How not to run an election

Giant's Causeway, managed by the National Trust, was the centre of controversy in 2012 when it became home to a creationist exhibit. Now an organisation hopes to influence the Trust's council elections in order to have a creationist elected to the governing body.

Various national newspapers have become excited about an upcoming election - and we're not talking about the pending Highland Council by-election for the Fort William and Ardnamurchan ward. 

No, it's an election for the National Trust's governing council - something which takes place annually without ever generating any media interest. Or, indeed, much interest from NT members come to think of it - but that's something I'll come to in a moment.

Why the sudden interest in this year's election? 

In the current political climate the media likes nothing better than to report on arguments about the "woke agenda" and a recently formed group, Restore Trust, has given them some ammunition to perpetuate the obsession with division and "culture wars". In fairness, Restore Trust is pretty newsworthy, not least because its genuine aim is to "wage war" against what it sees as "a new orthodoxy" - namely, the belief in climate change and the idea that the Trust should acknowledge some of the more unpleasant aspects of British history. It campaigns to "get the National Trust back to its real mission" - it doesn't tell us exactly what this is, but it is clear from Restore Trust's website that this "mission" is focused heavily on the NT's properties rather than its responsiblity to bring history alive in ways that are stimulating, culturally relevant and challenging. 

Restore Trust claims it is a movement of 6,100 NT members (a tiny proportion of the Trust's 5.5million members). whose directors include Neil Bennett, Cornelia van der Poll, Neil Record, Jack Hayward and Lucy Wood. Restore Trust's website gives no information about them, but it isn't too difficult to find out a little more.

Bennett is the chief executive of AMO Global Network; 

Van der Poll is a lecturer in Ancient Greek who also happens to object to removing memorials because it constitutes "removing history" from "minority groups"

Record is chairman of the Institute for Economic Affairs, a right-wing think-tank noted for its climate change denial, its belief in "total privatisation" of the NHS and its position that Covid-19 restrictions were "not worth it". Unsurprisingly, the IEA also has views on Brexit: it was opposed to a customs union and believes that the NI protocol should be replaced. Back in 2019 the IEA looked into its crystal ball and ridiculed the idea that Brexit may lead to empty supermarket shelves

Hayward's background is more difficult to ascertain, but he is frequently a spokesperson for Restore Trust. He is a man who doesn't mince his words. Describing the NT's senior management as "a group of very woke, connected people who like to denigrate British history" he made his aims clear, stating unequivocally that "we are now going to concentrate on getting rid of them". He also took some inspiration from Theresa May in unimaginatively calling out "a metropolitan elite dominating the Trust".

Besides the photograph on Restore Trust's website, I've not been able to find much about this particular Lucy Wood. But the picture is quite clear. This is hardly the most typical or likely of grassroots activist groups, and the make-up of its board of directors would suggest a certain collective viewpoint.

Restore Trust's areas of concern seem to range from the NT's interim report on colonialism and slavery to people eating pizza in the grounds of the Kymin. It's difficult to know which it finds more abhorrent, but one thing is very clear - in its view, the only way to prevent the NT from changing is to bring about urgent change. 

How does it hope to achieve this change? Strangely, not by putting themselves forward for election to the NT's council and making themselves accountable but by seeking to influence the election in favour of candidates, all unassociated with Restore Trust, they feel best represent their values. Every year six new council members are elected to serve a 3-year term, and Restore Trust is recommending that NT members give their votes to Michael Goodhart, Stephen Green, Min Grimshaw, David Pearson, Andrew Powles and Guy Trehane.

Michael Goodhart is an interesting choice because he has already distanced himself from Restore Trust's agenda. Dismissing Restore Trust as "a shallow organisation", Goodhart said he supported the NT's report into colonialism and slavery, adding "if that’s what it means to be ‘woke’ then I very much support that idea". Ouch!

