Lib Dem conference to vote on whether it can ‘no-con’ the party leader

nick-clegg-birmingham conf9.30 am on Saturday morning may not be a prime-time slot, but on 9th March there will be more than usual interest in a constitutional amendment tabled to the Lib Dem spring conference.

Why? Because the amendment will make it possible for the Lib Dem federal conference to pass a vote of no confidence in the party leader to trigger an election.

Here‘s the proposed amendment:

const amend - mar 2013

‘An election for the Leader shall be called upon a vote of no confidence in the Leader passed by a two-thirds majority at Federal Conference‘ [my emphasis]

Currently, the party conference itself has no role in electing (or defenestrating) the party leader. When it comes to leadership elections we’re a one-member-one-vote party, whereas at party conferences only elected conference representatives can vote.

It is of course possible already for party members to no-con the leader: ‘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’ can also trigger a leadership election.

However, the amendment would lower the threshold significantly. If passed, it would require only 10 conference representatives to submit a motion to the Federal Conference Committee (FCC) calling for a no confidence vote. As there are at any one time nearly always at least 10 conference reps wanting a change of leader(!), FCC would be forced for the first time to make decisions about the viability of the leader. I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes. Or indeed the leader’s (current or future).

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Joe – we cannot reject a constitutional amendment. We had no choice but take this.

  • Would the party leader actually be removed by this vote, or simply required to submit to a retention vote by the membership?

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Feb '13 - 10:14am

    Without this constitutional amendment, it would still be possible for a motion expressing a lack of confidence in the leader to be tabled. While the passing of such a motion without this amendment would not constitutionally force the leader to resign, would we seriously suppose a leader under these circumstances would choose to stay on?

    This should not be a motion about Nick Clegg, and it would only be turned into one should the leadership chose to oppose it. Unless the leadership wants such a debate, and all the evidence is that it does not, it would be wise to let this go through without comment as a technical clean-up issue, simply expressing what ought to be obvious anyway – if the conference expresses that it has “no confidence” in the leader by a two-to-one majority, the leader has to resign.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 7th Feb '13 - 10:41am

    I won’t support this for the simple reason that most members don’t have a say in Conference because they’re not voting reps. I’d think again if we gave all members a vote and also enabled them to participate without having to spend a fortune.

    It’s also a recipe for disaster in that we could lay ourselves open to a whole load of public barneys. What would be the threshold for triggering such a motion of no confidence? Could one local party with a grudge put one on the agenda?

    The balance of power in the party is skewed way too far in the direction of the parliamentarians and they aren’t doing enough at the moment to fully engage with the membership, but I’m not sure this is the way to sort things.

  • This is the most stupid motion ever to come before a LIb Dem conference. Perhaps hardly surprising give the two people behind it, one of whom was last seen saying that Lembit had been an electoral asset to the campaign in Montgomery.

  • David Allen 7th Feb '13 - 12:14pm

    Matthew Huntbach said:

    “Without this constitutional amendment, it would still be possible for a motion expressing a lack of confidence in the leader to be tabled.”

    Is that correct?

  • Geoffrey Payne 7th Feb '13 - 1:14pm

    It is pointless, conference would never vote that way, even if the amendment is passed. Realistically the only people who can force the leader to resign is the HoC Parliamentary party.

  • Richard Shaw 7th Feb '13 - 1:47pm

    I’m deeply uncomfortable with the proposed amendment on the grounds that the Leader is elected by the membership-at-large, whereas conference representatives are, as others have said, a small self-selecting group, and this amendment would potentially allow a very small number of reps to call for and potentially trigger an election, overriding the wider membership. The current requirement for 75 local parties or (special) organisations is a sufficient threshold and is more representative of the membership at large. Speaking as a federal conference rep, I do not think I could support this amendment as it stands.

