OPINION: The Board is imperfect but democratic nonetheless

OPINION: The Board is imperfect but democratic nonetheless

By Gillian Merron, Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews

Gillian Merron, Chief Executive, Board of Deputies
Gillian Merron, Chief Executive, Board of Deputies

We welcome Joseph Finlay’s thought provoking article, ‘Forget Yachad, the real Issue is democracy at the Board’, following the decision of Board of Deputies at the recent meeting to admit Yachad into membership. 

We are proud of our democratic structures, which have provided the model for many other representative faith organisations across the UK and globally.  

It is these structures which give us the legitimacy to speak on behalf of British Jews and which have ensured that – for over 250 years – Governments, politicians and journalists have listened and responded to what we have had to say.

Nevertheless, that is not to negate Mr Finlay’s critique.   

He is right when he says that many Deputies are elected unopposed at poorly attended meetings but it is also true to say that many politicians are elected despite receiving the minority of votes cast in elections with low turnouts.  

Barely half of those entitled to vote did so in last week’s Parliamentary by-election. 

In local council elections, turnout is rarely more than a third and fewer than one in eight electors bothered to vote in the recent election for South Yorkshire’s new Police Commissioner which followed the Rotherham child abuse scandal.

Democracy is an imperfect system – “The worst…” in the words of Winston Churchill “…apart from all the others.”

So while many of Mr Finlay’s criticisms are valid, his prescription is flawed.

If it is a struggle to persuade a range of candidates to put themselves forward for election as Deputies for their own synagogues, it is hard to see how this problem will be resolved by removing Deputies from the communities which they seek to represent.  

Furthermore, if individuals were required to pay to register and vote then it would open up the spectre of elections ‘being bought’, or at least particular groups within the community bankrolling the registration of their supporters. 

Cash-strapped students and young people would in all likelihood be completely disenfranchised, make the Board less, rather than more representative. 

And even if such obstacles were overcome, would the result of elections based on universal suffrage represent an improvement on the current model?  

By Mr Finlay’s own estimate, a mere 3 to 6 per cent of Jews in Britain might actually register.

The challenge for the Board that Mr Finlay identifies – of representing the interests of those who do not choose to affiliate to or involve themselves in any communal organisation – is real, but it is hard to imagine such people deciding that the one form of communal involvement they will choose is to pay to vote in Board elections. 

So the proposed solution does not address the problem.

The current democratic model – imperfect as it is – ensures that most parts of our community are represented at the Board. 

What’s more, the very large number of affiliated synagogues provides a crucial bulwark against the takeover of the Board by any one body or interest. 

The extension of the franchise to non-synagogal bodies provides a means by which those who do not choose to join a synagogue can secure a voice at the table. 

It is right that it creates the possibility of dual representation but there is no evidence that this distorts decision-making. 

Joseph Finlay is right to warn against complacency.   

We could and should do better.  The real significance of the Yachad vote, however, was not the organisation’s admission or even the inclusivity it signalled, but the discussion that preceded the decision.  

This was a high quality debate – ranking alongside recent Board debates on the MCB-BoD joint statement, working with Oxfam and a proposed boycott of the Guardian newspaper – showing democracy at work.   

Looking to the future we need to ensure that our democratic structures continue to allow for such deliberations, so that we can attract the brightest and the best to put themselves forward for election.

We need to ensure that the Board’s processes are open and transparent so that Deputies are able to engage in proper and meaningful decision-making.

We need to encourage new candidates to come forward and contest elections, particularly women and younger people who remain under-represented at the Board despite recent improvements.   

Encouraged and inspired by organisations such as ‘Change the Board’, we are already making progress and have dedicated the whole of a forthcoming meeting to an open discussion of our structures.

2015 is an election year, both for the Board and the country.  As we campaign on our Jewish manifesto there can be no doubt that the representative legitimacy of the Board remains as strong as ever.   The challenge, as we look to the future, is to ensure that the quality of participation, debate and decision-making at the Board is continually improving.  And that, in turn, depends on you.  

Decisions are made by those who show up.  The Board is a democracy.  If you don’t like the current structures, think we could do better, don’t just talk about it: make it happen.   And I will look forward to welcoming you as a Deputy.


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