Min Greenshaw is also a curious choice for an organisation that is opposed to the NT's "establishment", not least as her name appears in the NT's own recomendations to members and there is absolutely nothing within her personal statement to suggest any support for Restore Trust's aims (see here, page 17 of 25). 

These two recommendations bring into question Restore Trust's methods and own willingness to engage with members - the least I would expect any group to do before endorsing a candidate is to do a little ground work to make sure they're singing from the same hymn sheet. It's also courteous to make contact with candidates before making (incorrect) statements about their values matching yours in the national press...

Stephen Green is also interesting, but for very different reasons. Restore Trust's website has nothing to say about LGBT+ issues, but their support for Green suggests the group is comfortable with rampant homophobia. Green, the national director of Christian Voice, has previously referred to same-sex relationships as "a deviant lifestyle" and expressed support for Uganda's use of the death penalty in relation to homosexuality. He said "I do not like the idea of putting anyone to death, but I have to recognise that the bible calls for the ultimate penalty for sodomy and for rape, and our Lord upheld the death penalty when He called for the accusers of the woman caught in adultery to cast the first stone." I'll resist from commenting on Green's strange interpretation of John 8:1-11, but his personal priorities and reasons for standing for election can be summarised in his complaint that the NT is "obsessed with LGBT issues” - apparently because it recently produced a film referencing the fact that Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer*, the historian who bequeathed Felbrigg Hall to the Trust, was gay. Green's candidate's statement (see here, page 21 of 25) is fixated on LGBT+ issues to the detriment of saying anything else. It is difficult to see in Green's anti-LGBT rant how he has earned the support of Restore Trust - unless, of course, they share his intolerant perspectives.

Supporting Green only serves to make Restore Trust look like a group of homophobic reactionaries whose alleged commitment to "preserving, enjoying and understanding our... heritage" doesn't stretch to acknowledging gay people who have donated their properties to the nation.

Restore Trust's directors may be very "respectable" types but Green most certainly is not, and its campaign should be judged not only on the basis of its directors' professional associations but the kinds of people it is urging NT members to support. 

Aside from apparently backing candidates who are firmly opposed to its aims, Restore Trust seems rather oblivious to the NT's rules and bye-laws - something that doesn't inspire much confidence. Just two days ago Restore Trust urged any of its facebook followers who "are not currently a member of the National Trust" to "please use [their] money to join the NT so that you can vote with us at the 2021 AGM this autumn". Which may have made more sense if the NT did not require voting members to have held membership "throughout the 70 days immediately preceding the meeting" in accordance with the Charities (National Trust) Order 2005, clause 40 (4).

What Restore Trust is hoping to do in the next couple of weeks, with a war-chest of "tens of thousands of pounds", is to use social media to influence the election. The reason why this tactic could be successful (even for an organisation with only 649 facebook followers that thinks it's clever to use a hashtag such as #EmpireStrikesBack) is because of the real problem here - what passes for internal democracy in the National Trust.

The National Trust may complain about the insurgents it insists are out to "stoke divisions", but this situation is one entirely of its own making. In July of this year Restore Trust highlighted the weaknesses of the NT's democratic structure, calling for constitutional changes to ensure the chairperson is directly elected by the membership. In this respect Restore Trust is absolutely right - the NT claims to be a membership organisation but it has a dismal record of engaging with its membership as far as its own democracy is concerned. The elephant in the room here is the NT's culture, which to my mind has made the current circumstances inevitable.

Why do I say this? Firstly, in the last few years the NT hasn't been averse to pandering to extremists itself - a key example being its decision to install a creationist exhibit at Giant's Causeway questioning the scientific view and claiming that the Causeway is a by-product of Noah's flood. No doubt Stephen Green was pleased with this, but few others were (including Northern Ireland's Catholic community). The NT was happy to state, in a video clip, that "the debate [on how the Causeway was formed] continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science." There never was a "debate", however, just a fixed anti-science view for which the NT's actions gave some unmerited validity. It can hardly complain when individuals like Green feel empowered to stand for election.

