The Costs of Control

As a software developer I want to tell you some things about autonomy, so that the story below makes sense. Autonomy is really very important in software development. The reason has absolutely nothing to do with computers and everything to do with economics. If you want a really very clear self-aware and powerful example of Hayek at work then join a modern software development project.

This is what a modern project team takes for granted:

  • We do not know the solution.
  • We should try stuff and see what works empirically.
  • We will be able to work it out if we constantly inspect and adapt everything (especially ourselves).
  • None of us knows the whole answer.
  • The knowledge required to do so is largely implicit.

If that sounds like a summary of I, Pencil or a chapter from Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, then this is no co-incidence. A project team is like a mini-economy. Cooperation is the constant reality and the invisible flows of knowledge that cannot be enumerated or written down are just as crucial. Monetary exchanges happen at the edges of the team, and are a constantly present factor in every decision.

What does this mean in detail? Well it means that rather than everything running according to an agreed plan, with everything laid out like the procedures manual on a submarine, it means you must occasionally wing it. It is not uncommon to log onto a server and just have a poke about, with a clear goal but no clarity of method. This is why you see large numbers of people with effectively root access to production servers (i.e. the privilege to see and change anything). It is a security nightmare but is required to Get Stuff Done. You just have to trust people – they must have autonomy.

The above is largely a summary of why the next story I am about to tell is so gobsmackingly stupid. Anyone who thought they had reached the end of my series of posts about LPUK and was finally getting some hardcore philosophic theory is about to be disappointed. This story was told to me by the UK Libertarian Party’s missing Press Officer, the bloke who was at Liberty League who wasn’t Sean. The unacknowledged “middle” Press Officer, after Sean and before the noteworthy nationalist pagan David Parry. The guy whose name never came up on the LPUK website, the guy they didn’t mention in the David Parry inaugural press release.

This man’s name is Gunnar Hardy, another American volunteer and now the Press Officer for the International Alliance of Libertarian Parties. Gunnar likes to think of this as a promotion and I am sure he will enjoy manning IALP’s stall at FreedomFest in Las Vegas.

 

Gunnar Hardy

Gunnar Hardy

Once upon a time a developer wanted to log into a server.

Gunnar was appointed Director of Public Relations and volunteered to take on the task of refreshing the current, stale, Libertarian Party website. Blessed with such a job title (and the business cards to prove it) it’s natural that he expected a degree of autonomy. He says he wanted something “slick, sexy, better than the other party websites out there”, and to make it profitable: prioritizing merchandise sales and membership. That might not be your intellectual cup-of-tea but it is a clear and reasonable goal for a party taking just £1000 in revenue, and furthermore Gunnar was doing the work.

He reviewed the designs submitted by the existing South African web developer and rejected them. Putting his trust in his network of contacts he reached out to someone who did the development for projects Gunnar has worked on before and he started out on a new creative path. Having built the basic layout up to a high standard, it was time to log in, deploy that framework and integrate to payment and eCommerce services.

His request for credentials was denied.

Be careful what you believe, I might have hacked into your eyes.

Laughing_man_logoThe Libertarian Party is a group with (rightly) fewer than 70 members yet is apparently such a high profile target that administrative access to it’s servers for volunteers is simply not permissible. Who would target such an entity? Apparently I would. Yes, me the guy who provided the negative outlier in a study of latent hacking stills conducted on behalf of Northrop Grumman by utterly flunking a hacking test. Me who failed to spot the publicly disclosed contradiction in the Libertarian Party accounts for a whole two years. Somehow, for them, I am a Super Class A hacker fixated on the destruction of their party. Rather than the poorly motivated critic and under-resourced blogger I see, they see The Laughing Man, bent on revenge for crimes against humanity. If I was not so wedded to objective reality my ego might have been soothed, instead, I struggle to report this with a straight face.

This deserves a straight face

The personalities at the top of the Party are clearly still fighting a largely imaginary battle. Rather than looking out with hope they look inwards with fear and suspicion. The controversy triggered by Anna Raccoons April 2011 sting is still ongoing for them. In their mind there is still an organised faction fighting them, the truth is people are struggling to remember to keep up with them.

This climate of fear has serious consequences. It must be hugely off putting to start with, and seems to put off even them. One of the few outward looking activities they have organised was a social gathering in Bristol. Gunnar tells me that Andrew was there and he launched into a heated debate with a new member. Andrew was always incredibly keen on his specific policies. He once strained his credibility by pushing hard for a motion to make the Libertarian Party a Constitutional Libertarian Party, an unpopular measure that failed completely to attract the necessary votes. Rather than resigning, he shrugged that off. How did the debate in Bristol go? Andrew “continued to shut down, disrespect, and berate the man just for the simple reason that he didn’t agree with Andrew” this was the new member’s first face to face contact with the party. It is no surprise that he left a few days later. During the 2011 split Andrew continually spoke as if he faced a faction of anarchists, seeking to make the LPUK an anarchists’ party. This was clearly untrue, many of the loudest voices in what was really the “pro-audit faction” were minarchists but I wonder whether he actually believed his story? Was this conversation in Bristol his effort to screen new members for ideological differences?

