Let’s have a proper debate about Vince’s party reforms

The last several days have seen these pages full of unalloyed cheerleading for Vince’s Moderate Movement scheme from the great and the good, and even people who have set up rival parties to our own. We have also been assured repeatedly that these changes will not be imposed on us, that we will have chance to debate them, that we are a democratic party, but here is what I, as a member of Federal Conference Committee, have seen:

– a total lack of communication with the federal committees about this
– all the MPs being brought out to bang the drum for how marvellous these ideas are
– an exponentially larger number of emails to members and supporters alike about this than there were about conference
– a survey which amounted to “do you agree with us that the leader’s ideas are marvellous, or do you want to doom the party forever?”
– insinuations that anyone who so much as raises a question about the proposed reforms is a saboteur, or not behind the leader

Here is what I have not seen:
– any meaningful attempt to engage with the existing party structures
– any meaningful attempt to consult with members
– any meaningful attempt to listen to anything existing members have to say.

Now, I’m not saying I am completely against Vince’s ideas. In principle, any one of them could be interesting, and might work. But all of them together, being railroaded through as fast as possible, with talk of all member ballots and even spending a fortune on a special conference?

We are Liberal Democrats. We are supposed to be in favour of evidence bases, and testing, and trials. Not going hell for leather for massive and untested changes.
We are supposed to be in favour of bottom-up, organic, consultative change; not top-down, do-as-I-say and shut-up-and-deliver-leaflets autocracy.

Can we please just slow down and look at this properly? When our country is facing the most massive upheaval of my lifetime within the next six months, is shoving these reforms through come hell or high water REALLY the hill our leader wants to die on?

Let’s take a measured approach to this. Wouldn’t that be the Moderate thing to do?

* Jennie Rigg is an award winning Liberal Democrat blogger who blogs at Rubbish Black and White Nightmare Trousers

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47 Comments

  • Excellent piece. Glad to actually read a balanced, considered view finally, rather than contributions from people who are just cheerleading.

  • James Baillie 13th Sep '18 - 5:14pm

    *applause*

    Absolutely. The more concerted effort to bombard us with articles and use party machinery to promote a single reform proposal in what should be an internal matter, and the more all this happens without an actual concrete proposal being put forward for scrutiny, the more nervous I’m getting.

    And that’s as an ordinary party member who isn’t privy to the conversations of our upper echelons. Knowing that a federal committee member like Jennie is seeing things much the same, and feeling just as out of the loop on the details, as I am worries me even more.

    When will senior figures stop splattering rhetoric about how great the nebulous principles of the scheme are and start talking about what it means, what they want out of it, and most importantly listening to us as members about what WE want, need, and think in a way that’s more meaningful than a wholly leading questionnaire?

  • Peter Watson 13th Sep '18 - 5:20pm

    “We have also been assured repeatedly that these changes will not be imposed on us, that we will have chance to debate them, that we are a democratic party, but here is what I, as a member of Federal Conference Committee, have seen:”
    and the proposed supporters’ scheme being rolled out on the party’s website already (for “pre-registering”)

  • From where I’m sitting this looks like an accurate assessment of the situation. There is obviously a co-ordinated campaign in support of rushing through Vince’s proposals. In fact, it’s so effusive it’s almost embarrassing. That leads to the thought that if the leadership is willing to ride roughshod over process in this way then there must be something else going on that is less than transparent.

    One of the Liberal Democrats’ (rightly) frequently claimed USPs, used to beat the other main parties over the head with, is that it is the party where members make policy. I wonder how tarnished that claim will look if/when these proposals are steamrollered through without appropriate consideration because it is what the leader wishes. Personally, I’ve not felt so exasperated since the conference debate on the NHS reform bill – when the payroll vote all suddenly turned up in the hall to make sure it squeaked through after a count. And we might reflect on what a move of strategic genius that turned out to be.

  • Alex: are you saying that Vince should rebrand these The Shirley Williams Reforms? 😉

    Everyone: thanks for kind comments.

  • Agree. Agree. Agree.

  • Mick Taylor 13th Sep '18 - 5:45pm

    I agree 100% with Rigg.
    What those pushing these highly suspect reforms have forgotten is that we Lib Dems don’t like being pushed and certainly don’t like being bounced. There are, as Jennie so rightly says, some good points in the proposals. The risk is that a large number of bolshy Lib Dems, fed up with the constant pressure to support the leader or shut up, will turn up en masse and kick all the proposals into the long grass, regardless of their merits.
    Slow down, stop trying to bounce the party, consult properly and above all listen.

