Changes to Lib Dem leadership rules – what the constitution says…

Can I just make a very polite suggestion to those who are briefing the press about potential changes to the way we elect leaders and who can stand in those elections to make sure that they understand our party’s processes for doing these things?

Because some things that the journalists are writing are just wrong.

Over the last week, we’ve seen a number of stories in the press which seem to be drip-feeding out some sort of process to change the rules for the election of a leader. There’s an article in Buzzfeed today which says that the rules for all this will be changed by a membership vote in November.

Lib Dem members will get the chance to debate a “supporters’ scheme” during a lunchtime session at the party conference in Brighton in September.

The rule change allowing non-MPs to stand as leader, which was first revealed in The Mirror last week, is expected to be formally announced to the press in early September and put to a vote of the membership in November.

This actually conflates two very different ideas.

We already know that Vince is keen to have a registered supporters scheme. There is a debate going on at the moment about what rights those registered supporters would have. Federal People Development Committee Chair Miranda Roberts looked at some of the issues in her latest report. 

Would they, for example, be able to vote in leadership elections? That’s what happened in the Labour party and that didn’t exactly work out well for them.

It would be really ironic if those people displaced by Corbyn’s election by registered supporters’ Momentum takeover of Labour then came to us and used our registered supporters scheme to turn our party into New Labour mark 2. While they are a million times better than the irresponsibly destructive government we have now, they are no respecters of individual and civil liberty. There is a big danger that the Liberal Democrats as we know it would end up as the smile on the face of the tiger of some new flaccid centrist affair which won’t change much and we need to think very carefully before we take such a move. This country is in such a dire state that radical change is vital to heal divisions and make it a kinder and fairer place.

There will be a consultation on all of this at the Brighton conference, with provision for those who can’t go to Conference to take part.

The other piece of the jigsaw is that there may or may not be a plan to allow a non-Parliamentarian to stand for leader. That may or may not have its merits but, as I said the other day, is all this process stuff where we really want to be as we approach the most intense time in the anti-Brexit campaign?

There are really important issues about the way our party is run that will be carefully considered, but I thought that it might be useful to run through the relevant items in our constitution and how that process of change would work.

First of all, let’s look at what the constitution says about how we elect the leader and who can stand.

Article 17 has the details. Here’s Article 17.1 defining the electorate:

The Leader of the Party shall be elected by the members of the Party in accordance with election rules made pursuant to Article 6.6.

Article 17.5 makes it clear who can stand – and at the moment there are only 12 possibilities:

Nominations must be of a Member of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons,

So, to change any of these things, the constitution would have to change. Here, article 2.10 is your friend.

  • 2.10  This Constitution may only be altered:
    1. (a)  by a two-thirds majority of members present and voting at the FederalConference;
    2. (b)  where any such alteration has been submitted in accordance with theStanding Orders of that Conference by the Federal Board or any other persons or bodies entitled to submit motions or amendments under Article 8.6 and notified to Local Parties at least six weeks in advance; and
    3. (c)  in the case of any alteration to the relative powers and functions of the Federal Party and the State Parties or to this paragraph (c), it is passed by the internal procedures of each State Party.

The Buzzfeed article alludes to a vote of members in November. Given that 2.10 specifies that the constitution can only change by members present and voting at a Federal Conference, this doesn’t seem to be the answer, so there would have to be a special conference. There are two circumstances in which a members’ ballot could be triggered, though. Article 6.8 allows the Federal Board to do it:

The Federal Board may, at the request of the Federal Policy Committee or of its own accord, and having considered the financial and administrative implications, resolve to conduct a consultative ballot of all members of the Party on any fundamental question where, in its judgment, the values and objectives of the Party are in issue or it is otherwise in the essential interests of the Party. Such a consultative ballot shall be in a bilingual form for all members of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Or Conference can decide to do it under Article 8.16:

The Conference may resolve to conduct a ballot of all members of the Party on any fundamental question where, in its judgement, the values and objectives of the Party are in issue or it is otherwise in the essential interests of the Party, and shall at the same time as considering the related resolution consider also a statement from the Federal Board as to the financial and administrative implications of such a ballot. Such a ballot shall be in a bilingual form for all members of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

We can’t change the constitution in Brighton because we would have had to have been notified of a constitutional amendment by now. Are we seriously going to do it in Spring or at any time between Autumn and Spring as the Brexit stuff reaches its climax? You’d have trouble setting a date that wasn’t likely to be consumed by a referendum or an election.

And are we really going to spend our Spring Conference, two weeks before we leave the EU, on internal constitutional matters? I would question the wisdom of that one because it really  would not look good. For me the sensible time to do all this would be September 2019.

