Streamlining the Board – are there too many deputies?

27 Jun

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.


4 Responses to “Streamlining the Board – are there too many deputies?”

  1. Abu Sassy June 27, 2013 at 9:20 am #

    So why not lead by example and resign yourself? One less deputy to worry about.

    • Robert Stone June 28, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

      I don’t think it is the number of Deputies that’s the problem. The problem is more about the way Deputies are consulted and listened to (or not listened to). If they worked well, Plenary meetings, for example, could play an essential role in airing and exploring the views of the UK Jewish community – this happened in the Oxfam debate in February, for example. But the dysfunctional and chaotic way that the Oxfam issue came to be debated at Plenary illustrates why issues do NOT generally come to the Board in a way that enables that kind of debate to happen.

      The root of the problem seems to lie in the way the Honorary Officers, Executive Committee and Divisional Boards work together, or fail to work together, in formulating policies and responses to important events. If that were done better, then well-prepared policy papers could be put to Deputies and we could get a real debate that reflected the range of views in the community (representing that range of views being a key function of the Board). That is why the Organisation Working Group that I chair is working on that process – we hope to send a questionnaire to Deputies on this in a few weeks’ time.

      Given the different roles of the Board and Parliament, I don’t think 1,000 BOD constituents to 70,000 Parliamentary constituents is unbalanced – quite apart from the fact that 1,000 Jews are totally capable of holding 70,000 opinions! There were, by the way, an unprecedented number of contested elections for the Board in this Triennium, contrary to the experience of the Anthony’s constituency.

  2. richardarmbach July 1, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

    the Methodists get a good kicking pour encourager les autres

  3. Jonathan Brody July 22, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    If one accepts the premise that there are too many people on the Board, I do not think it is the number of Deputies representing individual synagogues that should be cut. I can think of several alternatives with weaker democratic credentials.
    1) Why do past presidents get life membership of the Board? It could possibly be justified for knowledge transfer that they continue on the Board for one or two triennia after they leave office, but not indefinitely.
    2) No body that is a grouping of bodies that are represented by Deputies should also be represented by Deputies. So the US and other synagogal bodies would not be represented on the Board because their constituent synagogues already have Deputies. This would also cover the Representative Councils.
    3) No body that doesn’t have members for a Deputy to represent should be able to appoint a Deputy. This covers organisations such as ORT, UJIA, JNF and Limmud.

    Incidentally, Likud has about 125,000 members and 3,000 seats on its central committee.

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