One of the leadership candidates has said that the NEC should be replaced by a “management board” selected by the leader through an “interview process”.  In other words, the directors of UKIP Ltd should no longer be elected by ordinary members but chosen by the leader. 

This would be a far reaching change to how our party is run, and to how the leader operates. Perhaps the fleshing out of the proposal, with members’ questions on this answered, will be permitted nearer the time. Perhaps. But as other candidates allude to NEC changes in their manifestos it is not too soon to start thinking about UKIP’s board (however named or renamed).

There is a world of difference between companies in which the shareholders and directors are a few family members, and a company with a board of a dozen people or more in which the directors do not have controlling shares even collectively. I mention this because a number of people with whom I have been discussing the NEC claimed to know how companies are run when all they had experience of was the husband and wife type veil of incorporation over a small business.

Larger boards comprise executive directors and non-executive directors. The former type tends to be well paid, are employed by the company, head up parts of it – finance director, sales director, IT director etc. – while the latter type is less well paid, are not employees, receive no more than an attendance allowance in some cases, have no executive authority within the company, and whose role is usually restricted to an advisory capacity though with a vote. The elected members to the NEC are our non-execs and unpaid, not even given expenses.

It is a test of character as to how a director behaves when on the losing side of a vote. Commonly, and probably universally, boards divide into factions. Repeated voting over time inevitably leads to this and it is unrealistic to imagine a board that is not divided some of the time. UKIP’s board of 19 people has not escaped this elementary fact about how people behave and nor will it in future however composed. Directors can fight like ferrets in a sack and it is the job of a skilled chairman to manage and contain the less noble impulses behind human behaviour. Think of the FTSE 100 companies that go through convulsions from time to time. Once a board battle becomes public the share price goes down. A new CEO or Chairman is chosen eventually and the share price recovers. It is an everyday story of companies and their boards. Anyone expecting UKIP to be different is idealistic but inexperienced.

The directors on most boards of the type I am considering are appointed. Accordingly, a leader appointed board will not avoid the divisions that arise after time quite normally.  It may do initially as board members seek to ingratiate themselves with the source of absolute power, remembering they serve at the leader’s pleasure, but that will not last. The group think arising will promote error, the leader will go wrong eventually, and the fallout will turn it into an ordinary, factionalised board.

The root of all this is one person’s wish to have absolute authority. He did not get it for himself – we ordinary members kept failing to elect `nodding donkeys’ – and now seeks it for his successor. Writing in The Daily Mail on 27th Aug Nigel said “… UKIP’s management and decision making processes are no longer fit for purpose … The new leader needs to be able to make decisions and to genuinely lead. He or she will need a team of real professionals to take UKIP to the next stage. The opportunities for the party are still great.” When Nigel says “The new leader needs to be able to take decisions…” it can only mean, if it is not to be a banality, that the leader should be able to take decisions unilaterally and unfettered by the NEC.

It is the view of a head of the family in a family run company. It just does not translate to a company with a full board that includes non-execs (the elected members). It is the elementary mistake of someone who once had a family sized company but failed to adapt to and learn from a larger company board. In any case, wanting a compliant board is not necessarily a good thing to achieve. A leader surrounded by yes men and women will soon succumb to group think and make mistakes as a result. Churchill understood this when he brought Bevan into his wartime cabinet for he knew that a cabinet of yes men would not make him a better leader. The opposite in fact. It is not clear that any of the candidates really grasp this. A board, whether elected or appointed, in a culture of rubber stamping the leader’s decisions may not make UKIP more successful or better run at all. 

It is not clear if an appointed board would include salaried “professionals” or unpaid volunteers as presently. If they are paid then that could be costly. Multiply whatever salary might be appropriate by however many board members you think there will be and don’t forget to factor in employer’s NIC and mandatory stakeholder pension costs.  Further, as employees the leader would not have the control over them that Nigel’s successor may imagine. Just because a board member votes differently from what you want would not succeed in employment law as grounds for issuing a P45. If unpaid it is far from clear that professionals will work for free. We should be grateful to the members who have agreed to serve for nothing, not even sandwiches.

Ordinary members elect non-execs, the NEC members, each year. Their role is to contribute according to ability, experience and training, and to act as conscience to the executive directors (Leader, Chairman, Secretary) and provide the checks and balances that any well run organisation needs. If they do not do a good job then we do not re-elect them but give others a try.

Do not be fooled by the word “professionals”. Our current NEC includes a chartered accountant, a barrister, a solicitor, and an experienced company director from the technology sector. The issue is whether the professionals are independent of the leader’s patronage or not.

Imagine we had an appointed board but it was your least favourite candidate that was elected. He or she had policies you did not like and was taking the party in the wrong direction. What would you do? What could anyone do without non-execs from the grass roots? Go on, really imagine your least favourite in charge appointing compliant directors. Still want an appointed board? Not sure I do.  The party may need “professionals” but they should be salaried as in other parties and not necessarily non-exec board members. Alas, we cannot afford that. There is a clamour for a `reformed’ NEC but it is the executive members, the ones that can do things not just advise or vote, who need to adapt and change. Better communication, a more consultative style, or whatever it is members say they want is down to them not the non-execs. Their responsibility in all is the one thing they never consider. But we can consider it.

The nature of UKIP’s board is fundamental. Others will have observations and insights to offer better than mine and I hope we hear from them on UKIP Daily, the only forum for members.

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