A close escape – and now we should change our Euro-selection rules

This week the Liberal Democrats have had a close escape. Diana Wallis’s sudden resignation as an MEP highlight flaws in the party’s rules for picking a successor.

Those rules aren’t new, but many people (myself included) have not paid that much attention to them in the past. It was only the circumstances of a resignation surrounded by controversy which brought attention to their weaknesses. Weaknesses only side-stepped by the decision of Stewart Arnold not to seek to succeed Diana Wallis.

Most of the events of the last few days are specific to the Diana Wallis resignation – the fallout amongst Liberal Democrat MEPs after they decided to do one thing in the European Parliament election and she then took a different course, the unusual situation of a wife and husband at the top of a list, the memories of the disputes over the previous selection contest (and, in particular, how the news that two candidates were married to each other was kept semi-secret) and – just beginning to pick up in the last few days – the fact that Diana Wallis would have picked up a lump sum on standing down as an MEP even if her partner then took up the very same post.

The absence of similar factors when Chris Huhne or Liz Lynne stood down as MEPs mid-term (or indeed when Louise Bloom or Lynne Featherstone stood down from the London Assembly mid-term) meant that the party’s rules didn’t come under scrutiny or pressure previously.

But when they did in the last week, they were found wanting.

Wanting because the rules said that a selection contest from several years ago should be treated as still relevant. We don’t do that in other selections.

If Nick Clegg were to fall ill, Chris Huhne doesn’t get appointed party leader without a contest. If Gordon Birtwistle were to retire as an MP mid-term, we don’t automatically make the person he beat to win selection the by-election candidate. Yet when an MEP stands down, we recount the votes from several years ago as if nothing had happened in the interim.

There is a simple answer to this: democracy.

The law, quite rightly, says that if an MEP stands down their successor has to come from the list originally put up for election. (Otherwise a party could slip in a controversial completely new candidate by putting up one person in the election and then replacing them with someone else.) But who to choose from that list?

That’s up to the party.

And in the Liberal Democrats, that should be done by balloting party members. What’s more, the knowledge that this could happen would encourage those on Euro lists to keep working in the region. A handy side-effect.

This change would be simple, effective – and can be implemented in time for the next Euro selections.

It could be. It should be.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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30 Comments

  • Simon McGrath 29th Jan '12 - 3:58pm

    Completely agree

  • “Yet when an MEP stands down, we recount the votes from several years ago as if nothing had happened in the interim.”

    I don’t think we do that though. The allocation is done on the list as presented to the electorate at election time – we don’t recount it subsequently. Indeed a recount of the votes without Diana might produce a different result to the ordered list with Diana at the top (I don’t think it does based on a calculation I’ve seen involving some assumptions regarding transfers.)

  • I don’t suppose more than a handful of people vote on the basis of individual people not likely to get elected, so yes, Mark, I think you are right. I also think that will lead to better MEPs, as more people may be willing to stand if there is a higher chance – or in this case a guarantee – of election.

  • I haven’t followed this story so maybe I’m missing some information, but why should it matter that the next on the list is the current MEP’s partner? Why was it a problem that this fact was “kept semi-secret”? And why should her husband’s succession (or lack thereof) have any effect on her severance pay? 

    Anyway, on the main point – Mark, you seem to be advocating a system that virtually amounts to a closed list, i.e. the electorate just votes for a party and then the party has full control over who actually becomes the MEP. That’s not the system currently in place (nor do I find closed party lists very democratic). We declare our candidates and then the public votes.

    Likening it to an MP resigning isn’t a true comparison – no, the runner up wouldn’t become MP, but nor would the departing MP’s party have the right to select a new MP just by balloting party members. You’re comparing different electoral systems.

    Diana’s constituents gave us a certain vote share based on our candidate list as it was at the time. The only democratic way to change that list is a by election. Internal party democracy is not the same as asking the electorate. However, since that’s not the way the Euro electoral system works surely the most democratic thing to do in the case of a mid-term resignation is to install the second placed candidate. 

    Coincidentally this parallels the current Tory dilemma re. Roger Helmer’s will-he-won’t-he resignation. Dismayed though I am to find myself agreeing with him on anything (!), he’s got a point that it’s a bit rich for  CCHQ to decide it doesn’t like his legitimate successor and try to install someone else. They may be legally entitled to do so, but it hardly seems in the spirit of the current system. Even if the legitimate successor believes in UFOs 🙂

  • The most dubious thing about this situation, IMO, is that Stewart Arnold appeared to be working as an assistant to Diana throughout, even when he was first elected. I am well aware that many elected parliamentarians of all parties have wives or husbands working for them on a paid basis, and that this was a part of the post expenses row settlement (at Westminster) that was eventually thrown out. Personally, I can see the point of allowing this practice. But what I think does leave a nasty taste inthe mouth is when said husband or wife uses their position to get better known bythe selectorate, so as to be in pole position when the resignation takes place. And, in this case, what other reason for Stewart standing in the first place? Given the figures, both were very unlikely to be elected. Two candidates could also statistically give a greater chance of one being higher up the list (although the likelihood of anyone beating a sitting MEP in a selection contest is, I think nil, so far, in the Lib Dems). Can anyone else think of a better reason why he wished to stand as well? (to siphon off potential anti Diana voters? Which could have some truth if their relationship wasn’t generally known at the time of the selection, as stated above).