So I hope that this is helpful in setting out how it is possible to change things in this party to check against anything you might read in the press. And it also outlines how members of the Liberal Democrats have real power to change things, unlike members of other parties.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Aug '18 - 1:56pm

    And that is useful indeed!!!!! Too much of what is a reasonable set of ideas or proposals, gets taken to cloud cuckoo land by media, this information is is for our good.

    I am open to new ways, the leader idea was also mine years ago based on most countries and other parties here.

    The supporters scheme is not as good as it does not do anything but add a two tier system, but as someone who was in New Labour and a youthful moderate in Old too, the thought of flooding by good Labour people actually delights me!!!

    Agree on the need for this to be next year, but think Sir V should be our captain of the ship a goodly bit longer…

  • Can I note that we have Former Labour SPADs openly speculating about entryism at the moment:
    I’m not sure moves from our own party that make this easier are necessarily the brightest idea.

    In response to Caron’s talking on member-ballots: Article 6.8 is for a purely “consultative” ballot. Article 8.16 is for a ballot but I’m not sure that it applies to constitutional amendments. I think those would need to happen through the usual route.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 2nd Aug '18 - 3:12pm

    @william You definitely cannot change the constitution via ballot. The only way one could be used in this scenario would be to put pressure on Conference to vote through the constitutional amendment.

  • nigel hunter 2nd Aug '18 - 3:38pm

    Changing the rules. Is this not how Labour got momentum and Corbyn? If opening up the vote to outsiders I suggest they are vetted first,that their beliefs have been shown to be sincere,compatible with our beliefs

  • Ian Patterson 2nd Aug '18 - 4:17pm

    This madness must stop pronto. The long suffering membership is being prepped for a fait accompli. Altering the Leadership rules will not get us out of our current cul de sac. In case it’s escaped everyone’s memory we are lanquishing at 7 to 9% in polls. Whoever is railroading this through does not have our interests at heart.

  • David Becket 2nd Aug '18 - 4:39pm

    @Caron, Ian
    Agreed. Can we stop this nonsense and get down to things that matter to the electorate. If anybody on FE is peddling this nonsense please come clean, so we know who not to vote for next time

  • paul barker 2nd Aug '18 - 4:40pm

    Thanks for that useful explanation of our Party mechanisms.
    On the possible dangers of opening up our Membership & the relevance of Labours experience, I feel very strongly the comparison is completely mistaken.
    Labour experienced that unexpected membership surge because the ground had been prepared by the hard work of Far Left activists over half a Century. Embarrasingly, I was one of them for about 15 Years or so. The 57 Varieties of The Far Left are usually dismissed but they beaver away recruiting & losing supporters, usually people between the ages of 15 & 25. Mostly those supporters drift away when they realise that The Revolution isnt going to happen soon & that its hard work but they usually keep the ideas.
    Over half a Century the effect was to build up a large body of people with warm, nostalgic feelings about Marxism, Protest & Revolution. The Corbyn Leadership campaign hit just the right note to attract hordes of those to Labour & the new Membership rules made it easy to join.
    Unfortunately or fortunately there is nothing analagous in The Liberal part of the Political spectrum so nothing similar can happen to us.

  • Paul Barker’s insights remind me of a wonderful line in a song by Alex Glasgow which finishes “Just as soon as this pub closes (repeat 3 times) …. the Revolution starts.”

  • James Baillie 2nd Aug '18 - 5:56pm

    “Unfortunately or fortunately there is nothing analagous in The Liberal part of the Political spectrum so nothing similar can happen to us.”
    We certainly wouldn’t be swamped by radicals. We could potentially be swamped by the illiberal centrists from other parties deciding to hop over and take control, and I think that’s a problem very worth contemplating.

    I can’t help feeling that the leadership want these things in the mistaken belief that it’ll expand their base of campaigners for free. In practice, of course, it’s much more likely to shrink the party’s campaigning base, and potentially significantly at that, if members feel that membership is meaningless (no longer including exclusive rights to the one thing all members can do to determine the party’s direction), and that the party could risk looking even more like a nebulous centrist lump that sways in the wind, rather than the combative, leading liberal force that I think most members want to see. These sorts of shenanigans, coupled with the leadership struggling with putting together a comprehensive narrative to tie our liberal agenda together, risk being very demoralising for ordinary members and I hope that anyone pushing for them thinks very, very hard before taking that risk.

  • Iain Donaldson 2nd Aug '18 - 5:57pm

    The change to the leadership really rules would require a constitutional amendment submitted to two Federal Conferences. Even if we were stupid enough to pass it next spring we would need to
    Pass it again next Autumn before it came into effect the next time after that that we elect a leader.

    Far more urgent is the need for a constitutional amendment requiring that all seats on all Federal committees are elected by the whole membership in order that the next time such nonsense is mooted the members are in a position to vote out those propagating this nonsense.

