Accountability in the age of Covid


So now we know: no new leader for at least another fourteen months. This comes on the back of the cancellation of the Spring Conference, and talk of the cancellation of this Autumn’s conference as well.

Cancelled along with the Spring Conference, of course – and up for re-cancellation if Autumn is indeed cancelled as well – were the party’s sorely-needed consultative sessions on our values, on the 2019 general election, and on our 2019 manifesto, as well as the regular opportunities to hold party bodies and office-holders to account. The decision to cancel the Spring Conference, and any similar decision to cancel Autumn (as currently feels likely) means that we will not have a meaningful forum to discuss, debate and scrutinise the party’s general election performance until long after that election has receded over the horizon behind us.

The decision to postpone the leadership election again, this time for an unprecedented fourteen months, is a remarkable departure from the letter of the constitution, Article 18.2 of which only allows for a maximum extension of one year, and no article of which allows the Federal Board to vary this provision. Perversely, this means that our acting leader will not only remain in position for over a year, but will be acting leader for three times as long as the woman who beat him in the last leadership election. More concerningly, it means that we will not have a permanent leader in place for the huge round of local, regional and devolved elections scheduled for 2021.

Any one of these things – the catastrophic performance in the 2019 general election; the shocking loss of a popular newly-elected party leader in a general election; the decision to cancel Federal Conference at next-to-no notice; the decision to postpone a leadership election beyond the period set out in the Federal Constitution, leaving us vulnerable in the largest round of non-Westminster elections in a political generation; potentially, the decision to cancel a second Federal Conference on the trot – should rightly merit a great deal of introspection, and robust and extended scrutiny from party members.

Many people have been exercised in recent years by the party’s perceived (rightly or wrongly) lack of willingness to seriously countenance online options for members to participate in debates and votes at conference. If these measures are not vigorously explored now, then when? How is it proposed that members hold the Federal Board and other organs of the party to account for the remarkable actions and outcomes of the last six months?

It should go without saying that as I write, the world and party members rightly have far more pressing concerns. But these circumstances will not remain forever, and in the absence of Conference, a tangible and meaningful means of effective feedback, challenge and response between the party’s office-holders and general membership is vital, particularly in this new era. As the party of Liberal Democracy, we should be more than equal to it.

* John Grout is a Lib Dem activist and lives in Reading.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Richard Underhill 27th Mar '20 - 7:43pm

    This is mainly about us, but we should give credit to Caroline Lucas, who asked at PMQ for MPs to vote electronically. They do this is India, but in other places parliamentarians like to use the lobbies to put a word in a minister’s ear.
    The PM and the Health Secretary have tested positive for Covid-19. They did not take Caroline Lucas’s advice. She also has things to say about Planet B (Mars or Venus?)
    What are the prospects for parliamentary by-elections in current circumstances? The Greens also have a member in the other place. Was she elected by green party members? The parliament channel was showing the red benches this week as the Commons closed early. One bill was rushed through, un-opposed and un-amended.

  • “This is mainly about us, but we should give credit to Caroline Lucas, who asked at PMQ for MPs to vote electronically”.

    And they do it at Holyrood. Pity Caroline can’t be borrowed as Leader on a loan system as in football.

  • In current circumstances I don’t have a problem with the postponement of the leadership election.

    However I believe that organisations should act in accordance with the law.

    If our constitution only permits a 12 month delay, and if the Federal Board has no power to extend this period (I have not checked either statement and am relying upon John Grout’s article) then I find this problematical, and call upon the Federal Board to revise its decison so that the postponement period is lawful.

  • You’re right that we need to find new ways to hold people, myself included, to account and the speed with which so many people have become comfortable with video conferencing, for example, opens up possibilities that may have seemed a bit of a stretch to reach a broad audience even not that long ago.

    Suggestions as to how we best do that very welcome!

  • Brian Edmonds 27th Mar '20 - 9:05pm

    @ David Raw
    Good point David, there’s nobody of comparable stature, articulacy or track record on offer in our ranks, and she’s not even leader of the Greens anymore. Come to think of it, why don’t we all call it a day and just vote Green ?

  • Doesn’t the membership get a say in this?

    In fact, does the membership get a say in anything this year?