  • Recounts are only up until the list is nominated though surely. Is there a preceeding clause in what Mark is quoted to the extent that this is selecting the list for nomination? (I don’t have a copy of the Euro selection rules to hand – surprisingly!)

    If what Mark has quoted stands then surely the position now should be a recount without Diana OR Stuart. That could produce any result as transfers after Diana & Stuart will have gone in a very random way.

    Were the votes recounted after Chris Huhne and Liz Lynne stood down (and if so where were the recounts published)?

  • Antony Hook 29th Jan '12 - 7:04pm

    We do recounts is a candidate withdraws before the election. There is no recount in the case of an MEP standing down. Because the list is the list that the general public have voted on in the election.

    The public cast their votes knowing what order the list is in. Some voters might be upset if you effectively rearrange the list after the event.

    I think what Mark p is advocating would be quite unfair. “Next place” candidates (who in some cases have only missed out narrowly on winning a seat, e.g. Jonathan Fryer) make life choices to ensure they will be available. I can think of several next place Euro candidates who have turned down jobs, life opportunties and possibly made major family life sacrifices in order to remain available to serve over many years. These are equivalent to the huge personal sacrifices made by some target seat Westminster candidates.

    It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect candidates to do that if the party might pull out the rug from under them in due course.

    What you are proposing would be like selecting target seat Westminster candidates then halfway through the parliament having an automatic re-selection just in case we want to change our minds. It would be outrageous.

    I think Mark V hit the nail squarely when he said that this was not an issue until the Diana Wallis case. Remember the saying “hard cases make bad law.” You should rarely change a whole system because of one case. In any case, I assume Stuart got second place because he was a good candidate not because of whom he was married to. We trust our party members don’t we?

    The expectation should be clear that the next place candidate will serve unless they have died, are too ill, or have ceased to be a member of the party. (If they have done something to bring the party into disrepute, they should have already been expelled under the Membership Rules).

  • Ed Maxfield 29th Jan '12 - 7:07pm

    I’ll start with the declaration of interest as usual: that I was 2nd on a list in the EP elections last time.

    I disagree for the same reason as Joe Otten. It would be a VERY dangerous precedent to make assumptions about what was in the mind of voters when they cast their ballot in the elections and I am surprised that Tim L suggests it. If the law says voters choose from an ordered list then those preferences should be given preference to anything that is done for the convenience of political parties.

    As I have said in previous discussions on this topic all that needed to happen if the party did not want Stewart to be the MEP was for someone to have run a better selection campaign against him. I think we have set a rather unfortunate precedent in pressuring him not to take the seat because of who he happens to be married to – if I was a Yorkshire member and had given him a 1st or 2nd preference I would be very annoyed.

    What next? Leaning on someone not to take the seat because they are too old or the wrong gender?

  • “The expectation should be clear that the next place candidate will serve unless they have died, are too ill, or have ceased to be a member of the party. (If they have done something to bring the party into disrepute, they should have already been expelled under the Membership Rules).”

    Agree – with the proviso that they should still be a suitable person to be an MEP (ie pass the approval criteria). Its possible that someone’s conduct might not meet that (higher) standard.

  • What happens when an MEP dies or resigns is determined by the European Parliamentary Elections Regulations 2004. Regulation 83 provides that the returning officer shall ascertain from the list submitted by the registered party the name and address of the person whose name appears highest on that list and shall take such steps as appear to him to be reasonable to contact him/her to ask whether he will state in writing that he is willing and able to be returned as an MEP, and deliver a certificate signed by or on behalf of the nominating officer of the registered party which submitted the relevant list stating that he may be returned as that party’s MEP.

    The Party could decline to give the necessary certificate, but the law states a clear presumption that the next person on the list will fill the vacancy. If the candidate next on the list declines to accept, or is unable to provide the Party nominating officer’s certificate, the RO must then go to the next on the list.

    I think it has been well accepted that second on the list (in those areas where we have one MEP) means first reserve if the first on the list drops out mid-term – and it is an attractive position for precisely that reason.

  • Rita Giannini 30th Jan '12 - 8:25am

    Jonathan’s post nails it down. Unless the Party decides not to grant a certificate, the number 2 on the list takes over: and tell me how the Party could decide not to grant a certificate to Stewart, who has been a liberal and a liberal democrat all his life! Democracy in an election is the vote of the electors, not the vote of party members. It is a disgrace that Stewart Arnold has been pressurised not to take his rightful place, just because he happens to be married to Diana: he would have made an extremely good MEP.

  • @Hywel:

    (If they have done something to bring the party into disrepute, they should have already been expelled under the Membership Rules).”

