Lessons of Coalition (6): what do the Lib Dems need to learn from the first 3 years?

ldv coalition lessonsLibDemVoice is running a daily feature, ‘Lessons of Coalition’, to assess the major do’s and don’ts learned from our experience of the first 3 years in government. Reader contributions are welcome, either as comments or posts. The word limit is no more than 450 words, and please focus on just one lesson you think the party needs to learn. Simply email your submission to voice@libdemvoice.org. Today Louise Shaw shares her thoughts.

One member, one vote for all party elections

Coalition has exposed and accentuated the differences between two powerbases within the party: the leadership and it’s governing committees. And though both are elected, it feels to me as an ordinary member that I have no chance of influencing either.

I stand outside both at the moment, I’m not in the leadership and I don’t contribute to the Federal Executive (FE), Federal Policy Committee (FPC) or Federal Conference Committee (FCC), nor would I stand a chance of being elected as I’m not well known enough. I’m a board member for Liberal Reform, campaigning for reform within the party, but writing from a personal perspective.

I want to change things, and don’t exclude the Lib Dems from the need for that. I see that there are differences, and that both power blocs within the party claim sovereignty over the other.

This leads to a deadlock, and though we are praised for our unity, it doesn’t feel like we have a distinct purpose or aim, as a whole – eg, the Social Liberal Forum (who have many representatives on FE/FPC/FCC) could sign up to “stronger economy, fairer society enabling everyone to get on in life” as a number of their aims could be included under that strapline. But I don’t see them reference this. SLF seem most concerned about “Osbornomics” and this to me appears we are more focused on our differences than any shared purpose.

Therefore, coalition throws up the problem that the leadership and the FE/FPC/FCC do not seem to be signed up to the same aims, and reference different agenda to get their point across – there seem to be people thirsting for fights in Glasgow over the 50p tax rate, our policy on tuition fees/graduate tax, and on welfare.

Is this the best environment to make policy? I’m not advocating “why don’t we all just get along?” as I recognise debate and arguments can be good for giving everyone a fair say and allow us to settle contentious issues and move on to the policy of the future. But, people within the different factions looking at the other side as something to be suspicious of does not make for good communication.

I believe the party’s democratic deficit — the lack of one member, one vote (OMOV) for FE/FPC/FCC — contributes to different stances from the leadership and the membership. Shibboleths exist such as “conference is sovereign”. It quite clearly isn’t when we are in government, which leads to members getting very frustrated when they lead campaigns, get issues debated at conference and then are more or less ignored. Plus, from the leadership a certain frustration is detectable about Lib Dem policy-making not being “grown up” enough. I’m not unsympathetic to either view. They could both be right.

We elected a leader through OMOV who seems to have a different ethos than that of the FE/FPC/FCC, elected by conference representatives. The electorate for the two different power bases is different and in addition, it may be that people look for different things in a leader (good communication skills) from what they do for elected committee members (people they agree with).

It does appear though that in our president, Tim Farron, OMOV can elect a representative with both good communication skills for the wider electorate, and someone they want to represent them. So I’d like OMOV for our committees, FE/FPC/FCC, as aligning the electorates for both positions to a more democratic method, would be a step in the right direction — and almost imperative for a party with the word Democrat in its name.

Previously Published:

Stephen Tall: Stronger policy development and campaigning on issues that matter to the public (AKA where’s our liberal equivalent of the benefits cap?)

Mark Valladares: Better party communications responding to the realities of governing

Gareth Epps: Government: What’s Occurrin?

Nick Thornsby: Making a success of coalition government as a concept

Caron Lindsay: That old “walk a mile in each others’ shoes” thing works

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20 Comments

  • Simon McGrath 4th Aug '13 - 2:48pm

    Completely agree. There is no reason at all why the members should not be allowed to choose the FPC and FE

  • Mark Blackburn 4th Aug '13 - 6:29pm

    Not sure what have the SLF got to do with an argument about OMOV?! I would think most SLF members would favour OMOV. Then you’d have party committees even less likely to toe the party establishment line in instances where it conflicts with grassroots sentiment.

    As for Stronger Economy, Fairer Society – who would disagree with that? It’s just a question of how we get there. And with more people struggling with debt the need is ever greater.