Secondly, despite what Green thinks, the NT has been very late to visibly make any kind of positive statement on LGBT issues. For example, until the last couple of years visitors could wander around Sissinghurst Castle Garden or Felbrigg Hall and know nothing about the fascinating lives of its LGBT creators. It's been quiet for too long. The same is also true on highlighting its properties' connections to slavery - it only, belatedly, published a report last year. For so long it has been silent, for reasons I can only speculate; little wonder many "anti-woke" types thought the NT was "on their side" and are shocked by the sudden about-face when they could previously wander around Chartwell and Bateman's freely reminiscing about the joys of Empire without the intrusion of such unpleasant reality. When Simon Jenkins, the former NT chair, wrote that the interim report on colonialism and slavery was "bound to inflame some members’ feelings" he was correct - mainly because the NT had previously done next to nothing and suddenly was perceived by conservatives as activating something revolutionary, but also because of the top-down, ham-fisted way it did it. 

Thirdly, on climate change the NT has only become noticeably vocal on this relatively recently. It may seem unfair to be critical of the NT on this front because it has been better on climate change than on LGBT+ issues and historic references to slavery, but it's only in the last few years it's really upped the ante. Again, the change in language means that it's little wonder so many people notice the change and feel the NT is moving in a completely new direction. 

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the NT has operated a system for internal elections that is anti-democratic. Members have never been actively encouraged to put themselves forward - there's no real engagement with members about democratic processes. At every election the NT sends around a ballot form with statements from ultra-respectable individuals, usually very well connected, with the Trust's own recommendations on who members should vote for. Normally the NT's preferred candidates are returned, on something like a 0.66% turnout (based on the 2019 results). Candidates only have a brief statement through which to appeal to voters, which usually focuses on their own experience and connections rather than issues members may wish to ask them about (very few of the statements this time around even mention, for example, the climate emergency). Voters are not given the option of corresponding with the candidates to ask their positions on such issues and no contact information is provided - something that hardly inspires meaningful engagement. 

I have had previous discussions with the NT about this, during which it was clear there was no real willingness to change. Sadly, the NT's lack of interest in creating a member-driven internal democracy means that what passes for democracy can easily be manipulated. They can have no complaints, because in urging members to vote for a select group of candidates who support their objectives Restore Trust is only doing what the NT has done for decades. Holding an election while telling voters who to vote for has never been a particularly good look for an authentically transparent and accountable organisation. I'll go further: it's a reprehensible anti-democratic practice that should be consigned to history.

In any other election with an electorate of 5.5 million a group claiming to represent 6,100 members would hardly be expected to make its presence felt. But this is no ordinary election - it's an NT election. Two years ago successful candidates only needed 8,000 to be elected, something that should be relatively easy with a slick social media campaign and the backing of ultra-Conservative groups determined to make their mark. The task is made even easier by the fact that the 38 other candidates will severely split any potential anti-Restore vote. But the real problem is the extraordinarily low turnouts in NT elections.

If we take the 2019 election result, we can see that 5.5 million members cast a total of 181,580 votes. However, that isn't the total number of voters, because each voter is allowed up to 6 votes (one for each vacancy), meaning as few as 30,264 people may have participated from an electorate larger than Scotland's. I've been generous and, allowing for the probability that some voters will not have used up all six votes, I've divided the total by 5 rather than 6. But this still means the NT council is elected on a 0.66% turnout.

This should be a problem to the NT but, when I brought it up previously, it was plain to see that is is not. The NT cared little for its democratic systems so long as they were likely to produce the same kinds of results, returning the same compliant council members and maintaining the NT's influence over recommendations that usually determined the outcome. 

A failure to adequately engage with members to encourage them to stand, an inability to encourage voter participation and a persistence in telling voters how to cast their ballots means the NT is ill-equipped to lecture about subverting democracy.

