This is a guest post by Anthony Tricot, Deputy for the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Follow him on twitter @AnthonyTricot
Amid all the public debate about the Board of Deputies, one of the characteristics that has received less scrutiny is that the size of the body makes it a bloated and less effective institution.
The total number of Deputies is now 287 (even excluding Under-35 observers) – with a further 39 places currently vacant. Deputies each represent fewer than 1,000 Jews. By contrast, MPs in Parliament each have 70,000 constituents. The Israeli Knesset – modelled on the ‘Great Assembly‘ in Roman times – has only 120 members to represent 7.7 million Israeli citizens.
This has material negative implications for the Jewish community.
Firstly, it endangers the representativeness of the Board. It means very few elections are competitive: my own Spanish and Portuguese community, for example, which sends four Deputies and an Under-35 observer, hasn’t had a competitive election in living memory, and the knowledge among our members of what our Deputies are up to is negligible as a result. That’s representative of the wider Jewish community: in the last Board elections, out of the 147 synagogues which sent Deputies only seven had contested elections.
Secondly, the number of Deputies is also a drain on communal resources: we incur transport costs of schlepping so many deputies into London for monthly meetings; we have to pay for grand accommodation at the BMA to accommodate all the machers; and we pay to print hundreds of meeting papers.
Thirdly, and most importantly, there isn’t all that much for these Deputies to do. Only a small proportion of Deputies are elected to places on committees (where most Board work gets done), and plenary meetings are unwieldy as a result of the number of people wanting a say. This creates frustration among Deputies that they don’t have an impact – with about half of Deputies often not bothering to attend the monthly plenaries. This is quite different to Parliament where even a humble opposition backbencher will sit on several committees holding the Government to account.
The truth is that a slimmer and leaner organisation could achieve more than the Board currently does.
Identifying the problem is easier than figuring out the solution. Limiting the number of Deputies wouldn’t be easy: communities pay according to the number of Deputies they send, so the Board could face a financial shortfall if there were fewer Deputies. A bigger problem is that small communities would lose out if the Board required larger constituencies – smaller communities might have to group together in order to send a Deputy. There are also risks that introducing any alternative models of electing representatives – such as having elections on a denominational or regional basis – could exacerbate fault lines within the community.
Lastly, a strict cap on numbers may make it more difficult to get fair representation for young people: the Board currently under-represents Jews that aren’t affiliated to established communities. But the ‘quick win’ remedies to this – such as increasing the number of UJS delegates or accrediting organisations like the Moishe House – would all add to the existing number of Deputies.
Ultimately there are no simple solutions to how the Board can be organised to fairly represent Jews. As Keith Kahn-Harris argued in the Guardian:
[T]here are always going to be limits as to how much a minority community can ever develop a truly representative body.
The importance of debate
The potential creation of a new representative communal body presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink some of the principles of representation in the community – including the appropriate size of the institution. We urgently need more debate on alternative models of representation for the community. Aspiring constitutional theorists should get stuck in!
If we can come up with a better model then the last hurdle would be to persuade the Deputies to vote for a slimmer institution. The current Government recently tried and failed to reduce the number of MPs by 10%. Would we have any more luck persuading Board turkeys to vote for Christmas?
Please click here to see our note to editors.