Perhaps it was the way Gunnar stepped in to defuse that situation, perhaps Gunnar is just too opinionated on business matters (he is a business student) but when he resigned his letter described the atmosphere within the party as “hostile”. It is clear he and Andrew did not get on. For his part, Andrew would shower Gunnar with requests to make contact with various groups and public figures and get various things done. Gunnar felt unable to rely on David Parry since David did not often contribute to what was needed. Their relative ages notwithstanding, it is clear Parry was the disengaged junior volunteer and Gunnar the involved and engaged director. Andrew didn’t seem to appreciate that Gunnar was left carrying the whole marketing function of the party on top of his studies. He filled his dorm wall with lists of LPUK priorities and tackled them in the best possible order, but eventually Gunnar was forced to push back and tell Andrew to adjust his expectations.

They disagreed over the website a couple more times. Andrew wanted biographies of party figures added to the page in a way that Gunnar felt would interfere with the user’s journey to join or buy from the party and insisted the site should stay “slick” and “fast”. Yet for all Andrew’s demands he failed to keep abreast of the commercial reality of what was going on. The South African developer (rightly) queried her money and Gunnar was surprised with the news that Andrew had committed to paying her £300.  Andrew heaped the blame on Gunnar for “breaking the contract” – a contract that predated his involvement.

The tipping point came when Gunnar, quite at random, used the story of Andrew’s resignation from this site in place of a news item in a private demonstration server. He copied and pasted one of my Libertarian Home articles to test the new Libertarian Party website. The inner circle exploded with activity. Long dormant NCC members became active again, and started flying around the country for meetings. Despite “resigning” Andrew was still very much in charge at this time. Gunnar was cast as a Libertarian Home spy, or Marxist spy or an agent of the Government sent to disrupt it’s growing minarchist nemesis. Gunnar left in short order.

Privately he wrote “Albeit I’m young, I am a professional and not out for vengeance. I would like my story to serve as a warning”. For Gunnar the worst thing about this tale is that he might see history repeat itself. It is one thing for one party to end up this way, quite another if this becomes a pattern for the movement. It needn’t be the case.

Oh, and another thing….

hillary-htThat is not the end of the story.

Guy Montrose – the best thing to happen to the party since the Southwark drinks – the guy who got the Facebook page going and turned it into something actually useful and the guy that founded IALP (an organisation Andrew is desperate to be associated with). That Guy – he left too. Time for a break. Didn’t want to talk to me about it. No drama, please. Did Gunnar’s persecution as a “spy” have something to do with it? I don’t know, but it seems likely.

What I am certain of reporting is that a second secret, unacknowledged, member of staff left the party shortly afterwards. She demurely declined to comment too, but when I asked her to prove she was ever part of the Party she could not find any evidence she was there. The only evidence that this part of the story is true is her mention on the IALP website (which Gunnar also produced) and a posting on Andrew Wither’s Facebook that confirms that Hilary Hackleman was once Deputy Chairman of the Party. The recipient of yet another senior job title who was never mentioned on the Libertarian Party website, new or old. “No resignation letter was necessary I guess, I didn’t even really exist.” she said. Gunnar believes her exit was certainly prompted, in part, by his mistreatment.

slick-lpuk-website-demo

The website Gunnar commissioned

I’m not sure exactly why, but Tom – administrator of the LPUK Youth Facebook page – also left the scene at about the same time.

Gunnar’s says his posts on Facebook were deleted after he handed over access to the Facebook page to Liam Hillman (LPUK’s nominations officer). David Parry’s self-promoting press release is a work of art, reminiscent of the State Science Institute’s vague condemnation of Rearden Steel it talks about David’s elevation within the party as if he were crossing into virgin territory:

Parry has contributed (behind the scenes) to Libertarian gatherings across the decades. However, he now feels the need to firm up his commitments

There is no acknowledgement that he is something like the sixth person in the role in just seven years (preceded by Gunnar, Sean, Ken, Chris and Gavin). Gunnar has been erased from the official Party record. His influence sucked down the memory hole. The website he built rejected in favour of the inferior South African version, for no reason except for the fear that acknowledging the reality of what has been going on will cause the Party bubble to burst.