  • David Becket 13th Sep '18 - 5:45pm

    This sums up what is wrong with this party. People who have been in positions of authority for years and feel no need to listen to members.
    Worse still they do not appear to take risks and bring some of our more radical proposals to the fore.
    As for Vince’s ideas, there is some merit in what he is suggesting, but also danger.
    This should not be the main topic of the conference, after Brexit fighting inequality should be top of the agenda, which should result in some proposals that will send the Daily Mail into orbit.
    We might get more members that way than playing around with fancy ideas.
    I cannot come to conference this year, but if I was there I would be motivated to throw this out.

  • David Evans 13th Sep '18 - 5:46pm

    Jenny, exactly right.

    Liberalism (particularly the equality bit) it isn’t.

    The party hierarchy should all be ashamed of themselves.

  • I can see it now – “If you don’t support these proposals in full it will be a vote of no confidence in the Party Leadership”. It’s quite a long time since I had any faith in the Party Leadership – probably not since Jo Grimond actually (though Tim had a lot of good points). I worry that the awkward squad may be overwhelmed by establishment loyalists though.

  • Adam Bernard 13th Sep '18 - 6:03pm

    Among our local party, there are serious concerns with some parts of this, and a general feeling that we’re being bulldozed. This goes for people who’ve been members since pre-merger, and people who joined in the last year. There’s a general willingness to accept changes — a non-voting supporters scheme seemed like a good idea to most of us — but everyone seemed a bit startled with the way that these proposals have been unleashed, and there are some aspects (particularly the extension of voting rights to non-members) that seemed unwelcome to everyone.

    In general, one would expect the party to 1) talk about the problems it wants to solve, 2) encourage discussion, and then 3) allow the party membership to decide amongst various ideas put forward by the party committees, the leadership, and the wider membership itself. The fact that the party is in this case doing the opposite with unseemly haste is deeply troubling, and its motives are verging on suspicious.

  • Zoe O'connell 13th Sep '18 - 6:28pm

    Another voice in agreement with Jennie here. Liberals do not react well to being told what to do, and the current campaign from the leadership seems to have forgotten that.

  • Well done Jennie. I’m proud of you. I am an former Lib Dem member and local election candidate (Copeland). Not voted since the ConDem government. There seems to be no contrition for the austerity we face on a daily basis from the ConDem years. Even if Mr Cable should apologise to his party, the LibDem voters and the country, it may be too late in the day for anyone to notice or even care. As for a Macron style movement, that would mean even MORE austerity. Get Real.

  • I agree with the general tone here. I’m currently not sure exactly how I feel about Vince’s proposals: I see positive and negatives, and with something this important I want to hear a proper discussion and have some time to think about it all. But the way it has all been rolled out so far has not been good.
    And there’s another example today – Vince openly musing in a newspaper interview about several Tory MPs defecting to us and then possibly changing the party name to ‘New Liberal Democrats.’ https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics
    These are serious issues. It all needs to be handled with a lot more sensitivity.

  • Sean Hyland 13th Sep '18 - 7:09pm

    Excellent post. Thank you Jennie Rigg

  • 100% agree with Jennie.

    Perhaps the worst aspect is the sheer amount of emotional and intellectual capital that the party will burn up with this. You can see it’s started already. And when we struggle to get any mention in the mainstream press, the recent precious column inches have been about our organisational changes rather than our policies.

    We are told that there are many out there that “share our values”. This is probably true, but how will those people know? No one google searches for values. Our policies are the shop window for our values, so instead lets concentrate our efforts on producing a set of bold, liberal policies that showcase our values and grab the attention of potential supporters.

    The proposed immigration paper is a case in point. Are there really thousands out there who will rush to register their support because we have a “don’t frighten the horses” immigration policy that is a bit less nasty than the Tories?

    There are a lot of people unhappy about how these changes are being handled. I would not risk p*ssing off a single, committed, fee-paying activist for the sake of gaining a thousand uncommitted supporters.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Sep '18 - 7:14pm

    A sensible, moderate piece!

    As someone open to the new ideas, what I agree with is this seems like a bounce, what I do not know and does any other member, why presume it is a bounce, it might be a consultation!

