08 May 2014

I can't stand up for falling down (Society of Authors management committee election part 2)

My election statement:
I am standing in this election to ensure that members have a choice, as I did last year, when three of us who were members of the constitution task force put our names forward for the Management Committee. We believed that the Society needed change to make it a responsive, democratic organisation in which members were fully involved. It is, after all, a trade union and must be judged against the standards of other unions. Just by standing we ensured that members directly elected four candidates to the Management Committee.

I continue writing and lecturing about, and practising, intellectual property and other types of law, as I have done for 33 years. The Society remains the same, too, for the time being, and elections are being run the same way. In what other organisation is a list of candidates approved by the executive and announced to the electorate, so that independent candidates join in only after the starting gun has been fired? If any other trade union conducted its elections in this manner, there would be widespread outrage.

The Task Force’s recommendations for reform were filtered through the Management Committee before being presented to the membership. Just as it nominates its own candidates, so the Management Committee makes recommendations for reform, patronisingly offering members ‘an alternative solution’. It proposes that its own candidates continue to be given a head start, as the ballot paper will identify those whom it prefers. The level playing field is merely ‘an alternative’. But Management Committee members may nominate whomever they wish, and overt approval from serving members carries considerable weight: why should the committee itself have the privilege of making nominations? To present an open and democratic procedure as ‘an alternative’ to a system that entrenches the nomenklatura is a travesty.

My platform is to do all I can to make the Society responsive to what you want and need. My legal expertise and experience benefitted the task force and is now offered to the MC. I offer no manifesto setting out what I think the Society should do for its highly diverse membership, because different members need different things, and I do not presume to tell you what they are. If elected I will listen to you. Victorian paternalism might have been appropriate for much of the Society’s history, but in the 21st century it needs to be transparent and – yes, that word again – democratic. Only then will we have a Society fit and able to represent the interests of all authors – members and prospective members – in the very challenging environment of the 21st century.

I pledge to work to create a management committee that does what members tell it to do, rather than telling members what they should do. That, to my mind, is democracy. If it accords with your idea of democracy, please support me and the other reformist candidates to bring about the radical change that the Society's establishment will not embrace.
Normally the idea of drafting by committee would be anathema to me. This is not really a committee work, but I received valuable input: what made it interesting, and fun, and unusual, was that the input came from published authors, including a couple of well-known novelists. James Michener reportedly said 'I'm not a very good writer but I'm an excellent rewriter', and the truth of that statement is apparent to me every time I review something I have written - it always benefits from being rewritten, though often it doesn't get the amount of time it needs. And this exercise in writing to a word limit has also shown me the importance of choosing carefully the right words - not only does the writing become more powerful, it becomes more concise too.


Let's work together (Society of Authors management committee elections)

The Society of Authors is a nice organisation of which to be a member. You meet interesting people and make interesting friends. Once I went to a party the Society held for Shakespeare's birthday, where the Poet Laureate read a couple of Sonnets and I talked to Sir Michael Holroyd about his (short) time as an articled clerk. I joined the Society back in about 1987, although I haven't always paid my subscription on time and my membership has had to be revived at least once.

A couple of years ago my old friend, the novelist William Horwood, introduced me to a group of members who were interested in the reform of the Society's constitution. It was not a topic that I had worried about much until then. I was amazed to find that what I had taken to be a pleasant little club for like-minded people with an interest in writing was in fact a trade union, albeit one that features on the 'special register' of unions which don't have as their main function the regulation of relations between employers and employees, and which are permitted to be incorporated under the Companies Acts (or by Royal Charter or Letters Patent). The Society is, it turned out, a private company limited by shares, which must have seemed like a good idea when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and some mates set it up a hundred and odd years ago.

So I found myself a member of a five-person Task Force (and I was, strangely, the only one who found the Thatcherite overtones of that title uncomfortable) to consider and report on the reform of the constitution. Some aspects were fixed: to switch from being a private company limited by shares to the more appropriate structure of a guarantee company (which was, my research told me, an option available to Sir Arthur and friends) would mean chucking out the trade union baby with the limited-by-shares bathwater, and it became clear that trade union status was very important, and likely to become more so.

The Task Force steamed on, and a report issued forth - far less radical than William, Charles Palliser or I (the three non-establishment members of the Task Force, or as I referred to us recently the Bolsheviks, in the literal sense of majority as well as the figurative sense) would have wished, but we made compromises that recognised the need to devise proposals that would be widely acceptable. And having argued at great length for a Management Committee that was clearly democratically elected we took the view, a year ago, that we should ourselves stand for election.

Let me explain how the Management Committee is currently elected. In January, the committee receives a list of names from the staff and chooses enough people from that list to fill the places falling vacant later in the year. These names are announced to the membership, which generally pays very little attention as they are busy writing. Their biographical statements (which are indistinguishable from election addresses) are posted on the website. An election campaign seems to have started, although at this stage it is uncontested. Later, other members may be nominated for election, though of course they do not have the endorsement of the Management Committee. They join the race some weeks after the starting gun has been fired and the electorate informed of the names of the chosen candidates. This is of course a perfectly democratic process, as that word is understood in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

I was not surprised last year that I failed to be elected to the Praesidium. (North Korea does not have a Politburo.) I did not campaign for it: the reason for my candidature was to ensure that there was an election not of the North Korean sort, with more candidates than places to be filled. The electorate did choose Charles, and almost chose William, but three of the nomenklatura were elected. Good: they got the votes. That was what it was all about.

This year I find myself unhappy about what has happened to the Task Force report. After all, the Bolsheviks trimmed so the Task Force could put forward a fairly unanimous set of recommendations. I did not envisage (though in truth I didn't stop to think about it) that the MC would make its own recommendations. For elections to the MC, for example, there is a recommendation that would retain the process of 'preferred' candidates, and an 'alternative suggestion' that dispenses with that (while still, apparently, reserving considerable influence to the MC, to which I am opposed - but perhaps the wording will be polished to remove this). What to do about this? Stand again, of course, but this time campaign!