It seems as if the people doing all the work at LPUK were kept in the closet and only those people trusted by Andrew Withers were acknowledged properly. I can only conclude that this is another means of suppressing the imaginary opposing anarchist faction within the Party, of limiting the “damage” these people can do. The fact that they have gone shows the danger in this fearful approach to life: who is going to do the work now? Who is going to help you recruit another round of volunteers? If the party rebuilds itself now it will be thanks to a third round of new volunteers. The number of such volunteers who have not worked out who you are is dwindling. It is time to shut up shop and leave a space for others to fill.

The constraints Andrew applied get in the way of an efficiently functioning party. His unwelcoming attitude is driving away members. His persecution of those that dare to disagree with him is causing his volunteers to depart in droves. His failure to confront the reality that his party filed contradictory accounts due to errors on his watch makes it impossible for the well informed to contribute, leaving him to rely on ignorance as a hiker relies on quicksand. He cannot go on TV. He seeks to work outside the country he wishes to influence as that is the last refuge where he is unknown.

Such is the cost of wanting to be in control. If his control was taking us anywhere it would be tolerable. It is not.

Guy Montrose out

The LPUK website has had a refresh and lists the following:

Simon Walmsley – Acting Chairman

Well hello Simon, but wait – no Guy Montrose? Enquiries on Facebook show Guy is taking a “break from politics”.

Since Guy joined LPUK notably more had been done, but I always said he was driving down a dead end in which the party would be unable to accept TV interviews or rise to any degree of prominence. I was recently proved right on that, and perhaps the effect has been to put Guy off spending time on Andrew Withers’ ego-project.

And what of Andrew? His new letter retains a trace of class by thanking “all the members of the NCC past and present that have kept us moving forward and the activists who devote so much time and energy”. I will have more on those activists later in the week. Meanwhile, Andrew can’t help another dig at so called “keyboard warriors” seeking to differentiate himself as a leader focused on “building a presence on the ground with the public” while his list of activities mentions only his interactions with foreign libertarians outside the UK and with Guy’s project the International Alliance of Libertarian Parties. It is unclear how Andrew has helped to reach out to either the UK libertarian grassroots or to the general public. Indeed it was unclear at election time whether anyone at LPUK had a clear picture of where their candidates had chosen to stand, let alone what help and support they needed.

In a move that sums up Andrew, at a time when he was supposed to be resigning he has added to his job title “IALP Representative”. Of course he is not a representative of the IALP, if anything he is a representative of himself to the IALP, not the other way around. This seems intended to protect his right to be taken seriously at FreedomFest, where people will not know him and he can wear whatever airs and pretences he desires. I have a feeling he will be the only Libertarian Party leader there choosing to introduce himself with that job title, because the others will have more substantial things to say about themselves.

It seems to me that Guy was the best hope of a decent new leader for LPUK. Andrew is supposed to have resigned, the second time he has done so. If Guy thought that was true, why has he chosen to go now?

The UK Libertarian Party mislaid four times it’s current revenue

A further dramatic aspect of the General election was when Andrew Withers – once treasurer of LPUK – resigned his role of leader within 24 hours of the polls opening, effective at the next AGM. This sounds mad, but for someone with such a toxic history it made electoral and practical sense. In fact it is the best thing he ever did.

With Andrew Withers set to go there is a possibility that his party may become a useful institution, one to be approached with caution at first but ultimately supportable and one day, I hope, electable. Whether that happens will depend on bright diligent people taking the helm and moving things forward. Part of moving forward will to be reconcile with the past and to make amends to the activists who were mistreated. However, I had given up on all that and now I have some catching up to do.

It seems that one of the ways to reconcile with the past would be to make a statement in the public accounts, acknowledging that prior statements of income and expenditure implied a cash position that was materially different from the real position. In fact, that short sentence – above a signature – would be a real help as it would be an official acknowledgment that expenditure had not been accounted for (which it had not). Before banging the drum for such a statement, I thought it wise to check one had not already been made. The answer? Well it has and it hasn’t.

The documents LPUK uploaded did not make any comment on the problem. They did not even state a bank balance, but lo! What is this? In the metadata attached to the documents for 2012 and 2013 someone has supplied a value for “cash at bank and in hand”, would it be possible to trace through all the filings and find out how large the accounting discrepancy had been? Since there has not been a restatement it made sense that it would.

This is the data I collected, I have not tried to account for loans but the party only declared £580 of loans:

lpuk-accounts-rec-2015-v2

My formulas are highlighted yellow, white cells contain transcribed values. The Calculated Balance is simply the sum of money earned and spent. In the two years where a bank balance is declared the discrepancy is a steady £4098.44. So, finally, the party has essentially admitted – by stating contradictory numbers – that it’s accounts do not contain all the transactions that occurred, or else contain incorrect ones. The problem will have occurred between 2007 and 2010, a period in which Andrew Withers was, for the largest part, the treasurer.