    My feeling is the moderate thing to do is to do nothing but have a good think, read and debate…in effect, maybe treat this as the possibility of a way to reinvigorate, but not to panic or yet argue against or for it.

  • Christopher Curtis 13th Sep '18 - 7:44pm

    I agree with Jennie too.
    I’m up for change, and there are things I quite like about the proposals, but even quite radical changes to structures and processes achieve nothing unless we’ve got our core values articulated simply and strongly, our key “promises” to the electorate spelled out and can look people in the eye and say “This is who we are, this is what we stand for and if you vote for us, this is what we’ll do”.
    There’s good work been done on some of that, but that’s where our focus needs to be and that’s what I want the leader to be making passionate speeches about. Reforming the party should happen through normal deliberation and debate within the party.

  • Sometimes reading all the reactions in this thread I wonder whether we really are a radical party open to new thoughts and ideas.

  • Being bounced into something because we need to act now usually fails. Far better to take some time to reflect and then take action. The Lib Dems got bounced into coalition by “We need to act to save the country; the end of the world is nigh” and we all know how badly that went. Given how acting in haste worked out last time perhaps a little reflection and planning may be in order this time.

  • Jennie @ 5.32 – Clearly we haven’t yet quite reached that level of opposition among the membership. But it wouldn’t surprise me if some at HQ is eyeing the “Break glass in case of emergency” sign and wondering when to press the Summon Shirley panic button. If

  • Sue Sutherland 13th Sep '18 - 8:33pm

    Well said Jennie. What annoys me about this debacle is that it reveals a total disregard for members while revealing plans to open the party to supporters.
    There has been a touching display of the great and the good coming out in force for Vince. Again, presumably they think members will be swayed by this rather than using our LibDem b******t detectors to gather that this is a cunning plan.
    I would have hoped that party committees would have been consulted throughout the process, I didn’t expect that members would be treated like that because several things have confirmed my suspicion that the flaws revealed in Coalition have not been recognised by our leaders.
    The concerns of Councillors and members were pushed aside by those active in the Coalition who regarded the opinions of their members as worthless and this arrogance seems to be getting worse. There is now an ideal land in which we build a movement and lots of supporters can reinvigorate the party by magic.
    I don’t have the energy to reiterate my comments on other posts because I have very little energy available but basically, trust the members, put them first in the decision making process, use new technology to sound them out about any innovations or policies and so become the party which places citizens and community first.
    Please also don’t forget that if you treat the next people down from you in the command chain with disrespect that will then travel down to the grassroots of an organisation more quickly than a Movement can be stirred up.

  • James BLESSING 13th Sep '18 - 9:05pm

    Short version : what she said

    Long version : a lot of the things that have been proposed could be really good for the party *but* it does feel that changes are being railroaded

  • Neil Sandison 13th Sep '18 - 10:15pm

    Theres a right way to engage with members and a wrong way this is an example of the latter .Members may well support a structured supporters scheme that does not devalue membership or undermine the commitment of joining .But it shouldnt be through a vague and ill thought out comments in a leaders speech but through genuine consultation through the parties presidency .This is a tool that has served us well and helped rebuild the party following the end of the coalition and serious electoral damage that we endured .Can i suggest the great and good draw breath and start again on these proposals.

  • On Shirley Williams: I imagine her LDV article will be along tomorrow.

  • Phil Wainewright 13th Sep '18 - 11:43pm

    Something else we have not seen:
    – any meaningful attempt to demonstrate the party has any idea how to engage virtually with a mass movement of supporters (as this thread demonstrates, it can’t even do that with its own activists!)

  • Jennie Rigg….The last several days have seen these pages full of unalloyed cheerleading for Vince’s Moderate Movement scheme from the great and the good, and even people who have set up rival parties to our own…….

    I agree!
    I would also like to add something to Nick Baird’s ( 13th Sep ’18 – 7:12pm) final paragraph. To me, at least, these ‘new’ ideas seem so, so reminiscent of the LibDem strategy published in the New Statesman in September 2012….”There is a new political market for the Liberal Democrats; the party just needs to seek it out rather than looking wistfully at the old customers who have turned away. The left wing votes borrowed from Labour in 2010 will not be available in 2015. New ones must be found.”

    Well, they got it half right.

  • OnceALibDem 14th Sep '18 - 8:50am

    The leadership mobilise to try to get these reforms through – which poses the question why didn’t they do this on getting the party’s disciplinary rules changed?

