An open letter to the Lib Dem Federal Board ahead of tomorrow night’s meeting

Dear Board Members,

In a very friendly way I am writing to suggest that you should not at this stage agree to have a special Party Conference in early January to discuss amendments to the Party Constitution.

I am saying this not only after many discussions with Lib Dems in the North West and my own City of Liverpool but also in places as far apart as Taunton and Cambridge and with fellow Leaders from Local Government.

I have some key questions for you before you make the decision. I am expecting the answers to these questions to be publicised:

Firstly, do you not think that this will interfere in our work for the biggest round of local elections in England? The idea that early January is handy because it is before we start is risible. We started our campaign for next May, last May. We have been out every weekend and a lot during the week since August. This will take activists out of the front line at just the time we need them to be fighting for us and pushing our way into more power and more influence via more votes.

Secondly, do you not think that it sends all the wrong messages. Some people may think that the UK is going to hell in a hand cart and all we can do is talk about ourselves at this crucial time. That is how it will be portrayed.

Thirdly, do you really think that there is a great thirst in the Party for all the changes? 

I personally believe that there is much support for a Supporters organisation. It builds well on what we do locally. I’d love to involve more people in our policy discussions both locally and nationally; I’d love to have a larger pool of people advocating on our behalf; I think it great to have people giving us information about local and national issues. There are some things that need sorting out but these are details. The Federal Board can make these decisions and we can get on with them. In fact, we already are!

Fourthly, do you really think that there is not only a majority but a two thirds majority for the constitutional items needed? I doubt that you have a majority in the Party for your proposals about who should elect the Leader and whether or not the Leader needs to be an MP. 

Fifthly, do you really not think that the idea that a Party can create a movement is naïve. Political Parties can only be part of a movement. Labour is part of a wider labour movement; the Tories are part of a vested interest group; the Green Party is part of a green movement which in many ways includes the Lib Dems.

Sixthly, do you really want to run the risk of a vote that could lead to headlines that will be generated by the Conference such as ‘Leader loses Key Proposals’. That is not the national headline that we need going into this huge round of elections.

Seventh, do you not agree that the only way that you can create a movement is by reaching out to other organisations and people. They are created by a fusion of ideas around common objectives. These ideas do not have to be as cohesive as those that come from a single Party but part of a broader stream of consciousness. 

Eighth are you really satisfied that the consultation that you have run is robust? Some of the questions to me seemed to be leading questions rather than a true search for knowledge.

Lastly, do you not agree that rather than have a Party Conference you might have a Party rally to which everyone who signed up to be a supporter or who has joined in the last 12 months might be invited to urge and encourage people from public to supporter; from supporter to member and from member to activist? With the urging not being from people like me but by the people who have joined us since 2015 who have already become party activists, candidates and councillors.

Your Party activists will be watching with interest what you do on Monday night. There will be many thoughts thereafter about how to react to your decision which will not necessarily be positive!

Kind regards,

Cllr Richard Kemp CBE,

Leader, Liverpool Liberal Democrats

* Cllr Richard Kemp CBE is Lord Mayor of Liverpool for 2024-2025.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 21st Oct '18 - 11:18am

    Dear Richard

    As a member of Federal Board, I can assure you that I will vote against any request for a special conference. It is not necessary. I would add to your reasons that it is completely unreasonable to expect members to spend money on travel and registration just weeks after Christmas and at that time of year when the weather is not great. This would discriminate against those members on lower incomes, which will affect a disproportionate amount of young people. I also think that the political situation is so fluid that we could end up booking somewhere and having it overtaken by a general election.

  • George Potter 21st Oct '18 - 11:28am

    Very well said by Richard. I am not against the idea of a supporters scheme but I am very much against the idea of wasting tens of thousands of pounds on a special conference in January just to try to bounce the party into accepting constitutional changes to give supporters a vote on the party leader.