  • Steve Griffiths 4th Aug '13 - 8:07pm

    Mark Blackburn

    “As for Stronger Economy, Fairer Society – who would disagree with that? ”

    Well exactly. As others (including myself) have pointed out on LDV in the past, it’s just a ‘motherhood and apple pie’ slogan that any political party could claim. We need something less airy-fairy to grab the electorate’s attention.

  • Andy Williams 4th Aug '13 - 8:35pm

    Even if Conference was sovereign it certainly is not representative. Conference delegates are self selecting.

  • I disagree with OMOV for members of most of our committees. Firstly our elections to our committees are democratic. Secondly if Conference makes policy then the members of conference should elect the Policy Committee. If people don’t go to conference why should they vote for the Conference Committee? The Federal Executive Committee has people elected to it in a number of ways, some via the state parties, some by all the membership, some by councillors, some by members of parliament, and the majority by Conference reps and they are elected by people who have stood for election in an internal party election. However if the rules were changed so as well as no MPs, no Lord and no member of the European Parliament could be elected by the membership it might be OK. (Louise Shaw says she wouldn’t stand a chance of getting elected, if MPs, Lords, etc. could stand she and many others who are presently on these committees would not stand a chance of getting elected.) However those who are elected by conference representatives are normally those who are active at conference (and are ordinary members) because it can be very difficult to differentiate between candidates based on one side of A5. Also there would be an increase in the costs of holding these elections if every member was sent the candidate manifestos.

  • Allan Heron 5th Aug '13 - 8:18am

    There is a case to be made in favour of OMOV (and one for retaining some if not all of the current system) but there really is nothing to indicate that this would have any impact on how the leadership interacts with the party on policy issues.

    i think the one change that is needed is for Clegg to stop whinging about the need for “grown-up policy making”. At this point in time, he’s the one who seems to be acting most like a petulant child. My view is that the reaction of the party (and it’s worth bearing in mind that ALL wings of the party have been up in arms about issues at some point) is a reaction to the way in which the party has been treated on issues that have arised which have no foundation in the Coalition Agreement.

    As an example of this attitude (and one which also demonstrates that it’s one that permeates most parliamentarians as well) there were debates on both the Bedroom Tax and Secret Courts at this years’ Scottish Conference in Dundee. Despite the presence of MP’s and/or members of the government. none of them had the decency/dignity to get on the podium to attempt to defend the stance taken by us in government. That’s disgraceful behaviour and it’s no surprise that members are so suspicious of the motives of those lost in the Westminster bubble

  • Apart from anything else, Louise Shaw, you are not just an ordinary member (only in a very narrow sense). You are a prolific and influential blogger, widely read throughout the party, so don’t use that as a reason for pushing another style of voting for committees! We wouldn’t want to involve every member in electing Council Group officers for instance, because we trust those who know each other best know one another’s strengths and weaknesses.

    Having been a member of “the Conference club” for many years – I haven’t now attended regularly for 8 years or so – I can see the difficulty of so-called “self-selecting” reps. But I don’t think there are easy answers to that problem – usually of lack of money, or time pressure, or both. I think George Potter should get around more, if he really thinks “most local parties do a good job…” Most local parties simply find it difficult to get a team together, particularly now, with reduced memberships.

  • I couldn’t agree more with us switching to OMOV for party committees. The notion that people who are selected for their ability to attend conference should also hold an exclusive monopoly over who runs the party is frankly ridiculous as conference is already self-limiting to those time and cash rich.

    Policy itself shouldn’t be made at conference. The discussions and debates should be held like normal but it should be open to online voting by the entire membership afterwards.

  • Having read both Louise and the comments it is clear that a new well-thought system is needed within the party. It should balance the principles which are truly Lib Dem from all “sections” and not favour a particular one. Though I’m still not re-joining as a member I’m reading much more into the “depth” which still exists within the party – I blog elsewhere about principles which are Lib Dem. Though I like Nick Clegg as a person I have been put off by the manner in which our principles were buried in order to support the government machine. With a more open and balanced system the burial of principles would have been more difficult for the leadership to achieve.

  • @ Tommy: Conference reps are not (or, at least, don’t need to be) selected for their ability to attend conference. Rare is the local party that has all of its reps attending. Almost anyone can get elected as a conference rep if they want to.