  • To help, the relevant article of the constitution states
    17.2 An election for the Leader shall be called upon:
    (a) the Leader asking for an election;
    (b) the death or incapacity of the Leader;
    (c) the Leader ceasing to be a Member of the House of Commons (other than
    a temporary cessation by reason of a dissolution);
    (d) the receipt by the President of the resignation of the Leader or of a
    declaration of intent to resign upon the election of a new Leader;
    (e) a vote of no confidence in the Leader being passed by a majority of all
    Members of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons;
    (f) the receipt by the President of a requisition submitted by at least 75 Local
    Parties (including for this purpose, the Specified Associated Organisation or
    Organisations representing youth and/or students) following the decision
    of a quorate general meeting; or
    (g) the first anniversary of the preceding general election being reached
    without an election being called under any of paragraphs (a) through (f),
    provided that:
    (i) the Federal Board may postpone such an election for no more than one
    year by a two-thirds majority of those present and voting; and
    (ii) this paragraph (g) shall not apply if the Leader is a member of the

    My understanding and I am very far from expert is that the 12 month delay relates to the election when nothing exciting happens – the leader is re-elected as an MP, doesn’t resign, local parties don’t demand an election etc. Within a year of every general election (or two years) while such provision has been in force a leadership election has been called except when Clegg was in Government. The reason you may have missed it was that it was uncontested.

    An election may be and indeed has been *called* due to Jo not being returned as as MP. As far as I can see the leadership regulations and constitution is completely silent on when it is *held* after it is called.

    But hey I’m no expert on our constitution so I stand to be corrected…!

  • Constitutions are meant to be helpful supports not cages. The Writers of our Constitution didnt image the possibility of a Pandemic, I think we can forgive them for that.
    There is an upside to all this, if we choose to take it; We can spent a lot of Time thinking hard & questioning everything.

  • I don’t accept that the answer to the current crisis is less democracy, and I don’t accept that us Lib Dems are better placed to respond without a legitimate leader.

  • James Baillie 27th Mar '20 - 10:59pm

    Michael 1: the position on when it is held is given in the leadership election regulations, which stipulate a maximum time frame of thirteen weeks.

    If Federal Board consider it absolutely necessary to not have the real leadership election until mid 2021, they should ask the parliamentary party to choose an interim leader who will be elected by unanimous vote, and who will not be standing in the subsequent leadership election. That wouls allow a flexible timetable depending on the progress of the virus, would ensure the figure at the top of the party was neutral in the upcoming contest, and would not pose any constitutional issues. I’d urge the Board and parliamentary party to consider this option.

    I think the decision about whether to delay is tricky, and I sympathise with the Board’s problem over this. However, it’s dangerous and in my view somewhat irresponsible to use measures of dubious constitutionality that could be open to legal challenge to achieve such a delay.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Mar '20 - 12:12am

    A thoughtful article , so also, commentary.

    James Baillie

    You posit that point in a way very much worth a thought. My suggestion was that the mps pull out in favour of Ed Davey. Because of the crisis. He stays a while, in the position then, but as leader, not temp. The mps elect a deputy. We look to better years ahead for a contest. What is the point now, the mps vary little?

  • Paul Holmes 28th Mar '20 - 9:14am

    @Mark Pack. Mark, whilst you research ‘new ways’ of being held accountable such as Video Conferencing how about using the existing methods, such as answering the questions posed by various contributors here?

    1. Is it constitutional to postpone the Leadership contest until almost 18 months after we ceased to have a Leader?

    2. Given the problem currently with Virus lockdown why didn’t the Federal Board go for a delay with a review of the situation every 3 months or so? That’s the review period we insisted on for our Council’s temporary extension of delegated powers whilst Lockdown makes physical Committee and Council meetings impractical.

    3. How did Federal Board Members, including yourself, vote on this? You used to write indignant blog posts calling for how Federal Executive Members voted to be made public. Now you are Party President surely you are in a position to make this happen for the Fed Exec’s sucessor, the Federal Board?

  • You reap what you sow. The leadership election should have been called in the week after the election. Could have been done and dusted by the end of February.

  • My reading of the Constitution – and, I suspect, its reading by many others – has been partly skewed by the fact that the subclauses of 18.2(g) are not inset, and because (i) is sufficiently close to (g) in the alphabet, it is natural to assume that (i) is of equal status to the preceding clauses, rather than a subclause of (g). As the other subclauses in the document are inset, this is a very easy mistake to make, and may be partly responsible for the present controversy.