    Are there not other penalties, short of expulsion? I do feel that the manner of Diana Wallis’ standing down days after she’s tried to be the President, needs to be looked at but would not wish to see her expelled.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 30th Jan '12 - 12:57pm

    Mark – you are in effect saying all power to the party in setting its party list, however you don’t wish to apply the same principle when someone defects from one party to another.

    Might I suggest that the LibDems in Yorkshire and Humberside do the moral thing here rather than just hiding behind the legal rules. The LibDems are not entitled to 2 MEPs gained in the manner which they have been gained – with neither having been endorsed by the electorate. For many years one of the more attractive features of the LibDems was that they would argue for doing the right thing over and above tribal politics and self interest – now that it is put to test when the LibDems actaully have some power, I think that we find that tribal self interest is just as strong in the LibDems as in the other main parties.

    BTW I think we can all see how seriously the LibDems took the party list which they submitted to the electorate in the first place. If we are going to apply the party list system seriously, I think normal democracy means that there is a rigorous process to determine who goes on the list in the first place (rather than as an afterthought to reselecting your existing candidate) and that the list is put to the electorate and stuck too. Leaving changes to the list as an internal party matter, after the orignal election, would be thoroughly undemocratic and open to obvious abuse.

  • john stevens 30th Jan '12 - 2:05pm

    I trust I shall not be censored/moderated if I say I agree with Mark Valladares.

  • perhaps we should worry less about how the current voting system works as all are agreed it is flawed. we should be pushing to improve the system to STV so that voters can put our list in their order of preference.

  • Tony Dawson 30th Jan '12 - 6:54pm

    @toryboysnevergrowup:

    ” Leaving changes to the list as an internal party matter, after the orignal election, would be thoroughly undemocratic and open to obvious abuse.”

    Leaving changes to a matter, which was originally an entirely internal party matter, to be an entirely internal party matter is potential abuse? That Tory boy, he doesn’t give up, does he? 🙁

  • Michael Parsons 31st Jan '12 - 2:56am

    How can a party list be valid in a democratic party if we don’r have primaries first to draw it up? And wouldn’t it be fairer to the electorate to re-run elections if the winner drops out? In EU budgets the cost would be trivial. What about recognising the people’s right to unseat perverse members as well?

    And as to the question of two married candidates isn’t there something nauseating about the Kinnock couple’s pension accretion? With its books that never balance and its high salaries and perks the EU seems in urgent need of Robespierre’s “sea-green incorruptible” reforming zeal rather than the old game of Buggin’s turn..

    Anyway do we really need its current unreformed attempt to revive the Holy Roman Empire?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 31st Jan '12 - 9:36am

    Tony Dawson

    The difference is the first internal party decision was subject to electoral scrutiny – the second wouldn’t be, a big difference for those who believe in democracy. What control would ther be for a party selecting electorally attractive candidates to put before the electorate – and then switching them for less desirable ones after the election?? Those in favour of party list systems also fail to address the fundamental inconsistency that exists in allowing individual candiates to defect to other parties. I am afraid that I know enough about current LibDems to know that if another party had used the current system in the same manner as the Yorkshire and Humberside LibDems then the same people would be howling about the injustice and unfairness of it all. The fact is that the LibDems now have 2 MEPs, neither of whom have a ringing endorsement from the electorate – and would only have one MEP if you took the view that electoral endorsement was given to the Party. The situation may be within the rules (but so would none of the LibDems on the list taking up the nomination resulting in a by-election) but in my view it is neither moral or fair.

  • Antony Hook 31st Jan '12 - 8:20pm

    We do not “have” 2 MEPs. They are not possessions to be owned by parties There are 2 MEPs who identify as Liberal Democrats.

  • Cllr Steve Bradley 1st Feb '12 - 12:14pm

    Where this issue would get really interesting would be if someone elected from a list resigned, and then under gender or ethnicity-zipping rules their place was taken by someone NOT next in line on the list. Or even more interestingly – if the party decided to ignore its own zipping rules and picked the person next in line after all.

    Either way, would be controversial no doubt – and is something the party could genuinely face in the future with its Assembly lists.

  • Francis Meyerfeld 1st Feb '12 - 9:02pm

    There are two facts that must be remembered.

    1. This names of the six people on the Lib Dem Euro list were on every ballot paper completed by those who voted in the 2009 Euro Elections. The order of preference was also clear. Whilst many of us would prefer STV or an open list that voters can state their order of preference, we are where we are. Mucking about with the list thorugh an internal party election is just not on.

    2. The rules applying to the election of a successor to a resigning or deceased MEP are laid down by law and they have been followed in this case too.

    I can see no reason to alter the rules – though I hope Nick Clegg may be able to achieve STV for the next Euro Elections in 2014.

    The case of Roger Helmer is not the same. The Tories can’t bring in someone who is not on their list (and sexist comments about Baroness Warsi are just that and totally distort what she is trying to do). What they want to do is deny party approval to the person who is no 2 on their list, because , apparently, he is no longer an approved Tory candidate and appoint instead their no 3. This is analagous to the position of Neil Poole, who was no 6 on our list and has left the party. We wouldn’t approve him either. This is totally within the rules outlined in an earlier post.

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