This is no way to run an election and it is hardly surprising that, in the age of social media, a group would eventually take advantage of the nature of NT elections to launch a concerted campaign of its own to have its preferred candidates elected. It is unfortunate that this group happens to be Restore Trust but, rather than condemn the development as the NT has, I see it as an opportunity to reform democracy: perhaps the NT can finally grasp the need to create new democratic channels that empower greater involvement and therefore cannot be so easily subverted?  Restore Trust's recommendations to elect the chairman should be the very least we should expect from a supposedly member-driven organisation.

One positive by-product of Restore Trust's foray into this election is to raise awareness of the importance of the NT's council and potentially encourage more members to exercise their democratic rights this time around. I'm hopeful that will happen. A larger turnout should help candidates not supported by Restore Trust, meaning that its "anti-woke" campaign will ultimately be derailed by its own self-publicity.

I am not thrilled by Restore Trust's "culture warrior" objectives or its support for Stephen Green. However, its complaints about the NT's internal democracy are fully justified.  The integrity of the NT is something that should have been called into question years ago, because it is more imagined than authentic. The bottom line is that the NT does democracy badly - and this has sadly led to the emergence of Restore Trust.

If Restore Trust's preferred candidates are elected at the end of the month, then the NT only has itself to blame. Whatever the outcome, the NT has some serious issues to deal with.

* I acknowledge that the NT's film on Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, involving Stephen Fry, was contentious because Mr Ketton-Cromer's family were unhappy with him being "outed". Ketton-Cromer was never "out" publicly and his orientation was only known to close family and friends - while they do not deny the factual basis of the film, they were unhappy with the NT's insensitivity to his desire to keep his orientation secret. 

There is discussion to be had about how we deal with acknowledging the sexual orientations of historical figures - but Stephen Green's suggestion that this proves the NT is somehow obsessed with LGBT+ matters is not justified by any objective consideration of the evidence.


Anonymous said…
Pleased to see Green wasn't elected. He did come close, just a few hundred votes short. When a rampantly homohobic candidates' statement wins over 33,000 votes then the NT has some serious problems.
Pen77 said…
Interesting thoughts, thanks. Though I think you're harsh on the Trust's approach to climate change which is long standing and has shown real leadership. Shifting Shores was published in 2010 and was based on work they'd been undertaking for a while. It states that 70% of membership polled were concerned about its effects. Resistance to their work on climate change is less about the speed in which they've taken up the cause (they're the front line and have said so since before Birling Gap started falling into the sea and all the moths hatched) and more about bad faith actors.
Andrew said…
Thanks Pen77,

As I mentioned, "it may seem unfair to be critical of the NT on this front because it has been better on climate change". And I actually agree with you - by "more recently" I mean since 2010. I also don't deny that they'd been doing work for a while before then, only that it's only in the last decade that the NT has become "more vocal".

It's not my major criticism to be honest and so I only mentioned it in passing - I've just used it as an example of how the NT has changed its language and tone in recent years which, to the likes of Restore Trust, is evidence of huge changes in thinking.

Like you, I'm not really sure that these huge changes are real rather than imagined, but the NT has hardly helped itself in this respect. It tends to stay quite silent for a while (whatever its work and intentions) and then suddenly decides to make bold statements - something that hascontributed to Restore Trust's "rebellion".

I agree with the anonymous contributor: Stephen Green almost securing sufficient votes to be elected on the back of a candidates' statement that was little short of a homophibic rant and offered nothing positive shows that the NT is in an unhealthy place.

I note that Min Greenshaw and Guy Trehane were elected from Restore Trust's recommended six candidates, but after the result was announced Trehane distanced himself from Restore Trust's beliefs (I note he seemed happy enough to benefit from their support during the election and kept quite tight-lipped about them until the result was known). As Min was also on the NT's list of recommendaed candidates, you have to wonder whether Restore Trust know how to manipulate democracy even within an electoral system like the NT's, which is highly vulnerable to it.