    That being said, it is now deeply incumbent on the FB to explain their rationale for a leadership election delay of such length, given the very obvious weaknesses it opens up for the party going into the 2021 electoral cycle. Ordinarily the appropriate venue for this would be at a party conference, where one might expect a robust Q&A session.

  • My understanding of the constitution is (with the proviso that it is based on a quick reading and I am sure there are many more expert constitution experts here

    1. An election was *called* on December 13 2019 when Jo was not re-elected as an MP as per 18.2 (c)

    2. The period of 12 months and delay referred to relates ONLY to an “automatic” election. It is part of clause 18.2 (g)

    3. As far as I can see the constitution is silent on *when* a *called* election is *held*
    Article 18.4 states:

    On the calling of an election, the Federal Board shall publish a timetable for
    nominations, withdrawals, despatch and receipt of ballot papers and the holding
    of ballots and shall appoint a disinterested person or body to receive and count
    the ballot papers.

    There is NO requirements on when such a timetable shall start

    4. Yes @james Baillie the leadership election regulations provides:

    The timetable for the election shall be no shorter than 9 weeks and no longer
    than 13 weeks. It shall contain a minimum of 15 days for nominations to be
    collected which must be on the official forms provided by the Acting Returning
    Officer for the specific election and available from the day following the setting
    of the timetable by the Federal Board. It shall provide for at least 21 days
    between the close of nominations and the despatch of ballot papers and at
    least 21 days for the return of ballot papers.

    But that only happens *after* the setting of the timetable by the FB. Not on the calling of an election such as the leader not being re-elected as an MP or any of the other triggers that call an election.

    5. It follows that the FB can set a timetable and holding of an electionnil in 2021…2022..3022..

    6. I don’t claim to be an expert on our constitution.

    Note that I copied and pasted from a slightly earlier version of the constitution in my first comment. But it remains the same other than article 17 is now article 18.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 28th Mar '20 - 11:33am

    @Paul Holmes I went into the Federal Board meeting wanting to postpone the leadership election for at least 3 months mainly for pastoral reasons. The country, and our members are part of that, are likely to endure hardship and bereavement on an unprecedented scale over the next few months.

    Our MPs already have massively increased caseloads trying to get people back from other parts of the world, helping those whose income has literally just disappeared. They are two weeks away from very distressed constituents describing what happened to their loved ones who may not have got the care they needed because the NHS was at capacity. The heartbreaking scenes we saw in Italy are going to come here, too.

    The personal impact of all of that is going to be immense. And I am sure that none of us want our MPs to be distracted from that vital work. The communities they serve would be unlikely to forgive them for seeking the party’s leadership at a time when they were suffering.

    And then you have to think about the impact on potential candidates, their teams, and party staff who administer a leadership election – not an easy job at the best of times. Any of them could take ill or be bereaved at any time.

    So I went in thinking let’s see what happens in 3 months. But during the discussion, when you think about it, we are unlikely to return to a place where the circumstances are any different for longer than that. And then we are into Winter when the virus is likely to make a resurgence if we look at what people who understand this stuff are saying and after that we are in the run-up to a huge double round of local elections. I ended up voting for the year postponement on condition that we get clarification from the Chair of the Federal Appeals panel that this was allowable under the constitution. That clarification has been given.

    Obviously if things turn out very differently and Coronavirus turns out to be less of a problem than anticipated – we all turn out to have had it and can go back to something like normal – then it would make sense to look at it again. But I think the decision we made was reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances.

    Nobody wants to go 18 months without a permanent leader, but the situation in which we find ourselves is unprecedented.

    And the job of leader of the Liberal Democrats at the end of all of this is likely to be very different from the job in January 2020. The Tories will want to cut the size of the state down to virtually nothing for ideological reasons to pay down the debt rather than raise taxes and invest in public services. It is incumbent on everyone on the progressive side to prepare and present a persuasive case against that.

  • Welcome back Caron, you have been missed, hope you’re feeling better

  • @ Caron. Well said, Caron. You have presented a very clear rational statement setting out the very good and humane reasons why and how the party and the elected parliamentarians are having to cope with the present situation.

    I got my confined to barracks letter from Catherine Calderwood – CMO Scotland – this morning (because of my transplant nine years ago). Minimum twelve weeks probably more….. but we’ve just got to get on with it.