The amount is small in national terms, but relative to the individual contributor it is huge, and of great importance. It was 27.9% of peak income and it is now equivalent to four times current income, after members fled. This is important because in order to continue trading the LPUK must attract a steady flow of donations. If you were donating £100 now, what percentage of that money is at risk? If as an activist, you attract 100 new members to the party, how many will end up angry frustrated and betrayed, rather than represented empowered and enabled? Why should anyone pay LPUK cash, or even any attention, unless and until it acknowledges the seriousness of the problem faced by its supporters?

But who do we expect to acknowledge it? The way this information was disclosed matches exactly the controversial loan that landed Andrew in hot water in the first place. That loan was mentioned to the chairman Nic Coome within earshot of half the NCC and a cluster of activists, myself included. But it was skipped over lightly and Andrew ploughed on with the conversation, not giving anyone time to digest what they heard – keeping the NCC informed but effectively ignorant. Placing the bank balance on an obscure website while the only careful critic of the party had moved onto getting married and having babies is directly from that playbook. So expecting Andrew Withers to redeem himself is false hope.

What about the now-treasurer Nic Coome? It would (should) have been him who uploaded the data to the Electoral Commission. I can only assume that he has done so honestly and accurately with respect to the current figures and the forms in front of him. The strange pivot table format of his documents show a keeness to reconcile practical reality with the priorities of the Electoral Commission, this is the behavior of an honest actor. But what of the Treasurer’s duty to the members and to the public? The figures lodged with the Electoral Commission, over time, have contradicted each other. Nic was well aware of the potential for that since he was involved in my prior investigation into the balances and he had a duty to publicly acknowledge the discrepancy. Imagine if Tesco, who recently restated their finances, had simply announced contradictory numbers and left the contradiction to be discovered by journalists? As it is the Serious Fraud Office are investigating Tesco.

Nic is a close ally of Andrew Withers and he has let that closeness affect his judgement. The accounts 2012 accounts should have been accompanied with an apology. Instead he resorted to the kind of tactics libertarians criticise in others, of trying to bury bad news. The original problem which allowed four thousand pounds to be mislaid was a resigning matter for Andrew Withers, now Nic Coome has added a further shameful chapter to that story yet both are still in office.

The sooner libertarians in the UK give up on LPUK, and take their Facebook likes elsewhere, the sooner the impersonal cruelty of our current political system will end. The figures currently bed-blocking at the top of this party are a part of the nation’s problem.

A Regrettable Aggravation

I have not been keeping up with the old LIbertarian Party because I lack the motivation to do so. I regard them as a pointless distraction which is frustratingly still ongoing. It is impressive what Guy Montrose has done with the Facebook page – it’s full of energy – but that energy is being wasted.

That wastage became apparent when last week the Party officially turned down an invitation to appear on television, an opportunity which would have justified all the efforts of the party’s new tranche of supporters. The party had been invited by Andrew Neil’s team to be interviewed on the Daily Politics and they said no. The Backbencher picked up the story and described the reaction of Facebook users on it’s page: they were incandescent.

In my view, the Facebook thread and Backbencher article are both wrong, this has little to do with Chris Mounsey’s prior performance on the same program and more to do with the prior performance of the party’s leader and its former Treasurer Andrew Peter Withers who has not resolved the issue of a £4300 accounting discrepancy. To be clear, that amounted to about third of donations in a good year, i.e. a third of members’ money.

Here is my analysis, as posted on 4Liberty some years previously:

As for LPUK, yes, it trades, but it isn’t going anywhere. It has meetings and takes money, and has a pulpit from which to “note” it’s detractors. On this point James is wrong, LPUK has many detractors but zero dissenters because they have all formally left and formed the ILN up North and the PLP down South. LPUK is therefore united under the leadership of Andrew Peter Withers, who I believe will never step down, and this is why his party will not rise.

Any TV or Newspaper wishing to cover the libertarian parties will google Andrew Peter Withers and give him a worse bashing than Devils Kitchen ever got. In contrast, the backstory of the Pro Liberty Party and Independant Libertarian Network will show how completely intolerant of sleeze they are, which will be an asset for them.

The only thing going for LPUK is, frankly, Guy Montrose, but he is driving down a dead end.

I wish this was not so predictable. Sadly the ILN and PLP have fizzled out since the time of that posting, they may not have done so had the energy dedicated to LPUK been diverted their way. Withers is impressively stubborn and Guy Montrose impressively effective, but so long as those two are bound together success for either of them – and I mean success at national scale – will have to wait.

It is past the time for the LPUK to change it’s leadership or disappear. With the way clear of embarrassing tales, a Libertarian Party may eventually achieve prominence.