planning to stand for the SLP leadership position at the next AGM. Just think about that for a moment. One moment you’re putting yourself forward to be elected to Party Leader, and the next moment you’ve been kicked out the party without any reason being given to you, without any formal allegations presented to you, and without any opportunity to answer any charges against you. It’s not sounding like rocket science is it? Whatever their motive might have been it both looks and is very bad. If there were other reasons than blocking his run for leadership what was stopping the SLP from spelling it out to Stephen and following an unimpeachable process?

My own response to reading the announcment went online that same evening:

Interested in the reaction this move by the SLP might get among Scottish libertarians, I shared my post on the Scottish Libertarians Facebook Group. I wanted to know what they thought, but I also wanted them to see for themselves what the SLP is willing to try to get away with. As I explained in Part 1, much of what goes on with Party business is behind closed doors and can be missed by Party members, but they can’t do anything about it if they don’t know about it.

In all I was surprised by the ferocity in which a small few sought to defend the indefensible. Not showing very much concern at all that a Party member can apparently be tried in absentia and kicked out without even being informed of what the charges are, and without being given an opportunity to respond to those charges, some moved to attack as if they knew what the ‘secret’ reasons for Stephen’s expulsion were. Very strange behaviour. For people who hold no current office in the SLP and can’t speak for the Party’s Constitutional Committee (CC) who made the decision to remove him, they present as knowing an awful lot, working hard to defend the CC for things they don’t know about rather than questioning why a fair and reasonable process wasn’t followed. Very strange behaviour indeed.

Meanwhile no one is denying that Stephen’s allegations are true. I’d publish the Party’s rebuttal, but there isn’t one. At least the SLP didn’t make up a story to explain the situation as the LPUK have done in the past. Even if their announcement gives the impression that it’s something else, they’re keeping tight lipped about any details. Having seemingly painted themselves into a corner by failing to follow anything resembling expected due process official silence is perhaps the best it has to offer for now.

Even so, I was gratified to see some comments on the group speaking up for a fair and transparent process. This is what libertarianism ought to be about! Even if no one else can or will do it, libertarians ought to be able to provide allegations and evidence, have a hearing in which the accused is able to respond, before making a fair and unbiased, objective decision by those who can be impartial. On this occasion it is alleged they didn’t, though there was nothing preventing them.

Having seen what I have explained in my last post, I concluded that the power inherent in a Party political structure, which can be so easily used badly by those who wield it and so easily kept secret from those who ought to be holding them to account, is incompatible with libertarianism. I favour libertarian candidates standing as independents – my cards are on the table. Such shennanigans in the SLP only serve to reinforce my belief.

Mistakes were made it seems, but were lessons learned? If the soul of libertarianism in the UK is to be saved from these types of events, it seems unlikely to come without pressure from the grass roots. Where individuals see benefit in joining hierchical structures to promote libertarianism, it is wise to insist that they have clear, written procedures and guidelines for members and officers to follow. Have the ‘rules without rulers’ in place or you may find at any moment it becomes rulers without rules. The following is worth being aware of.

First: A Party Constitution alone is insufficient

It’s been said that Constitutions are there to put limits on how individuals or groups with power may act, even in ‘libertarian’ organisations. Yet, in practice particular Constitutions have proven wholly inadequate, and enabled, rather than restrained particular unlibertarian behaviour. Sometimes those defending bad behaviour might point to the Party Constitution as the basis for their actions, boiling it down to ‘the Constitution says we can’, or ‘doesn’t say we can’t’. But there is a big jump between the scope a Party Constitution permits, and what libertarian principles obviously ought to have been voluntarily adopted – you know, because you claim to be a Libertarian Party. I just don’t buy the excuse from libertarians that just because their Party Constitution doesn’t in words require a fair, reasonable and unbiased process when dealing with internal disciplinary matters, that means they shouldn’t follow one all the same. Does this really need pointing out? Given the old adage that power corrupts, no one can assume all libertarians are immune, or that their Party’s dominance hierarchy is not attractive to those who like power. This failure is to have rulers without rules, and to be subject to arbitrary command – which is about as unlibertarian as you can get.

When I was Chairman of the Libertarian Party UK (LPUK) I could see the potential for internal disciplinary to become biased and unfair and, before my resignation, encouraged the development of internal procedures and guidelines compatible with the existing Party Constitution. Nothing complicated, just what you might expect to have already existed after 10 years an organisation with members and fees, but which didn’t yet. Just basic essentials that ACAS, or any professional organisation, might recommend. It was my observation that some of the things that might eventually be called disciplinary issues could be prevented simply by having published guidelines members signed up to, so people weren’t being kicked out for crossing lines that were never painted. All of this was eminently doable, and none of it required Constitutional change. In a nutshell I was asking for the rules to be established, to eliminate arbitrary command. It was in the development stage when moves were made to replace me as Chairman and I sometimes wonder how much my attempt to establish transparent rules was part of what certain others wished to prevent. I mean, libertarians are quick to point out how government hates to relinquish power, and such people can also exist in organisations that call themselves libertarian.

Those who cry ‘we are a Constitutional Party, if you don’t like the Constitution, don’t join’, should be listened to. When you read it, and experience it, the Constitution they claim puts limits on the behaviour of those in power can amount to ‘this committee can do what it likes’. Rulers without rules. Arbitrary command. Take heed, as long as that is the case, ‘don’t join’.

