By Joseph Finlay, former Deputy Editor of the Jewish Quarterly and contributor to a range of grassroots Jewish organisations such as Moishe House London, Wandering Jews, Jewdas and The Open Talmud Project.
I am pleased that the Chief Executive of the board of Deputies has chosen to respond to my call for genuine democracy at the BoD, it shows a willingness to engage in discussion. But her defence of the status quo is unconvincing.
Ms Merron offers three main defences of the Board’s democracy.
Firstly she argues that ‘many politicians are elected despite receiving the minority of votes cast in elections with low turnouts’. This is true but how many MPs are elected entirely unopposed, without any defined manifesto, as the vast majority of deputies are? And how many parliamentary elections are held in which the turnout remains secret?
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That is the case with elections to the BoD – despite collating the data for the number of votes cast for deputies they have never released a clear list of each affiliated organisation, its membership and numbers voting in its last election. Without this information it is impossible to compare turnout – but the likelihood is that a synagogue AGM is unlikely to exceed to 5-10% of the membership – far lower than the turnout for any UK parliamentary or council elections.
Secondly, Ms Merron argues that my suggestion of turning the BoD into a genuine democracy would lower the number of people that it represents. Lets start by dropping the absurd notion that the Board represent all 300,000 (approx.) British Jews. You can’t claim to represent people that haven’t consented to be represented. The real number of people that the Board represents is the number that vote for a deputy at an affiliate election and I suspect that an genuine electorate of 20,000 would actually be a substantial increase from the present number.
Thirdly, she argues against my suggestion of charging people to vote in order to fund the process. If there are the resources to run genuine elections without charging then all the better. Regardless, any charge would be small – in the region of £1-£5. A model would be the planned open primaries within Labour to elect the party’s candidate for Mayor of London – for which supporters will be able to register to vote for a sum of £3.
Another comparison would be to Trade Unions – just as members must tick a box to agree to contribute to the Union’s political fund members of synagogues could tick a box to say if they wish to affiliate to the BoD and confirming that they agree to pay the small fee on top of their synagogue membership.
And Ms Merron makes no mention of the many Jews who are not members of any affiliate body – how are they supposed to be represented?
She seeks new deputies saying ‘if you don’t like the current structures… don’t just talk about it: make it happen’.
But how are those who are not a member of any affiliate institutions supposed to ‘show up’, despite the fact that, as Jews in Britain, the Board claims to speak for them? And the idea that, because it is currently hard to find candidates for deputies we shouldn’t hold direct elections is an absurdity – clearly it is more attractive to stand for a body with genuine democratic legitimacy than one whose ‘democracy’ looks more like the British Parliament of the 18th century, complete with rotten boroughs and patronage.
Going forward what the BoD really needs is legitimacy – if it is to avoid being usurped by the recently formed Jewish Leadership Council, which doesn’t even claim to be a democracy. A new system which is fully open to all Jews in Britain, whether or not they are part of any affiliate organisation, would, for the first time, justify the Board’s existence and its claim to represent all British Jews.
My proposed reform – a system in which individuals vote directly for the BoD, through electing parties and the president, would be easy to implement. Electoral Reform Services conducts similar work for a vast array of charitable and communal institutions – there’s no reason why they couldn’t devise a simple and cost-effective voting system for the Jewish community. And a genuine democracy could be transformative – bringing decisions into the open, including the currently excluded, taking decisions out of the hand of a wealthy minority and helping to build a more vibrant Jewish community.
Let’s spend less time worrying about the difficulties of making our community fully democratic and focus a little more on the opportunities it could bring.