  • Im just about to leave for Germany so Ill have to be quick.
    My initial reaction to the suggested changes was positive but I dont like the Bounce or the timing.
    Now I also see the Leadership problem, they are in talks with MPs from other Parties & they cant talk about that in Public or risk stories being leaked if they confide in Party Activists.
    Our Recovery is real but soooo slow.
    The only thing likely to lead to rapid change is either defection from one of the Big 2 Parties or the formation of Breakaways from them. Vince is doing his best to encourage those but he cant talk openly to us about it, its an awkward position.

  • Sue Sutherland 14th Sep '18 - 12:22pm

    Paul Walter. I can’t go to conference but I think those who can should attend the Federal People Development Committee session and express their outrage at not being properly consulted over this proposal. The FPDC should be encouraged to put forward proposals to the party that enable the membership as a whole to participate at all stages of decision making in accordance with our belief in the devolution of power.
    I’m hoping Jennie can take this up as she is an excellent communicator.

  • @Jennie Rigg
    “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
    Omitted”,….etc.

    I think this is what Vince is scared of. He has been out and about with Grass Roots movements in the Brexit debate and seen the power of these media savvy organisations.
    He has also seen some very sellable and high profile individuals in these movement.

    I know it’s easy to dramatise things but I really do think that politics is in for a major upheaval over the next twelve months.
    The Tories are split and infiltrated by the far right. They will end up in turmoil over Brexit. The Labour party is split and in turmoil over Momentum and the passive complicity of Corbyn over Brexit. Whichever way Brexit goes the political landscape is set to erupt. The massive movement of activated moderate pro EU people will not just go on to vote Tory or Labour again. We either capture this movement and some of its leaders or they will go on to form an alternative party and the center will be split. Under that scenario the LibDems will be just go on being a self obsessed minority party, albeit in a diminished sense, as a lot of the recent uptake in membership will desert in favour the ‘new and exciting’.
    Alternatively we can try to embrace what will be a massive change and hitch a ride. The future will not be clear and LibDems tend to be cautious by nature. The trouble is that time is not on our side. Events are moving very quickly. The next party conference will be too late. I would give Vince his head and deal with the detail later. Change is hard and the more you have invested in the status quo the harder it is but at 9%-10% in the polls something has to give.

  • Richard Fagence 14th Sep '18 - 1:22pm

    Having established the identity of those taking part, I don’t usually bother to watch ‘The Andrew Marr Show’ on Sunday mornings. This week, however, I did as it featured an interview with and a performance by the wonderful Yo-Yo Ma.

    One of the Sunday paper reviewers was Gina Miller and, after the reviewers had finished, Andrew Marr said:

    “Just before we wrap up, Gina Miller, I must ask you – there’s been lots of speculation – the Liberal Democrats are changing their rules to allow non-Parliamentarians to become party leader and all that. Your name comes into the frame again and again. Is there any shred of truth in this?”

    This is what we’re up against colleagues. I have already written a formal letter of complaint to the Executive Editor of the show, attempting to explain how it is up to the members of this party to determine party policy and any changes that need to be made. Even today’s Daily Telegraph has a small comment on page two headed “Cable talks up potential of new centrist party”. Its final sentence includes “Sir Vince did not rule out changing the Lib Dems’ name to attract the new MPs”

    Where is this coming from? Are these strategic leaks? Who authorised them if they are? And if someone in Great George Street is doing this without any reference to the membership (remember them?) they should be removed immediately.

    Jennie’s comment about ‘changes being imposed on us’ and associated assurances are very worrying. Like Sue Sutherland, I can’t go to conference (first time since 1997). I wish I could. There deserves to be a huge row about this and I hope there will be. I am glad we have Jennie on FCC.

  • Nigel Hardy 14th Sep '18 - 1:23pm

    For what it’s worth here are my thoughts:

    The leadership has seen the party has problems and it needs to change in order to survive, but it is panicking having maybe left it a bit late given the political meltdown of the two parties, and our own poor performance in the polls. It has looked across and seen how a tech savvy media firm has helped the Liberals in Canada and Macron and thought we’ll have some of that. OK fine, but take time to think things through. Just look at how Labour is unravelling as a result of lowering its membership fee to pocket money. I support the need to change, but the leadership really does need to think through the likely consequences of opening up for free, and have some robust procedures in place to expel anyone who joins and bring the party’s name into disrepute. Labour’s problems should be a warning.

