It’s good to be back! Having just been appointed as General Secretary as part of the UKIP re-shuffle, my first thought was to write a piece explaining to members what they can expect from me in my new (or old) role. I did the job previously for 6 years from 2008 when the then Party Chairman Paul Nuttall asked me to take on the role. Now, in 2016, Paul Nuttall asked me to take on the same role again and this appointment was confirmed by the NEC at their last meeting. Paul is nothing if not consistent. As for my immediate predecessor, Adam Richardson has a keen legal mind, is slow to anger and easy to work with, and I look forward to working alongside him in his own new role.
General Secretary is a slightly unusual role to be combining with elected office, which gives me some misgivings about time commitments, but ultimately I’m happy to serve in whatever way the Party requests of me and I can only promise to do my best.
I find it somewhat sad, and very disappointing, that I even have to write this next sentence. In the interests of transparency, I would like to disclose that I will be paid at £0 per calendar month for the General Secretary job. Whether that £0 is gross or net I leave up to your imagination. Words rarely fail me, but in this case they do. The notion of paying someone already in receipt of an MEP salary? In the Christmas spirit, I think it’s fair for me to describe it as crackers!
My first act as General Secretary will be to reinstate the regular monthly reports for members about NEC meetings. I’ve already written the report on the December NEC, and it merely awaits approval before being circulated to members. I introduced those reports in the first place as a way of increasing communication within the Party, and it seems high time now to reintroduce them. The plan is to have a section on the Party website where these will be uploaded.
Recent months have been peak season, it would appear, for disciplinary complaints. There is therefore a backlog of complaints and I’m making it a priority to ensure that these begin to progress as soon as possible. There will be various letters going out over the next couple of days to complainants and respondents. I’m sure that none of the august readers of this column will be the subject of a disciplinary complaint, but if I’m wrong let me first explain the process.
Sometimes complaints just aren’t disciplinary in nature, or are better resolved at local or regional level. At present, Regional Organisers have the responsibility for dealing with matters which arise as disputes within branches. There are structures and procedures in place for dealing with unruly branch meetings in Section H of the Party’s Rules of Procedure. These kinds of matters are usually unsuitable for national disciplinary procedures; without knowing the intricacies or personalities involved, it’s very difficult for a hearing to have confidence that it’s making the right decision. There may be complaints therefore which are referred back to regional level.
There are times where complaints can be dealt with by informal action. Not every case is outrageous, and appropriate warnings can go a long way – especially where a behaviour is out of character.
Other times, we simply need more information. For many complaints I’ll need to write back to the complainant asking them to specify what rule breach they’re actually alleging, or what their complaint means. I may need to write to the respondent to receive their response; they may have a clear explanation or justification for their actions. Where appropriate, I can conduct further investigation.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of such a letter, that doesn’t mean there’s going to be a hearing against you. It merely means that I need to have both sides of the story before we decide whether to proceed to a hearing. There may be cases where it’s a marginal decision as to whether there are sufficient grounds for a hearing to take place, and your response helps to determine that.
The Party Secretary (not the General Secretary) then makes the final decision as to whether there should be a hearing – and that hearing ultimately decides whether a complaint is upheld. A disciplinary panel has various sanctions at its disposal, up to and including expulsion from the Party.
The whole process takes a considerable amount of time, and there are occasions where such time is not available. In certain very serious matters (the definition of which would be a whole new article) the Party Chairman can use emergency powers to discipline a member, which results in an emergency disciplinary hearing.
Party Chairmen have generally placed quite a high threshold on the use of emergency powers (there’s a clue in the word ‘emergency’). There are times, though, when a Party Chairman has no choice but to act. If for example a UKIP member were to join another party, set up another party, or stand against a UKIP candidate in a public election, then the Constitution forces the Party Chairman to rescind their membership.
My role as General Secretary covers a number of other things: working with the NEC; proposing updates to the Party’s Rules of Procedure (an ongoing process) but not the Constitution; dealing with NEC meeting minutes and so on. I’ve identified a number of loopholes and inconsistencies in the Party Rules, which have crept in as the Party has grown and the rules have evolved. My role here isn’t to take an axe to things (major changes require Constitutional change, ultimately to be decided by the members). It’s more to oil the machine, and reduce the number of hiccups that occur. Where we have procedures but no Rules, it’s to write a framework to incorporate our standard practice so that what we do already becomes more accountable.
I’ll do my best to communicate with members as much as I can. I’ve always believed that communication is important, and that’s why I’m writing this article. In return, I hope that members will recognise there are times when I simply can’t. Disciplinary proceedings need to retain a level of confidentiality, and there will be times when there are confidential matters at a national level – rarely because we mind members knowing, but because we don’t want our political opponents to know our plans.
I’ll end with one of my bugbears from last time I did this job. “Why doesn’t the Party take disciplinary action against X, Y or Z?” is the question I got asked more than any other. The answer is that my role is to be as impartial as possible; it’s not my job to instigate such action. If it’s serious enough for the Chairman to use emergency powers, that’s one thing. But usually it isn’t, and we can’t take ordinary disciplinary action unless someone actually makes a complaint.
Disclaimer: I could have written 10,000 words or more on disciplinary issues but for the sake of readability, I’m simplifying and paraphrasing throughout. In this article you’re getting a flavour of the process, not every intricate detail.