Liberty AGM 2009

It’s that time of year again… this weekend it was Liberty‘s annual general meeting and annual conference in London.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the conference on the Saturday, with speakers such as Jack Straw, Doreen Lawrence and Tony Benn – although Jason of Cosmodaddy did, and liveblogged it. But I did go along to the AGM on Friday night instead of enjoying the pub like normal. I Tweeted some of it but here’s a fuller recap of events and my thoughts.

I’m sad to say that like last year’s AGM, a lot of the proceedings were shambolic. Louise Christian, the Chair of Liberty, may be an excellent human rights lawyer but in my view she made a terrible chair of the AGM. Votes to approve the auditors and a nomination to the appeals board were conducted without a call for votes against or abstentions – a numerous show of hands for the motion was taken as unanimity. The results of the elections to Liberty’s council were announced simply by announcing the names of the winners, with no record of the count. When challenged on this, Louise said it was to avoid ’embarrassment’ to those who got a low number of votes (can you imagine if we did the same for MPs?). There were numerous protests from the floor on the way the AGM was conducted, but time and time again the chair attempted to close the discussion and ‘move on’, even though dissenters still had hands raised and wanted to speak. One member spoke of how it resembled ‘railroading’ and I’m inclined to agree.

Had this been in any other democratically run organisation, I’m sure Liberty’s leadership would have condemned it as opaque and anti-democratic. Given the recent furore surrounding MP’s expenses and lack of transparency, a human rights organisation such as Liberty must have an exemplar level of transparency and proper conduct throughout – not just the minimum, but the very highest standard must be adhered to. And this was sadly lacking from the chair. On one motion (on presumed consent for organ donation) after the vote had been taken, she voiced her personal approval that the motion had been turned down – in my view, conduct not befitting the chair, who should remain neutral both during and after such debates. The fact that the AGM was squeezed into two and a half hours (last year, it was held on a Saturday so we had most of a day to deliberate) so that delegates could enjoy drinks at the end, meant that the chair continually sought to expedite the meeting so we could meet the 9pm deadline. It gave it a rushed feel, as if we were just going through the motions.

Disappointing. But enough of that – there was still plenty of interesting debate from the floor and ordinary membership. Seven motions were presented in total and there was plenty of debate about them – particularly two issues of controversy. One was to what degree people should be denied employment or union membership on their political beliefs or associations they join, and the other was on whether Liberty should endorse ‘presumed consent’ for organ donation.

The first is a tricky issue to pick apart – BNP members are forbidden from becoming police or civil servants, and I’d imagine most well-thinking people would support it. But then again, the same line of reasoning was used by anti-union employers discriminating against left-wing union workers. Some good points were raised in the meeting – someone pointed out how it’s easy to defend trade unionists but much harder to stomach defending fascists, even if the rights they enjoy are universal. The original motion did allow for people to be denied employment in “exceptional” circumstances. I would argue that being an instrument of the state’s power means you have to be bound by tighter rules than a normal employer would; with the police’s commitment to racial equality enshrined in law, and how being a racist means you cannot possibly abide by it, I’d see that as an exceptional circumstance enough to deny a BNP member a job as a police officer. But it has to be done on a case-by-case basis, and the burden of proof has to be on the employer, not the employee.

The motion in the end didn’t pass – an amended version by a trade union delegate did; although I agreed with the sentiment, I thought it was wider-ranging and had much less bite than the original, moving the focus onto unions’ right to bar members because of their beliefs rather than questioning the actions of employers. But the debate was interesting, informed and above all passionate without getting ill-tempered, a much more sober and level affair than the usual emotive bullshit in politics.

The other motion of interest was that of whether presumed consent can be taken for organ donation. There are all kinds of conflicting rights here – the right to life and the right to dignity for the recipients, coupled with the putative donor’s right to one’s own body and religious beliefs. Even with a guarantee of opt-out if you did not want to, and opt-out for the relatives of the deceased wasn’t enough. There are some interesting philosophical dilemmas here – as rights are described as human rights, when you die and cease to be a human, what rights does your corpse inherit? Isn’t ‘presumed consent’ a contradiction in terms? As donated organs are a gift, does turning them into a compulsion destroy the gift value? Should we even care if it means more people will live?

Me? I was in a minority that did endorse presumed consent; growing up with my mother working as a nurse for kidney patients on dialysis showed me how horrible a life without working vital organs could be, and their right to life and dignity comes should be given priority over our sensitivities about corpses; I feel that by having an opt-out system for organ donation we reduce the demand for black market organs and help strengthen the rights of the living forced to donate. But I was strongly moved by some of the arguments made (particularly on the rights to the body in reference to slavery, and torture) and it was a difficult decision to stick by and made me question myself.

Being given crises of conscience may seem an odd reason to be a proud member of Liberty, but I am. And even though all of us have common cause and beliefs there was still healthy levels of debate and dissent within the membership – as well there should be for any organisation in a democracy. Even if the chair of the meeting didn’t seem to concerned about due process or dissent, the membership did, and I was proud to be among them.

Go out and vote!

A quick break from usual service on this blog (i.e. silence) for this quick message. Today the UK goes to the polls in local and European elections. If you have a vote today, please use it. Not least to deny extremists like the BNP, but because the vote is the cornerstone of our democracy and it’s up to us to show politicians the strength of it. Given the recent scandals and the jaded, cynical, state of politics you might be discouraged from participating – but it’s exactly because the political system is so fucked up now that those in power need reminding the power of the vote. And any change or reform of our politics can only be given strength and legitimacy if we show that people still care about how this country is run.

So go out and vote. Haven’t got your polling card with you, or it got lost in the post? Doesn’t matter – as long as you’re on the electoral roll you can just turn up at the polling station and vote by giving your name & address. Don’t know where the polling station is? Your local council’s website should have a list – check out Directgov’s directory of councils to find yours. Not sure who to vote for? Nosemonkey has an excellent roundup of resources to make sure your vote is informed, including Votematch and EUProfiler (I thought the former was better, for what it’s worth), the list of individual party manifestos and the manifestos of the party groupings within the European Parliament.

That’s it. No excuses now. Go out and vote. And get your mum to go and vote as well while you’re at it. Thanks.