    If these changes are really so important and necessary then let’s wait until spring or autumn conference so they can be discussed and considered properly. It’s not for nothing that the saying goes “marry in haste, repent at leisure” and I definitely don’t want the party to marry itself to the idea of having the leader chosen by a “centrist” supporters scheme unless there is a broad consensus that this is something we want to do.

  • Neil Fawcett 21st Oct '18 - 11:39am

    Dear Richard,

    As a member of the Federal Board I agree with all your points, in fact I have made several of them myself at Board meetings.

    I also agree with Caron’s point.

    Further points that concern me:

    1 We are hardly flush with cash, and our staff already work at overstretch much of the time. Any time and money spent on a special conference is a diversion away from real priorities.

    2 The supporters scheme, which I strongly support, still needs a lot more work to get it to the point that it is ready for a successful launch. There is not time to do all that before January.

  • David Becket 21st Oct '18 - 11:58am

    Well said Richard, Caron and Neil, most activists agree with you.
    I hope the leader and those who are likely to vote for this read LDV, but I doubt it.
    Pass this special conference and you will lose members.

  • Gemma Roulston 21st Oct '18 - 12:45pm

    Richard thanks for what you have written.
    Expecting people to travel from Stockton on Tees, Edinburgh, Liverpool or Barnstaple in poor weather in January to March for a one day special is not on. That will mean that the only ones who can make it are those who live near enough to the venue.
    Just because there is evidence that we won’t lose members if supporters don’t have to pay a fee, doesn’t mean that we won’t. Why launch a supporter scheme before it has been approved?
    Those places like Liverpool that have many local elections, will be out now campaigning.
    The questionnaire was rather difficult to leave your comments on, so how many people did do it, how many felt restricted and couldn’t understand it.

  • David Becket 21st Oct '18 - 12:50pm

    @Caron, Neil
    Please go for a named vote and publish the result. The Board is accountable to the members and must not be able to hide on this one.

  • Stephen Yolland 21st Oct '18 - 1:30pm

    I sincerely trust the Federal Board have nothing to do with this ridiculous thought bubble plan. The day a non member can elect the leader of our party is the day I resign.

  • I agree. This turning inwards, along with the party’s increasing obsession with identity politics, is further evidence of its irrelevance as, meanwhile, our country faces such significant social and economic challenges.

  • Peter Watson 21st Oct '18 - 1:57pm

    “do you not think that this will interfere in our work for the biggest round of local elections in England?”
    To underline the importance of these elections for Lib Dems, I recently came across this article which concluded that the Lib Dem local election performance in 2018 was “underwhelming”, but “it is the 2019 local elections that will tell us more about the long-term viability of the party” (

  • paul barker 21st Oct '18 - 2:14pm

    Can I just add my agreement to all the above, we dont need a Conference to set up the Supporters scheme. I dont see any urgency to the changes that would need a Conference.
    Vince need to come on LDV & explain what the rush is.

  • David Becket 21st Oct '18 - 2:34pm

    His reason might be that he is desperate to give up the job, in which, as you say, he has not performed brilliantly, but cannot see a replacement in the House of Commons. That is a massive problem.

  • Yeovil Yokel 21st Oct '18 - 2:44pm

    Be careful what you write on a public forum, Andrew Hickey. Whatever one thinks of Vince’s abilities as a leader he may well have a pivotal role in Parliament as Westminster heads into meltdown in the months ahead, and now is not the time to be undermining his leadership. Not even Gladstone, Grimond, Ashdown, or Kennedy were perfect.

  • Pete Roberts 21st Oct '18 - 3:21pm

    Whilst I like the idea of a supporters scheme I am uncomfortable with all aspects of what has been proposed however what I am most uncomfortable with is the timing.

    A conference in January would be highly vulnerable to extreme weather, Welsh Conference last weekend was disrupted by Storm Callum with a dozen members missing because they were either flooded out or found roads inpassable. In March last year the principle road from Mid wales into the midlands was closed for almost a week due to snow and we had 6 days last winter where police were advising against all but essential journeys. Will the party indemnify members against the financial loss if that were to occur for this conference?