    @ Louise:
    ” it feels to me as an ordinary member that I have no chance of influencing either”
    Did you attend the last local party AGM and vote for conference reps? Did you attend a recent local party Executive and ask them questions? Did you perhaps message an FE / FPC member or Tim Farron on Facebook? You need to try the routes that are open to you first.

    You WOULD stand a chance of being elected to a federal committee under the current system because you are well known enough to get you the 80-100 or so first prefs that you need. You would stand no chance if it was an all member ballot.

    The ex-officio half of federal committee members already tend to support the leadership. If you want the directly elected half to as well, then support all-member ballots. (And there is the £60-80,000 cost to consider as well.)

    It is well known that the larger an electorate the less likely they are to be well informed about the actual qualities of the individual candidates.

  • Wow some interesting comments here and some very flattering ones. I’d like to engage later, bear with me!

  • Louise is right to highlight that having two powerbases has consequences – very damaging ones in my view that would not be fixed by OMOV for the key committees. I think we need wider changes to make the party a more effective vehicle for liberal politics.

    The idea baked into the existing constitution that a committee should set policy priorities etc. is simply wrong. Committees can review, comment, amend and so on but are terrible at innovation. The members naturally pull in slightly different directions however great the basic agreement between them . As the old saying has it, a horse is a camel designed by a committee. That is why policy thinking always seems to lag 10 years or more behind the times and even then often looks like little more that a cut and paste job on old Guardian editorials. That is why also the Lib Dems don’t have a clear narrative after all these years. The present arrangements have failed – big time.

    To fashion a more effective political force we should eliminate the dual powerbases. I suggest giving the leader far more responsibility for setting the agenda, policy priorities etc. BUT with a crucial quid pro quo – that his (always ‘his’ so far) position is much less assured than under current arrangements and that he can be toppled by a challenger relatively easily, taking a leaf out of the Tory playbook. This could be done by empowering, say, 20% of MPs to demand a recall election if they are unhappy with the leader.

    In this alternate view the leader would have to pay careful attention to the sentiment among MPs in particular and the membership in general. Also potential rivals would find it worthwhile to cultivate alternative platforms so we would at last get some proper internal politics. As it stands now everyone has to pretend they support whatever the established policies are even when they clearly don’t as we saw during the Clegg-Huhne contest. How refreshing it would have been to have seen each setting out their preferred direction of travel and offering different visions. And what a lot of unhappiness it would have saved since.

  • OK, taking in order:

    @Andy and @George – tho local parties vary (I’m on my fourth and know a fair amount about at least four more), I know the more popular ones will vote on conference reps and have one of those sessions which sound great but I’ve not really experienced, where the Exec interrogates the conference rep and also they fufill the “representative” part by working out what the local party wants them to vote on. However, I think there is a fair amount of parties “self-selecting” as you say.

    I should have put in my article, younger people and people not able to get to Execs or Conference for whatever reason, whether infirm or skint, or any other reason are disenfranchished.

    @Almalric – Though you make cogent arguments I have to turn it on it’s head – I see many regular conference attendees, especially younger ones, frustrated at not being reps. They want to participate in the debate, and they want to vote, and they do want to vote for the committees. There is actually another wider point, but I’m trying to argue for one thing at a time, and that is perhaps conference itself should be OMOV.

    @Nick This was a piece to argue for the principle. I’m heartened by the response, so taking your words on board I’ll put together a case, as well as sharpening up the rhetoric, so yes I will be arguing for it at conference sometime, FCC / FPC willing 🙂

    @Tim Thanks I think!! That’s very kind…..

    @Stephen Robinson Again you are VERY kind and I’m now thinking about running for one of these committees. But to answer your question – I am actually a conference rep and I do report back as to my voting intention, but I think there are a few comments, even on this thread pointing out there are differences between local parties, and that is unfair. I think it’s time to think anew about this and I’m really enjoying the discussion my article has brought.

  • @ Thomas Long

    While there is a problem with people not hearing the whole debate at conference and just coming in near the end to vote this would be a lot worse with online voting at the end of each debate. While there is more to attending conference than voting on policy, it is voting on policy (and business motions) and being involved in making that policy that were my main reasons for going to conference (even more so since the death of Lord Conrad Russell who always lifted my spirits).

