Delegate Meeting 2021 finishes six minutes early
Delegate Meeting (DM) 2021 - the NUJ's first such conference to be held online - was nothing like as bad as we had feared. It followed a rather grim technical run-through for delegates on the eve of DM at which we were shocked to discover that delegates mostly wouldn't be able to see each other during the meeting: we could see only the other speakers to the motion, the Chair and occasionally the Chair of Standing Orders Committee. Several delegates then predicted it would be a disaster: a member of the London Freelance Branch (LFB) delegation messaged fellow delegates with an emoji of his face with tears streaming down it.
But DM 2021 went astonishingly smoothly, and most of the technology worked most of the time. We congratulate the organisers, and outgoing NUJ President Sian Jones on her fantastic chairing.
We used a system based on Zoom, adding in a clever voting system commissioned by the National Education Union that ran at the same time, and that counted results very fast. That was good, but had some drawbacks: mainly that we couldn't see how the rest of our delegation was voting, if they were voting at all. In a "normal" conference, anyone who is out of the room can be leave their voting card with the delegation: this wasn't possible here.
Also, and perhaps more importantly, there was the problem of the delegation being able to communicate with each other during the meeting only through a messaging app such as Signal – rather than the ideal, which in real life would involve actually talking. For example, we realised very late in the day – in the final seconds before the vote – that a motion to stop the Journalist magazine being in print would have implications for the print edition of the Freelance that goes out in the same mail-out. But it was very hard to convey this to the delegation in time for the poll.
Our delegation spent a large part of the event frantically seeking the latest email containing fiddly attachments with the frequently-updated agenda and Order Papers - in an inbox increasingly choked with DM-related stuff. It took one of the Branch delegates 40 minutes to join at the beginning. Some of our delegates confessed to voting the wrong way by accident at least once.
The voting system and the way the meeting was configured on Zoom meant we couldn't easily talk to members of other delegations. As one delegate from another branch emailed me before the meeting: when trying to set up seconding and support issues, "this would be so much easier in the bar on Thursday night."
Delegates with queries for Standing Orders Committee (SOC, in charge of procedure) had to put these via a "Q & A" function. Despite the technical crew's best efforts, these sometimes took a while to answer. The LFB Chair's only brief speech at DM was a objection to an order paper, explaining that he was withdrawing his objection as his question had been answered 30 seconds before via the Q & A.
There were several short speeches or directions from the Chair that had to be done all over again as they'd forgotten to unmute themselves.
Another important change from a "normal" DM was the massive increase in the use of "Standing Order 3" (SO3), which states that if the National Executive Committee (NEC) agrees to carry out an instruction in a motion, there need be no further debate. In real life, even the proposers of such a motion would often like to have the opportunity to explain themselves, and that might encourage others to oppose or question the motion. This time a lot of quite important ideas went through on what might seem like the nod.
On the positive side, John Lister as SOC chair at the opening of this "unprecedented" DM predicted that it would be "stressful for all concerned" and expressed a hope that it would be "democratic, given the limitations." John mentioned at the end that electronic voting had worked well (it did, with caveats) and was something that might be looked into in future. It would need some tweaking, though.
An agenda with 170 motions had been whittled down to 140, plus another 35 Late Notice Motions and 36 proposed amendments to these. A total of 77 motions were passed without debate under SO3.
The combination of heavy use of SO3 to wave through stuff to which there were no objections, and a voting system that displayed results within a minute of the poll closing, meant that we whizzed through DM business. In her closing speech, NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet celebrated the fact that DM could "finish six minutes early."
The fact that delegates couldn't see each other on screen meant that those who might in normal circumstances have been tempted to make tub-thumping, barnstorming orations in which they got to hear a lot of the sound of their own voice were deterred from doing so. This was no bad thing. Some speeches felt more like a conversation between speakers, it was (mostly) a remarkably civil affair.
For detail on the decisions made at DM 2021 and the debates see here.