  • chris moore 21st Oct '18 - 3:43pm

    This special conference is a waste of precious time and resources.

    The proposed changes are uncompelling and indulgent, particularly given the current crisis in Britain.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 21st Oct '18 - 4:44pm

    I want to be clear that my opposition to a special conference is not a reflection of my opinion of Vince as leader. He is by far the grown-up in the room of British politics and he has been clear and consistent about where the Liberal Democrats stand – as he told us as we gathered for the march yesterday: “This is a national movement and we are here to stop Brexit.” He has also been doing lots of work on ways of reducing inequality in this country. That’s been overshadowed by the Brexit stuff. And he’s come up with some ideas that the party should consider. I welcome some of them, others I’m not so sure about. The party should consider them carefully – but not at a rushed special conference at a time of political turmoil and national crisis.

  • Katharine Pindar 21st Oct '18 - 5:20pm

    Dismayed to learn that the Federal Board is even considering calling a Special Conference, I add my voice in total opposition to the idea, and thank Richard Kemp for his eloquent lead in this article.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Oct '18 - 6:22pm

    I add my view to that of colleagues, agree on the view put by Richard, in the same kind of way that Caron expresses, and not the tone that is against Sir Vince, who, not a natural for the media sort of charismatic or dynamic leadership, is a fine man and a decent person . I support the reforms, all of them, but not the rush or conference call.

  • Nobody has mentioned that there was a winter special conference in early 1988.
    A special train from London, no heating on the train for most of the journey, snowing when we reached Blackpool. The most awful conference building I ever set foot in.
    That WAS about something important. The merger with the SDP (for many members a step too far).
    No to any special conference for all the reasons given, yes to adding on time to Spring
    or Autumn conference at times that would allow extra members to attend for a small fee.

    Vera Head

  • Tony Greaves 21st Oct '18 - 6:53pm

    Just one point about the money – it is being said that there is a certain person (who has a very distinct political agenda he has clearly set out in the recent past and is no doubt wanting to promote) who is willing to pay the £50,000 it is said to cost to hold a Special Conference. But what about the cost to everyone who goes? And a lot of that money will be money that individual activists and genal party members will not have to spend on activism or to help their local parties. It’s not just the cost of the event itself which matters. And do we really want to be in hock to rich people like this who will pick and choose what to pay for?

  • Has any of the people whose crazy idea this is explained why it is so critically urgent that it can’t be considered by spring conference?

  • A special conference is the worst idea I’ve heard since David Cameron woke up one day and thought, “I know. Let’s give Nigel Farage everything he has ever wanted.”
    Federal Board – PLEASE be sensible and don’t do it.
    I think the proponents of these changes had a strategy: build up interest with coded leaks over the summer, then announce the details with a huge fanfare ahead of party conference and allow it to dominate the conversation there, by which point members would be clamouring for a special conference in the New Year. I think it’s fair to say that this frenzied clamouring does not exist. So, leave it to the spring conference and let people get on with campaigning for local elections and PeoplesVote.

  • PS @Reginald Langman – why not join the party and help us build? It sounds like you are a Liberal at heart who wants us to succeed. Those local LibDem councillors you like need your support. Join us.

  • Jeremy Cunnington 21st Oct '18 - 8:38pm

    As variety is the spice of life. As a long standing member I fully support having a special conference in January.

    For those who say why the rush? Have you seen the current political climate? I think the phrases “fast moving” and “unstable” spring to mind. To delay further to the spring conference will potentially mean we miss an opportunity and valuable time in getting this scheme up and running and generating positive headlines about how many supporters we have. it would also those with elections a quick way to build your supporter base for the elections. How can that not be good for the upcoming elections?

    There seems to be an enormous amount of conservatism and complaceny on this website. While we have seen a slight uptick the polls we are still struggling, particularly in gaining attention. All the great policies are for nothing if people don’t pay us attention.

    Another of the criticisms is not allowing people to attend. How will spring conference be different? How many regular attendees won’t be there as they are busy in their areas campaigning for the local elections and thus not have a say?