  • paul barker 2nd Aug '18 - 7:33pm

    On the other point of our Party being swamped by Blairite refugees from Labour, again History suggests not. The SDP were formed as a breakaway from Labour & sometimes claimed to be the Old, familiar Labour before it was overrun by Trotskyists. In spite of that less than a fifth of its members were Ex-Labour, the vast majority being new to Party Politics. It seems that members of mainstream Parties arent very willing to move to other mainstream Parties. Theres a steady stream of members leaving Labour but few of them are coming to us or anyone else.
    Of course if those Dozen Plus Labour MPs “thinking” about breaking away (allegedly) all applied to join us they could become the majority of our Party in The Commons & then try to change our direction. It strikes me as a silly idea, wouldnt it be easier to set up their own Party & ask for an Electoral Pact with us instead ?
    Some of this comment thread strikes me as a bit paranoid about the idea we could be taken over. There is a long tradition of Entryism in Labour going back to its origins as an umbrella group for Unions & Socialist Groups of all hues, The Party didnt introduce Individual membership for more than a Decade after its formation. Theres no such tradition for either Liberals or Social Democrats.
    We should be welcoming any defections from Labour or Tories & any attempts to form new Alliances. The Alliance with The SDP added 15% to The Liberal Polling average in 3 Months, we should welcome any attempt to repeat that with open arms. We are the Party of “Open” after all.

  • Dear whoever it is who is pushing these ideas.
    I’m not wild about them, but am not totally against so am probably persuadable. However, the way to persuade me is to communicate properly with me as a member, openly explaining what you want to do and why, not anonymously briefing journalists with no understanding of our constitution.
    Oh and by the way, shouldn’t we be dealing with this Brexit thing first? I mean, the debate has finally moved on to our ground. Seems to me like our entire media effort should be relentlessly focused on picking up that ball, no?

  • William Fowler 3rd Aug '18 - 7:51am

    pro brexit should be pro EU… have not woken up yet

  • Simon Banks 3rd Aug '18 - 11:04am

    I can see no need whatsoever to change the leadership election rules in respect of who can stand. We have twelve MPs and two or three at least would be perfectly good leaders in addition to the one in place. If we introduce a change that allows non-MPs to stand, the media will interpret that as us expecting to lose most or all of our MPs.

    A registered supporters scheme deserves thought. It’s worked in Canada and looser membership (not debarring supporters from belonging to other parties) has worked so far for Macron, though it could work powerfully against him if he started losing support. Clearly there is a mental barrier to joining a political party and it’s strongest in more working-class areas: it may also work against attracting some minority ethnic groups. But what, other than the name and the minimum subscription would be different from membership, if supporters could vote in a leadership election? Maybe they couldn’t serve as local party officers? Such a change would make it even harder for local parties to find people to serve in necessary and demanding roles, because some people with potential who would have joined as members would join as supporters and stay that way.

    Maybe the answer would be to rename members as registered supporters and give supporters all the rights members have. Whether they exercise them and what mailing they wanted would be up to them.

  • Peter Watson 3rd Aug '18 - 11:54am

    @David Raw “It would be great to hear something from the Lib Dems about this instead of one trick pony Brexit policy and internal leadership rumours.”
    I would add schools as an important topic that I would like to hear about from Lib Dems.

    This week there are headlines about the growth of grammar school places since 2010.
    In recent weeks the Guardian/Observer ran headlines like “Coalition education reforms ‘fuelled inequality in schools’” and “Government accused of misleading parents over schools’ success” (ironically, the latter being based on research from David Laws’ Education Policy Institute which undermines claims the Lib Dems made in their own 2015 manifesto).
    And in a few weeks time there will be headlines about GCSEs, A-levels, universities, choice of schools, etc.

  • OnceALibDem 3rd Aug '18 - 1:31pm

    Technically, could Vince ask for standing orders to be suspended to allow such a constitutional amendment to be submitted late.

    I’m not saying it would be a sensible thing to do mind 🙂

  • ‘Is all this process stuff where we really want to be?”
    While I agree entirely that the whole idea of a non m.p. leader is a bit nuts, I must put a good word in for “processes”.
    Sports coaches have a well known mantra, “focus on the process and the result will take care of itself” (think Jonny Wilkinson, 2003 World Cup Final). Can I be the first to officially apply this concept to politics ?

  • Scott Berry 7th Sep '18 - 9:05am

    Clearly from the quotes above a constitutional amendment would be require to change who can stand for leader or to give registered supporters a right to vote for leader. What could be done without a constitutional amendment? Specifically could we set up a registered supporters scheme without the right to vote for leader? Would there be any other obvious things they couldn’t do without constitutional change (e.g. around selection of councillors and PPCs, or attending leadership election hustings to listen and ask questions but not having the right to vote, attend conference either with or without a vote etc).
    That’s probably the kind of scheme I’d prefer in any case, but at the very least it could make it a two stage process so we chould start the scheme sooner and consider a conditional change to make it part of our condition and expand their rights at a later date.

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