    But it’s not all bad news. Here on the Forth our little town has picked up the reins of mutual support. Community volunteers have set up a mobile phone support line, There’s help with shopping and a telephone network for isolated people needing just to have a chat to break their loneliness. It’s something those in isolation can do and be proactive in as well as being recipients.

    It may be that when the awfulness, the cruelty and the sadness of this indiscriminate virus has passed there will be a stronger sense of mutuality and community than we have had before… Let’s hope so. My dim and distant childhood memories of the post WW11 era tells me so.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Mar '20 - 1:07pm

    Terrific from Caron, we should see this as a matter for that board, they decide based on good judgement.

  • Paul Holmes 28th Mar '20 - 7:17pm

    @Gwyn Williams. Yes, exactly the sort of past statement by Mark that I was referring to. Surely as Party President he should now be implementing the openess and accountability he previously called for?

    @Lorenzo Cherin. The sort of good judgment the Board displayed when overseeing the disastrous messaging, campaign themes and Target Seat strategy of June -Dec 2019?

    @Caron Lindsay. I don’t really disagree with a word you say above Caron – but I still don’t understand why the Federal Board did not insist upon a regular review period. On Chesterfield Borough Council, Lib Dems insisted upon a 3 month review of the increased Delegated powers recently introduced due to Lockdown. Throughout my nearly four decades involvement our Party has always called for such periodic reviews of issues such as Terrorism legislation. So why not apply the same principle to our internal workings? Surely we don’t preach one thing and do another?

  • Tony Greaves 28th Mar '20 - 7:52pm

    The Liberal Democrats were of course part of the pressure to have a six-monthly review of the Coronavirus Bill, and in the Lords got some verbal concessions/agreements from the Government on other matters.

    But why the obsession with the leadership election? The other matters of accountability in the party are more important, where the position generally is pretty poor. Also there is no reason why the stuff on the consultations in the party – particular Principles and Values – cannot go ahead. After all the party has not really got a lot of idea why it exists, after the traumas of the Coalition and then the single-minded obsession with Brexit.

  • Peter Flake 28th Mar '20 - 8:10pm

    There is a good chance that the coronavirus situation will have calmed down by December 2020. This is the 12 month limit for choosing a new leader. Why can we not have a provisional date then? That way we have 6 months to the local elections under an elected leader.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 28th Mar '20 - 10:04pm

    @paul holmes – I am certainly open to reviewing if the situation changes. And the Board has very little say on campaign themes, messaging or target seat strategy. If we had have done, some things would have been different.

    @matt – thank you. I’m getting there and slipping back gradually to all the things I do.

  • Sue Sutherland 29th Mar '20 - 2:04pm

    Thank you for your explanation Caron, which makes a lot of sense. I do hope you take your return to political activity very slowly so you can recover properly.
    It’s a mystery to me why the party of open government, delegated power and consultation can’t run itself according to those principles. One of the reasons why people are upset by the delay is because they want a strong leader with the benefit of an election behind them. Do we really, as Lib Dems, want a strong Leader? I would suggest that the usual model of strength, that is an authoritarian Leader, is the last thing we want or need. We need an enabling leader, a voice for the party, expressing our values not telling us what to think and IMHO Charles Kennedy was the closest we came to that.
    This compulsion towards secrecy must be very strong if Mark Pack is succumbing to it. He’s a natural communicator but I’ve noticed he hasn’t communicated much about his role as Party President, which is disappointing. Please tell us what you’re doing Mark.
    Perhaps official communications could explain the reasoning behind decisions that are made, just as Caron has done, but if the party is trying to do this they obviously aren’t succeeding.

  • Sue: sorry to hear that the comms aren’t getting through to you. After each Board meeting, there is now a report on the party website, which is also repeated on my blog and the Voice team have been publishing them here too. Those reports also feature in the email digests I send out and my monthly email newsletter which usually adds extra background.

    I’ve also regularly trailed in advance what is being discussed on social media (including, e.g. taking part in discussions online last week about whether the leadership election should be delayed) as well as after the events too, such as via my Facebook profile and page.

    Plus I did a special podcast interview with John Potter on Friday and there’s a webcast for all party members coming up on Tuesday.

    That feels like quite a lot from here (and isn’t an exhaustive list!).

    What else would be needed to be reaching you, do you think? It’d be very useful to know.