    I see the proposal of leadership open to non parliamentarians as good thing. Allow the MP’s to concentrate on their responsibilities to their constituents without having to worry about leading the party as well.

    TonyH mentioned above of Vince openly musing in a newspaper interview about several Tory MPs defecting to us and then possibly changing the party name to ‘New Liberal Democrats.’ Firstly I’d welcome these big names (from the liberal wing of both parties) but why should we tinker with the name? Liberal Democrats is a strong two word name spelling out what we are. If the leadership felt it necessary to re-brand in order to accept some liberal defections from the Tories (and Labour) I’d be disappointed. Would either of those parties rebrand to accept a few defecting MP’s ? I doubt it!

  • Nigel Hardy 14th Sep '18 - 3:46pm

    @ P.J. Spot on with your analysis of the future. Our political failed system is in turmoil and falling apart right in front of us as the political tectonic plates are shifting beneath our feet. Change is hurtling towards us at lightening speed, and to survive we have to embrace change early on, otherwise we will go the same way as both Labour and Tories. Brexit will eat up the two main parties, who clearly favour the past that is the UKIP vote, rather than become progressive parties. The next 12 months will bring much needed change upon our political structures and the LibDem’s need to be a part of that radical change.

  • Sue Sutherland 14th Sep '18 - 3:55pm

    Paul, I’m glad the good old days of outrage are still with us. During Paddy’s time I was concentrating more on the outrage I felt about Thatcher and the Tories and their worship of the Market than our own leadership, but I’m hoping all this new outrage can be channelled into proposals for devolving power to members properly rather than just relying on conference to meet this aim. Then leaders can still have big ideas but not put them into practice without checking it out with members first. The sight of our leaders running ahead of the party down the wrong alley during Coalition isn’t one I want to experience again.

  • Innocent Bystander 14th Sep '18 - 7:02pm

    @RichardFagence
    There is something going on behind the scenes. My guess is that conversations have been had with the aim of finding a “big name” to bounce in as leader. That (it would be hoped) would magnetically attract disaffected Tories and Blairites.
    The process is the usual one of “leaks” strategically dropped. I think Vince intends to create a centre ground party by either using the LibDems as a nucleation point or a source of footsoldiers.
    There is a lot of smoke, at the moment, which usually implies a fire.

  • Yes, there’s probably a fire. However, the desperate efforts of our fire-fighters seem to be directed towards making sure that the fire engulfs the Liberal Democrats, and that nobody will light a fire any other way!

    David Steel, a generation ago, took an opposite attitude. He thought that the Gang of Four would light a bigger and more effective fire if they kept at arm’s length from the Liberal Party, rather than being swept up into an existing organisation. Steel was right.

    Let’s not assume that the best thing for a passionate anti-Brexit MP or celebrity to do is to defect to the Liberal Democrats, and join a party that has made little headway over Brexit or anything else. If a new anti-Brexit party could make the breakthrough, then Lib Dems should be big enough to help them do so. Steel was big enough. Are we?

  • Max Wilkinson 15th Sep '18 - 7:08am

    I hate to be a voice of dissent, but isn’t the consultation happening now?

    As for the scheme already being put in place via an online sign-up page during the consultation, that seems an entirely logical approach to capitalise on the press received after Vince’s speech.

    Maybe I’m guilty of being one of those people who is less interested in internal chit-chats and more interested in getting people to join our campaigns.

  • Katharine Pindar 19th Sep '18 - 9:57am

    P.J.’s yesterday’s post at 12.32 pm has our situation exactly right, in the opinion of this Conference-goer. “The massive movement of activated moderate pro-EU people will not just go on to vote Tory or Labour again. We either capture this movement and some of its leaders or they will go on to form an alternative party … Under that scenario the LibDems will just go on to being a self-obsessed minority party … Alternatively we can try to embrace what will be a massive change and hitch a ride.”

    Whoever you are, P.J., Conference has convinced me that you are correct. Vince is right to say that we need to front a popular movement, and opening up the party to supporters seems the way forward. On timing, I shared the general indignation about not being consulted first, but see how this ties in with whatever publicity we could get from the Conference. On substance, Vince intends as we all do far-reaching reforms of British political policies, and this is a possible way of getting them noticed and taken up.

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