This is a guest post by Gabriel Webber, Deputy for the Union of Jewish Students. Follow him on twitter @gabrielquotes
Outside the door to the House of Commons are two statues: David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, the Prime Ministers who lead Britain during each world war. There is a tradition that before making their maiden (first) speech, MPs will touch the foot of whichever leader they admire more.
Fortunately this custom doesn’t extend to the Board of Deputies, so I was spared from giving Lord Janner’s foot a rub on Sunday morning.
My maiden speech came in one of the more contentious plenary meetings, at which the Board considered whether or not to go ahead with the ‘Grow Tatzmiach’ project run in partnership with Oxfam.
But although it was contentious, it was civilised. Quite shockingly civilised: far more civilised than normal. Almost without exception, Deputies listened to each other politely and refrained from attack speeches. The only person who heckled and shouted out was immediately asked to leave: itself an unusual but very welcome step towards making the atmosphere at plenaries less intimidating.
In fact, Sunday morning was a near-perfect example of how plenaries should be conducted. It was worth people’s while to make speeches because they could influence an actual vote at the end rather than merely being noted in the soon-forgotten minutes; a voice was given to Deputies of both genders and all ages; and there were properly-organised lists of speakers, read out in advance, to prevent fights over the microphone.
Many veteran Deputies remarked that it was the best plenary for decades but hopefully these successes can become the norm.
The vote at the end was conducted by ‘division’, physically moving to different corners of the room, rather than the less democratic ‘show of hands’ in which people often vote for whichever option is called first and are more likely to develop arm cramp during the count! Divisional voting was brought about on the request of 30 Deputies – including many ‘Changing the Board’ members – invoking an obscure part of the constitution for the first time in the Board’s history.
Also a first in Board of Deputies history, more disappointingly, was the lengthy kerfuffle as it was decided which of the two microphones should be live-streamed for those lucky enough to be watching proceedings over the Internet, and which should be reserved for speakers who wished to protect their privacy.
This should not have been an issue: Deputies are there to represent their constituents and it was unacceptable that some did so in such a way that their constituents were not able to see what they got up to. It was also inexplicable; nobody should have been saying anything that they were ashamed of or unhappy to stand behind.
So there was a lot that went well and some clear areas ripe for improvement. For me, though, the biggest shock was the outcome of the vote and the size of the majority. Almost two-thirds of Deputies voted in favour of ‘Grow Tatzmiach’: a perfect illustration of how those who shout loudest don’t necessarily represent the majority of the Jewish community. This principle is what I consider ‘Changing the Board’ to be about and why changing the Board is important!
Gabriel Webber blogs at http://www.gabrielquotes.org.uk