Therefore, clear written guidelines, procedures and processes, especially relating to the removal of member’s rights (you pay your fees), and the appointment and removal of those in power, are essential. Read them, make sure they are suitable, fair, reasonable and eliminate bias. Refer to ACAS guidelines when it comes to things like disciplinary procedures, you won’t be sorry.

Second: Make sure you include procedures for whistleblowing and grievances, and care more about addressing abuse of power than ‘looking good’

One of the traits members of any political Party ought to look out for, is the portrayal that pointing out problems – you know, making people aware of corruption or abuse of power – is somehow worse than the abuse of power being brought to light. (Maybe someone should have told Julian Assange before he started Wikileaks and he might be enjoying family life right now, while bad actors keep getting away with it ‘for the good of whatever organisations they represented while acting badly’).

It’s all very well protesting that bringing misdeeds into public might be damaging to the Party (which it may well be), but if you don’t care tuppence for the misdeeds themselves by comparison then we really are at the core of why the soul of libertarianism in the UK is so at risk. Punishing the messenger is never a good idea.

Recognising that bad acting can occur in any organisation, and that no one should be assumed immune from it, you need a clear written procedure for whistle blowing and grievances. Without these whistles will still be blown, and grievances will still occur, but you’ll be less able to manage their implications and fallout in a fair, reasonable and unbiased manner.

It’s daft to complain when whistles are blown in public when there’s no process for blowing them in private. This is made worse if people who do blow the whistle become the targets of those who ought to be investigating the reason for the whistle or the reported grievance in the first place. Reactionary responses are avoided with proper procedures and guidelines.

This can even go wrong from good motives. Out of ‘loyalty to the party’, individuals can sometimes be persuaded that ‘for the good of the Party’ big fusses or conflict be avoided, even if it means bad actors getting away with things, or those concerned unwittingly becoming party to bad acting themselves. But this is the wrong approach with a host of unintended consequences, which none of the well meaning intended to happen.

One example is selectively turning a blind eye to bad behaviour, particularly from prominent or popular individuals to avoid ‘rocking the boat’, or a misguided attempt to protect reputation. However, the selective nature of this means bad behaviour is accepted from some individuals, but not from others. This is where it easily becomes ‘one rule for them’, and arbitrariness can creep in. When the obvious unfairness of this approach becomes known, trust is lost, and the well meaning attempt to avoid conflict leads to much worse consequences. Clear bias obviously doesn’t go down well with principled libertarians, and so ‘well meaning’ attempts to cover up and run ‘damage limitation’ follow, all step by step leading away from the best libertarianism ought to offer. All stemming from the desire to avoid conflict, or the mistaken belief that some members (senior or popular ones) are ‘the good of the Party’, when really they are just members who ought to be as accountable as anyone else in their role.

Other examples come as a consequence of a disorganised laissez faire approach to dealing with problems. Lacking formal processes to follow the motive to avoid ‘a big song and dance’ can result instead in ‘making it up as you go along’, a perfect recipe for partiality, and the perfect environment for those skilled at manipulation to get what they want in the short term, regardless how damaging in the long run.

The solution to all of these things is simple – get clear, transparent, fair, reasonable and unbiased written procedures and guidelines in place.

Third: Recognise that anyone might have the potential for bad acting

Volunteers for positions in dominance hierarchies come in different flavours. And let’s be clear – everyone is a volunteer – including the leaders. You do get those who like power for its own sake, the stressors and chaos that exist in any organisation provide them with perfect cover, these are more about status and appearances and less about doing the hard graft themselves, they wear a mask, how they present to you may be different to how they present to another. You get the corner stones, reliable, principled, team oriented, who understand organisational structures, people oriented, who make good board members and leaders – these need to understand the bottom up nature of libertarianism to bring out the best in the organisation. You also get those with self-recognised skills who wish to put them to good use for a cause they find worthy, often individualistic and entrepreneurial, hard working, creative, they’ll need to be working towards accepted common goals and accept line managment, but when on side you want more of these. There are also those who enjoy being part of something worthwhile and feeling like they are of significance in it, given a defined role these can be excellent advocates for the organisation and loyal campaigners. Ultimately everyone is unique.

Within such a disparate range of personalities and backgrounds come a range of motivations for involvement. Parties are people organisations and that’s where most of the problems will occur.

Sometimes you will get one of the 1% bad apples (narcissists, psychopaths, looking for power opportunities to manipulate). Unlucky, but if you have the right procedures in place they can be removed. They also find it harder to manipulate organisations that have procedures in place, because they don’t have the opportunity for arbitrary command. Bad, worm ridden, apples resist the implementation of procedures because it places limits on their reason for being there. But isn’t that the whole point? Let those hanging around for the wrong (power) reasons leave, when you’ve made it impossible for them to abuse their position without detection. Better that, than have those acting true to libertarian principles leave because those in power have caused the organisation to lose its way and its libertarian soul.

For everyone else, simply knowing where they stand is a foundation for productivity, progress and confidence. You can but win by getting properly organised.

Whatever the motives for historical bad acting in organisations that ought to know better, it’s probably too difficult to completely unpick without a highly unlikely truth and reconciliation summit of some kind. Whether the past has been afflicted by the motives of bad apples, or simply the consequence of unthinking laissez faire, the soul of libertarianism in the UK can only be saved when libertarian organisations grow up and consistently act in accordance with what they profess.  The future is full of decisions as yet unmade and remains unsullied. Perhaps, by getting their houses in order, libertarian organisations can keep it that way.