  • Tony: you’re right – there’s a lot of other party activity we can and should be getting on with, and the huge uptake in video conferencing (especially via Zoom) may even make it easier to involve more people in much of that activity than it would have been a few weeks ago.

    It was good to take part in the FPC discussion a few days ago where the plans were very much about going ahead with items such as the important Vision and Values consultation.

  • P.S. There’s a lot I’ve said before that I very much hope we can make progress on. I’ve no doubt that what I learn doing this new role for members will refine my views on some points, but the underlying principles – such as the importance of communicating with members and improving accountability – won’t change.

    I’m only 89 days into the job, and even without coronavirus it would have been a bit of steep ask to have got to everything on the to do list yet.

  • Sue Sutherland 29th Mar '20 - 4:14pm

    Hi Mark
    I did indeed see the report of the Board here on LDV and even commented on it. However, I didn’t take it in that you had written it and it definitely didn’t make the impact on me that Caron’s comment did, so I’ve been thinking about why that was.
    First of all it was a report in fairly official objective language. Caron’s was a personal account of how she arrived at a decision. So she told us about our MPs caseloads, but your report talked about dealing with the Corona virus which was a generalised comment rather than giving us a glimpse into what that actually meant.
    I’m afraid I did miss the online discussion about whether to delay the leadership election and that will have been entirely my fault as I made decisions about what to look at. That might have given me a better idea of your thinking on this issue if I’d watched it.
    I think perhaps what I’ve been looking for is a chattier more detailed communication about what you want to happen in the party, rather than a glossier version of the minutes of a meeting. I’d like to feel you’re talking directly to me as a fellow member, rather than me as a blob in the party, and I’m sure all party members would like that too.
    I’ve been glad to see minutes of meetings coming out from committees, but they aren’t exactly interactive. I think members would welcome a bigger role in the party rather than the vote on detailed policy at conference.
    Finally, I forgot when I was making my original comment, that I have a problem with concentration and with technology because of M.E. I like to think that places me in the interested member of the public with little time category or perhaps overworked activist, with the illness taking the place of all the issues which prevent messages getting across for other people.
    I hope this is helpful.

  • Peter Hirst 29th Mar '20 - 4:55pm

    Is it not possible to hold a virtual conference? Even if the number attending individual events was limited, all those registering should be able to see some of it. Some events could be reserved for those who had not seen anything yet or a proportion of the limit.

  • That is really helpful Sue; thanks.

  • Johnny McDermott 31st Mar '20 - 7:57pm

    A far calmer take than my own, find myself agreeing most with the seeming reluctance to start improving online infrastructure. That will never go astray/ is always going to be a learning curve. Better starting sooner than later.

  • Paul Holmes 1st Apr '20 - 12:28pm

    @Caron Lindsay. Caron, the prime purpose of a Political Party is to seek to fight and win elections so that its elected representatives are in a position to put forward and implement its policies. If the Federal Board has no involvement at all in messaging, targeting or campaigns then what on earth does it do?

    Did the Federal Board not once, between June and Dec 2019, recieve reports on these matters and/or have a chance to question the Leader, Head of Campaigns etc? If not then the level of internal accountability has sunk to an even lower level than I feared- and I did fear it had become pretty bad over the last decade.

  • Paul Holmes 1st Apr '20 - 12:40pm

    @Mark Pack. It surely cannot be enough to say that people are able to find reports on Fedral Board activity if they choose to find and access various websites, Blogposts or Podcasts? You wouldn’t say that to voters in an election campaign -you certainly would never win anything if you did.

    Centrally communicating with all members (the majority we have emails for at least) is very simple. It can be done easily and repeatedly as we all experienced last year with daily requests for money and demands to go to so called Target Seats (where we had gained as little as 5% or 6% in 2017 and had no chance of winning in 2019).

    But its not just about sending out the official version (one of Ad Libs great failings when it replaced LD News was that it just became a version of Pravda). When the GE Enquiry Panel was announced there was a flood of questions about who had picked the Independent Panel, what were its terms of reference, had it received a guarantee that, unlike in 2017, it’s report would not be rejected/supressed and so on. These were ignored. Likewise the recent announcements on a year plus delay on the Leadership contest and on Conference have raised many questions (such as why no 3 month review of the decision) which have received no answer whether from Party President of Chief Executive.

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