Constitutional Amendments at Bournemouth conference

As vice chair of the Federal Policy Committee, I’m proud of the substantial policy papers that FPC is bringing for debate at this conference. The future of the NHS and care system (including the many threats to them from Brexit), making a serious effort to support the least well off in society, tackling knife crime and other crime, and a real actual plan for tackling climate change, are all major issues where our answers can really help us in communicating Liberal Democrat values to voters. They, and the many other motions, are the real work of conference and I hope they succeed in getting us lots of positive attention in September.

At the other end of the spectrum of political importance, conference will also spend an hour late on Sunday afternoon, doing one of its other jobs, some internal organisational housekeeping (F23 and F24). Back in 2016, the party carried out a substantial review of the party’s constitution and how the party is organised, and made a number of quite important changes. Following that, we committed to reviewing how the new systems were working, and to bringing back any further smaller adjustments needed. This set of constitutional amendments is just that: the bulk of it (what’s called Part 5 in the agenda) is really small changes, which will no doubt invite lots of amused satirical responses (putting in one committee which got accidentally missed out of a list of all committees, removing stray apostrophes, that kind of thing). But some are a bit more significant so I thought it might be helpful to explain the thinking behind them, especially as unless you know what they are about, it’s not always very clear!

One thing introduced in the 2016 reform was a requirement that if members of a federal committee do not attend any committee meetings for six months, they are deemed to have resigned from the committee. Part 1 of these amendments makes two adjustments to this. The sections of the constitution which establish committees also usually set out their membership, often specifying some particular individuals (notably the Leader and President, also sometimes one or two others) to be a member of that committee. The new 6 month requirement in clause 7.3 conflicts with that: in effect the constitution says in one place that certain people must be members of a committee, but somewhere else that in some circumstances (non-attendance) they aren’t. Part 1 removes this internal contradiction by exempting only those individually specified. The 2016 changes also allowed an exemption for absence with ‘good reason’. Everyone involved in handling this certainly wants to be compassionate and be kind to those with a clear good reason, perhaps long term serious illness. But in practice it has become clear that there are different views on what constitutes a good reason: does taking on some temporary work which is incompatible with membership of a party committee constitute a good reason? Does being abroad or for some other reason unavailable to come to committee meetings? And more importantly, who decides what is a good reason? Many people could do this (the committee chair, perhaps, though that might well be unsatisfactory), but since their constitutional power to do this is not clear, it could then be open to challenge. The two options here seemed to be setting up a new necessarily somewhat elaborate system for deciding this, with some guidelines for what constitutes a good reason, or simply removing this condition in the constitution, and relying on those managing to balance sensibly reasonable kindness to any committee members in difficulties, with the fact that committee members are elected, in place of other party members who would like to do it, to do a job, and we should expect them to do that. We went for the latter! It will remain the case that committee members’ attendance figures are published at the end of their term, when they are up for re-election.

Part 2 (and the separate standing order change, so that the two say the same thing) relates to special party conferences. As a party we are rightly very proud that the major decisions for our party are made by members at conference – for example I am proud, after 2010, to have written the Article in the constitution which sets out how conference will decide on going into coalition or a similar arrangement, after this was rather improvised in 2010, and subsequently judged by the pary’s appeals panel to have been unsatisfactory. Members take decisions at conference held every six months, and the constitution also provides for holding special conferences before then, if a substantial number of party members judge there is an overwhelmingly urgent need to do so, on a matter of very major importance. It’s right that this power is there, but it is also important not to over-use it, for a number of reasons. Firstly, holding a conference at short notice, without the cost benefits we usually get from planning well in advance, is directly expensive: it might cost the party, say, the same as the annual salary of two campaigns officers, who would be helping us win target seats, if this money were not spent on a third conference in a year. There would also be further indirect costs, for example conference staff would need to organise this and so take time away from maximising income from our main conferences. Most other federal party staff would also need to give some time to it, also with additional accommodation and travel costs. And as well as the money, there is also a need for organisational coherence, and not simply holding unnecessary conferences when there will always be another within a maximum of six months.

Clearly this needs to be a balance: there certainly can be circumstances when an extra conference is justified, but we need also to balance that against the costs and other disadvantages.

The text here has not been updated since the original party constitution was written in 1988, and in particular does not reflect the move to the internet age. In 1988, collecting the support of 200 party members from 20 local parties required a substantial effort involving pieces of paper being posted or driven around and signed, in quite a number of local areas, probably over several weeks. Simply, the internet has transformed this: anyone who is, say, a member of most Lib Dem Facebook groups should be able to rustle up 200 party members in a busy morning. And the requirement that they come from 20 local parties is all but irrelevant in an internet context.

This change seeks to update this provision, balancing making a special conference possible when there really is an overwhelming matter of major importance, with the need to avoid the party being forced into devoting a lot of resource to it, when this is not the case. The existing text also makes no allowance for whether the party membership is 20,000 or 100,000, so it suggests a percentage figure, 2% of members, rather than an absolute one. Something surely really cannot claim to be a major issue of burning urgency, if it cannot muster the support of 2% of party members to agree that it is.

Part 3 is much simpler: the existing constitution specifies that the Federal International Relations Committee will contain a representative of the Brussels and Europe local party. This is now outdated: that local party no longer exists in that form and with that name, and a new structure for Liberal Democrats living abroad has been established under the umbrella of a body called Liberal Democrats Abroad. This therefore replaces the existing provision with that body.

Part 4 concerns Vice Presidents of the Party. Since its creation in 1988, as a way of ensuring that the federal (UK-wide) level represents fully the different state parties (Scotland, Wales, England), we have had the chair / convenor of those state parties as vice presidents of the federal party. Among the confusion of many more high profile and complex constitutional changes in 2016, this simply got left out by accident. This therefore simply re-inserts the previous wording – with the addition also of the post of Vice President responsible for working with BaME communities. Conference passed a business motion to create this post in 2018, but if it is going to be a vice president post, it ought to be in the constitution alongside the other vice presidents.

Finally there is part 5, which as I mentioned is just minor and/or trivial tidyings-up. One point that might be worth explaining is that where it removes references to the ‘Deputy Leader’, this is not the post of deputy leader of the party in the Commons (the role which Jo held until her election as Leader, covered in clause 16.1 of the constitution). The 2016 reforms proposed to create a separate post of Deputy Leader of the Party, with some wider party responsibilities. Conference voted not to approve creating that role, but some consequential cross-references to it got left in by accident, and this simply removes those. As the person who collated all this from many different contributors, I would be more than happy to explain the detail of any other changes in part 5, but I think I have probably by now taken more than enough of your time! Congratulations on reading to the end of this, and please do feel free to ask any further questions.


* Jeremy Hargreaves is a vice chair of Federal Policy Committee

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One Comment

  • Duncan Brack 31st Jul '19 - 3:31pm

    What would conference be without constitutional amendments? I hope everyone’s looking forward to this debate … I would just add one point to Jeremy’s article, on the special conference provisions: the original (1988) requirement was not for 200 party members to call for a special conference but for 200 conference reps.

    This was the system we had before 2015, where local parties elected representatives (in rough proportion to their membership) to be able to vote at conference. In practice the entitlement was loose enough that almost anyone who wanted to be a conference rep could be one, but the total number of reps was never more than about 3,000. So 200 of their signatures represented a much much higher bar than collecting 200 party members’ signatures does now – and higher also than 2% of the total party membership. This provision should have been changed when we moved to one-member-one-vote for conference and committee elections in 2015, but the Federal Executive (as it was then) failed to include it in the constitutional amendments.

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