    Additionally let’s not forget how expensive attending a regular conference is with the need to stay for a few days increased accomodation costs etc, this already puts a prohibitive cost on less well off members the chance to attend on a regular basis. If anything a one day conference is more accessible to less well off members.

    Secondly on waiting until the Spring rather than January. What is a worse time to have a negative headline about a failed motion? 4 months before when most people aren’t paying attention as they recover from Christmas or 4 weeks before a vote?

    Finally on cost. It’s a question that should be asked at the meeting, but much as one can malign HQ, don’t you think they may have thought of that and secured funding from donors who support the idea?

    If one is really concerned about resources being illspent on conferences, how about ending the spring conference? It loses money hand over fist each year and for what gain? All policy making could still happen just at the autumn conference and would free up extra resources to fund our campaigning.

  • Adam Bernard 21st Oct '18 - 8:50pm

    Harrow local party last week issued a statement on this – relevant part:

    “We believe that a special conference is an egregious waste of money, given that a general election may be only months away. We see no reason to change the rules for leadership elections with a special conference rather than at spring conference in York, given that Vince has assured us there will be no leadership vacancy before the end of March.”

  • YellowSubmarine 22nd Oct '18 - 3:56am

    The appalling conservatism shown on this thread is why you are still at 7% in the polls.

  • I have looked through the Federal Constitution and Standing Orders for the Federal Conference, and I cannot find any provision that requires a Conference to be a physical meeting. I therefore suggest that the Federal Board today instructs the Conference Committee to consider the possibility of an on-line meeting (perhaps a broadcast with feedback for procedural requests). The Conference Committee could bring any changes needed to the Constitution or Standing Orders to the Spring Conference. As far as I can see, the changes would be limited to a few points in the Standing Orders:
    – definition of a voting member
    – procedure for voting
    – deadline for submission of ‘speakers cards’
    ‘Voting members’ could be defined either as all members who have registered to watch the conference online (not necessarily in real time) or all members – with an electronic ballot afterwards.

  • Gordon Lishman 22nd Oct '18 - 11:24am

    It seems clear what the Board is likely to decide tonight even if the Special Conference proposal is maintained and I agree with colleagues. There are less helpful implications of this debate.
    It reinforces the view that the Federal Board’s job is to adjudicate on the Leader’s proposals. The FB is responsible itself for developing and proposing strategy. It did so at the March Conference (although without much discussion and ownership of the motion in its name). I understand the Leader’s feeling that greater urgency is needed to develop that strategy than seemed to be being demonstrated. It would have been even better if the Leader and the Board had discussed, decided on and then promoted the strategy.
    Secondly, some of this discussion about “they” and “them”, suggests a core, conspiratorial group who control the Party’s decision-making. Personally, I would welcome some sign of a core group, setting out to add coherence to the Party’s planning and communications, although it should be entirely accountable.
    Thirdly, there is the “centrist conspiracy”. I do not believe we have a Leader with that agenda. I do believe that he has a duty to engage with people who are working to set up new parties with a centrist label to compete within our First-Past-The-Post system. I understand that it is necessary to “start from where they are”, which involves using some of their language to be convince them to work with Liberal Democrats rather than against us. We should have enough confidence in our liberalism to believe that we can socialise and politicise those people and many self-defined “centrist” voters into liberalism. As for Macron, Ciudadanos and Trudeau, those votes should add to the coalition we build to win.
    Fourthly, I do not accept Richard’s argument against a movement. The movement for socially liberal reform has had great gains in the last 60 years; we should build on it for a wider, politically liberal movement which recognises that traditional parties no longer have coherent answers to the world’s problems.
    Finally, I do not take kindly to the implied threats in Richard’s last paragraph and David Becket’s contribution. I am elected after (and partly because of) saying that I shall stand up for what I think. That has often involved opposition to Leaders. If I agree with the main thrust of what a Leader is saying, threats are no more likely to change my view than in the opposite case.