    Also Thomas you seem not to have taken into account two of my arguments against – cost and with a wider electorate only those who have a media profile will get elected and so the committees will be even less diverse than they are at present.

    @ GF

    If the leader could officially make policy I can’t see the point in being a member. While I currently don’t go to conference I have in the past and hopefully will one day in the future and my one vote may make a difference but the idea that the leader can just ignore what members at conference think is abhorrent to me. (There are already two political parties where this happens and we don’t need any more). This why I keep posting that we should change the constitution to make the leader accountable to conference by giving conference the power to no confidence a leader and force a new leadership election.

    However I do agree that those standing for the leadership and the presidency should be much clearer where they would like policy development to go. If Nick Clegg had said that he thought activists were not grown up and that he believed in a smaller government he may not have been elected as leader.

    @ Louise Shaw

    “I see many regular conference attendees, especially younger ones, frustrated at not being reps.”

    This seems strange to me because I am from a small local party and we don’t always have enough volunteers to be conference reps and even those who are conference reps don’t always attend. If we had a younger person who always attended conference but wasn’t a rep and they said they wanted to be a rep then they would get the job. In a larger party when positions are contested, on my interpretation of the constitution, there has to be an all member postal ballot and I would be surprised if a younger person was not elected.

  • @ Amalric

    I don’t think we’re very far apart in our thinking. What we have now is a situation where the leader can and does ignore Conference so, even though it formally makes policy, the reality is different. And sometimes it has to be like that, ‘events’ as Harold MacMillan famously put it, happen and set the agenda at a pace that our ponderous and bureaucratic policy making simply can’t keep up with. I will always remember listening to the news as Lehmann collapsed with fears that it might drag down the world’s financial system yet at exactly the same time Conference sailed serenely on, untroubled by ‘events’ in the real world and discussing matters of utter irrelevance.

    I don’t think it’s credible to have a leader who doesn’t make policy. Problems arises because, as Louise astutely observes, there are two powerbases. Those of us who remember back to the awful confusion of the SDP/Liberal Alliance know just how bad that can be (then it was the two Davids).

    The solution is to give the two existing powerbases distinctly different and complimentary roles. Allow the leader (in practice as first among equals of the cabinet) to set the course but woe betide him if he ignores the sense of the Party. With elevation should come great exposure to removal. This would be a great improvement on the present situation where, partly culturally, partly constitutionally, the leader is virtually bomb-proof once elected. In the circumstances it’s hardly surprising if he is tempted to go off piste at times – he knows there is no likelihood of blowback.

    This is abhorrent (and here I totally agree with you). Also we must remember that politics attracts psychopaths and narcissists like moths to a flame so we must guard against the probability that sooner or later some such will attain the leadership. The solution I envisage is to make the leadership subject to recall/no confidence. I suggested by MPs, you suggested Conference – either or both would do.

    Conference now is a bit like the Queen – head of state with full formal powers but actually rather powerless in the face of developments she might disapprove. Let’s expect our leaders to lead but also give Conference some real teeth.

  • Sue Doughty 7th Aug '13 - 11:25am

    Louise, this is an excellent piece and your challenge and the thoughtful contributions below are very helpful. The FE Democratic Reform Working Party which I chair will be publishing our consultation on elections to the Interim Peers List which we will be asking for your views on. andhopefully coming back in the Spring. The document will be available in the next few days. OMOV is the next big challenge which Tim Farron has set us and we’ll be starting to look at this, and indeed the whole issue of conference and policy votes. I’ll be back with more very soon.

  • @ GF

    I don’t think we are anywhere near close. If the leader is responsible for setting policy then he can’t be held to account for getting it wrong because he wasn’t given any guidance. What I want is for the leader to be accountable to our sovereign body – Federal Conference so when he ignores conference decisions we can no confidence him and force a new leadership election. That should keep the leader in line. (He already can be subject to a no confidence vote by the Parliamentary party in the House of Commons.)

    I read somewhere on here that there was a problem with our ministers and the leadership making up policy because conference does not set out the principles of why we have the policies we have. I agreed with this person that our policy papers should set out the principles of why we support the policies we do. I am sure Gareth Epps would say ministers and the leadership should consult with Federal Policy Committee before making rash announcements in response to events (he even suggested tele-conferencing).

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