Wednesday, 9 March 2016

SPR Council Elections April 2016 – Some brief remarks

The Articles of the Society for Psychical Research stipulate that each year six members of its governing Council must stand for re-election, in rotation.  This occurs during the Annual General Meeting held after the April Study Day and is normally a brief formality, with the six standing down and being voted back in.  However, the elections on 30 April 2016 promise to be the most interesting we have had for some time because unusually there are more candidates than places.

Most new Council members join via the co-optation route, being invited on to Council.  When an elected Council member retires, the longest-serving co-optee fills that place, then stands down and is re-elected at the time the person they substituted for would have (unless they decide in the meantime that Council life is not for them, which does happen).  This ensures a smooth continuity, though possibly tending to convey a sense to outsiders that the Council is a static self-perpetuating oligarchy.

Such an arrangement means that there is little incentive for contested elections, so it is rare for more than the six standing down to be nominated.  In any case, it’s not as if there is a huge desire arising from the membership to stand for Council.  This year is different, however, because there are eight people vying for the six places, and it is going to lead to a difficult choice for the Society’s members.

The eight are: Richard Broughton, Bernard Carr, Ciaran Farrell, Guy Lyon Playfair, Leslie Price, David Rousseau, Donald West, and me.  Price and Farrell are the two new candidates standing in opposition to the others, who are fulfilling their obligation to stand for re-election.  The list, with ‘Notes on Candidates’, will be found at the back of the Annual Report and Statement of Accounts.

It’s an interesting field because there are some heavyweights on the list of candidates. notably Broughton, Carr and West, who are all ex-presidents of the Society, and Playfair, who has a considerable reputation as an author in the field.  It is a foregone conclusion that they will all be re-elected, with the other four individuals fighting for the remaining two places.

Mr Farrell I suspect will fail in his electoral ambitions this time because he does not have a track record in the subject.  I certainly hadn’t heard of him before.  Hopefully he will continue his interest, and will perhaps be considered for co-optation at some point.  That leaves Price, Rousseau and Ruffles.

A member since 1967, Price has been on Council in the past, and is well known in the field: he is archivist at the College of Psychic Studies, is closely associated with the online Psypioneer journal, and founded The Christian Parapsychologist and Theosophical History.  Highly principled and knowledgeable, he is likely to garner a wide range of support, particularly from those who have an interest in Spiritualism or Theosophy.  Despite being rivals on the ballot paper, I was happy to second his nomination.

Rousseau has been on Council since 1997 and was for some time the treasurer, as well as being a member of a number of committees (sadly one of these was the Research Activities Committee, which folded after becoming moribund under his chairmanship).  His profile is probably not that strong in the Society.  He is also controversial as he has obtained very significant funding from the SPR for an obscure project on systems methodology which has yet to show its relevance, if any, to psychical research, and this largesse has not endeared him to those who feel the money could have been spent more wisely.

As for Ruffles, what can I say?  My social media work for the SPR might be considered to give me an edge in terms of recognition, but much of this does not bear my name.  Overall though the volume of activity on the Society’s behalf since I joined in 1987 may have had some impact (my election note is identical to my current entry on the publicly-available trustees’page of the SPR website).

So the result is going to be difficult to predict.  Personally I feel it is unfortunate that someone has to be disappointed but I hope that those eligible to vote in the election will examine the candidates’ track records carefully and decide which six of the eight have both the SPR’s interests at heart, and are best placed to contribute to its future development.  Naturally I would be extremely happy to find myself re-elected after 26 years’ continuous service on Council.

Election update: 1 May 2016

The SPR election conducted during the AGM on 30 April 2016 will eventually be reported in the Society’s Journal (and thus be in the public domain), but in the meantime here are the results of the successful candidates:

Richard Broughton: 37
Bernard Carr: 36
Tom Ruffles: 36
Donald West: 35
Guy Lyon Playfair: 32
David Rousseau: 22

All six had stood down according to the SPR’s Articles and offered themselves for re-election.  The two others who had put their names forward, Leslie Price and Ciaran Farrell, were unsuccessful, being some way behind in the poll.

This is a surprising set of numbers for a couple of reasons.  My feeling was that Broughton, Carr, Playfair and West would all receive the same number of votes, forming a tight cluster at the top, with whichever two of the other contenders were elected bringing up the rear.  The span between Broughton and Playfair indicates that a few people voted for some but not all of those four.

The bigger surprise is of course that while my second prediction was partially correct – David Rousseau came sixth, lagging well behind the rest of the successful candidates – my own placing was joint second, equal to Bernard Carr’s, someone who has been President and is highly regarded.  It’s rather embarrassing to have received more votes than Donald West, who has been a member for seventy-five years and President three times, and Guy Lyon Playfair, currently the Society’s best-known figure.

On the face of it the number of votes cast appears to be woefully low as a proportion of the total membership, and suggests that few members not physically present at the AGM bothered to submit a proxy form.  The figures are, however, slightly misleading because of the mechanism that enabled a member to vote against an individual.  This actually allows a candidate to receive a minus score, which did happen in Farrell’s case.

Negative voting is unlikely to have affected Broughton, Carr, Playfair and West, and probably didn’t me, but I suspect it did Rousseau as well as the others, and their scores do not therefore reflect the full extent of their support.  True, it facilitates tactical voting, and allows members to make their displeasure known if they are unhappy with a candidate, but in effect it is disenfranchising members voting for a candidate whose choices are cancelled by someone else voting against.

This method is not specified in the Articles, which simply state that those elected will be the candidates with the greatest numbers of votes.   It is an aspect of the procedure which I feel should be examined, and a more conventional first-past-the-post system introduced for those rare instances where there is a contested election.  I also think that online voting could be considered to encourage greater participation by members, whether elections are contested or not.

In the meantime, I am grateful to all those who voted for me, and I hope I continue to justify their support.  It has been a nerve-wracking time waiting for the AGM to come round as it seemed to me a distinct possibility that I would finish outside the top six.  The field was a strong one, but then, if the SPR is to flourish, who would want it any other way?