The late Rodney Legg, chairman of the Open Spaces Society and for 20 years a member of the National Trust council, used to call it the ‘handbag vote’. These were the large number of proxy votes which the National Trust members entrusted to the chairman (at that time Dame Jennifer Jenkins) rather than express a preference themselves.
Rod, and many others, disliked the proxy vote because it was used by the trust in the early 90s to reinforce its position in favour of hunting and the status quo.
At the heated AGM in 1990 members who were present or expressed a view by proxy voted by five to one for a ban on deer hunting on trust land, but the vote was nearly overwhelmed by the handbag vote (and then deferred because the council decided to pass it to a working party to ponder for three years).
Another motion, calling on the trust to ban hunting of fox, hare and mink on trust land, was lost because of the handbag vote. Members who were present or expressed a view by proxy voted four to one in favour. Because of this, at the 1991 AGM there was a motion to seek parliamentary approval to do away with the proxy vote—which was defeated almost certainly because of the chairman’s proxy!
At the National Trust’s AGM this year the motion on badger vaccination was defeated. This called on the trust to state that it will not allow badger culling on its land, and to extend vaccination to all its land.
If one excludes the proxy votes it would have been carried, by 54 per cent (7,807 for, 6,582 against) but the 2,111 votes given to the chairman to vote with his discretion (supporting the council line) swung it the other way, so that there were 47.3 per cent in favour (7,808) and 52.7 per cent (8,694) against. (These voting figures are low compared with the 130,00 or so voting on hunting in 1990.) The trust’s position on badgers is explained here.
Things have improved. Now the trust publishes the number of proxy votes cast whereas in the early 90s this was kept secret (though the press usually managed to find out).
The trust has its own legislation, but companies have to offer a proxy vote and allow members the option of letting the chairman decide for them—we have done it in the Open Spaces Society since we became a company in 2011. Of course this system strongly favours those in charge, and makes it difficult to get decisions through which are contrary to the wish of the trustees or council.
However, there was one particularly pleasing outcome at the trust AGM. The trust recommends a slate of candidates for the council for those unwilling to make up their own minds. Geoff Nickolds from Nottinghamshire (who had my vote), Rupert Thorp and Roseanne Williams were all elected despite not being on the slate. So the free-thinking trust members do still get their way.