  • Neil Sandison 22nd Oct '18 - 1:08pm

    Members swanning off to a special conference when important local elections are up and coming when so much work is required to gain and retain council seats would be shear madness and would send the wrong message to our candidates who have put their head above the parapet .Lets see the evidence from the recent surveys and then resolve the matter at the Autumn conference.

  • paul barker 22nd Oct '18 - 1:47pm

    Just a quick response to “Yellow Submarine”.
    There were 2 Polls over the w/e, one gave us 7%, the other 10%. There have been 12 Polls over the last Month, half of those put us on 9%, the others ranged between 7% & 12%.
    Our Poll ratings have generally gone up over the last 6 Months, slowly but steadily.
    After Saturdays March I dont recognise the description of our Partys activity as “appalling Conservatism”.

  • Peter Watson 22nd Oct '18 - 3:05pm

    @paul barker “I dont recognise the description of our Partys activity as “appalling Conservatism”.”
    Given that the party’s overriding priority is to prevent any changes due to Brexit then it’s predominant activity is certainly small-c conservatism. “Appalling” is a matter of debate though! 🙂

    More seriously, the party does present itself as very small-c conservative these days, often appearing to be defined largely by its reaction and opposition to changes proposed by others. (Legalisation of cannabis at least suggested a hint of Lib Dem radicalism but this was undermined by the awkward presentation of the policy.) Talk of a “movement of moderates” instead of a “radical centre” (whatever either of those terms really means) does nothing to dispel that impression.

  • So 4 Federal Board members have commented. All seem opposed. So where are the people supporting this.

    VInce is not dumb enough to bring forward a proposal unless he has at least a core of support on the FB. So where are they? It’s clear Vince has a plan (he was meeting with people on the night of the infamous missed vote), what it is is less clear.

    @Paul Barker – a few weeks ago I would have agreed. But all the polls so far in October are lower than the equivalent company one in September – with one exception that is the same. It’s on the margins but if the uptick was marginal then a marginal downtick is also significant.

  • Nigel Jones 22nd Oct '18 - 5:09pm

    Richard is ABSOLUTELY CORRECT. Even if there is support for constitutional changes, it should not be voted on until Autumn 2019. As I said in a posting over a week ago, guidance can be given as to how local parties can compile lists of supporters who will have the right to join local party discussions on local and national policy. That could be done now.

  • Nigel Quinton 22nd Oct '18 - 5:20pm

    Well said Richard. Holding a special conference is the daftest test of whether we are a radical movement I have come across yet. I hope we can get a supporters scheme in place soon(ish), but meanwhile those of us on the doorsteps continue to recruit members (despite the massive cut in the incentive scheme) and sign people up to email lists so they can feel part of what we are doing even if not members. The most important things we should be focusing on are forging relationships with other radical moderates ( 😀 ) to stop Brexit and, just as importantly, winning seats next May.

  • I also agree with Richard – and everyone else who has expressed opposition to a special conference. The proposed constitutional changes seem mildly interesting and are probably worthy of debate (preferably at autumn conference unless a compelling case is made for a debate at spring conference) – but I have yet to be persuaded that they will be particularly beneficial, let alone necessary or urgent.

    In any case, I can see absolutely no justification for a special conference, regardless of how that would be funded, in January or at any other time. This would be a massive distraction from much more real and pressing priorities and would make us seem inward looking and faintly ridiculous at a time of likely national crisis. Moreover, Vince has already said that he does not plan to step down as leader “until Brexit is resolved or stopped” – so why would these changes need to be debated before spring conference at the very earliest?

  • So what did the Federal Board decide last night?

    Or is it a secret – in our ‘open, democratic, accountable’ Party?

    Given the large number of contributors to 3 or more Articles/Threads on LD Voice I would have thought lots of people want to know the outcome of last night’s meeting.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Oct '18 - 2:16pm

    Can someone tell us what decision was made last night please?

  • Ditto! Perhaps Caron, or anyone else who attended last night’s Federal Board meeting, could now provide a report on the outcome.

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