  • Harry Hayfield 7th Feb '13 - 2:15pm

    I shall be honest and say that I do not understand all the ins and outs of how the federal party works, but do agree that there should be more chances for us ordinary members to have a say in things. Now clearly, 10 is far too low a figure to start something and I am personally of the opinion that it should be 1% of the membership across 10% of the parliamentary constituencies we currently hold (so at the moment 1% in 6 constituencies) with a set level of say 5,000. However, as I said I do not understand all the ins and outs and therefore have no idea how to put that idea forward for discussion.

  • Joseph Donnelly 7th Feb '13 - 2:19pm

    10 voting reps is a ludicrously small number to be able to call a vote of no-confidence.

    That gives Liberal Youth, SLF, Liberal Reform, or any affiliated group the power to call one whenever they please; all those organisations could easily muster 10 voting reps across different local parties.

    Even Lembit Opik could probably just about manage 10 voting reps to support him.

  • Just out of interest, why do the Lib Dems hold Lembit Opik in such disdain? Is it because he was on some reality programme? Do tell!

  • Liberal Youth could propose such a motion by themselves – as they are an SAO they can propose conference motions. AFAIK there has only been one occasion when a local party debated a motion calling for a leadership election and that was LDYS in 1998 when I (as chair) summated against it.

    Harry – the problem with your proposal is that if you can find 5000 people to call for a no-confidence vote then the leader has suffered a loss of confidence to the extent that there would have to be a ballot regardless of any vote. There are similar issues with teh 75 local parties route. I would have thought that it would only take about 30 parties passing such a motion for a leader’s position to become untenable.

    That said, it’s an act of real witless stupidity for Ed and Richard to have done this – it will inevitably be portratyed as a pre-emptive strike against Nick. If I deliberately wanted to destablise a party leader then proposing a constitutional change making it easier would be top of my list of attention seeking things to do.

  • Liberal Eye 7th Feb '13 - 4:30pm

    If democracy is to mean anything it must include the power to remove a leader who has proven himself unequal to the task, become too ill, gone mad or simply lost the confidence of his supporters. Without such a sanction in place any organisation is likely to drift towards a top-down culture where the leader calls the shots without much reference to majority sentiment. Since psychopaths are attracted to power like moths to a flame this is a particular risk for political parties which LDs have largely escaped only by being not the obvious route to power for the rising generation.

    That said, I think this is the wrong motion. What I would like to see is a constitutional amendment so that a reasonable percentage (perhaps 20%) of MPs could trigger a leadership election. They will always know far more about the leader – whether he is up to the job and if there are any personal problems getting in the way – than the rest of us who rely on the media. As it stands at present, a leader who performs exceptionally well on TV is likely to become and then stay leader even if that is his only talent.

    The Conservatives have used versions of this approach to great effect – it has been said that their MPs are the most sophisticated electorate in the world. Inter alia they know perfectly well that regicide is a dangerous business not to be undertaken lightly but equally the leader always knows that he holds onto power only as long as he retains the support of the MPs and hence of the wider party.

  • David Allen 7th Feb '13 - 5:55pm

    Spot on Liberal Eye.

    Ironically, giving substantial powers to local parties and groups may make them too slow to act, rather than too fast. Little Wotting Local Party would never want to be the first to put their heads above the parapet, and declare that a failing leader should go. The problem with the 75 local parties route is, therefore, that it allows a failing leader to claim that there is a viable challenge mechanism in place, and that the absence of a challenge proves that he is universally loved. Even when it ain’t so.

    The key provision of the Tory scheme is that individual rebel MPs can keep their heads a little below the parapet, if they so wish. The rebel Tory MP must merely write a private letter to a Party official calling for a leadership election. If and when that official has received the required quota of letters – and not before – he announces the fact and triggers the election. At that stage, the rebels therefore have a certain amount of safety in numbers. They therefore avoid the awful fate that has befallen Mr Afriyie, who unwisely declared a solo hand.

    Thanks to that flexibility, the Tories rapidly dumped a series of failing leaders and eventually made a better choice. There is now a lot of adverse and ill thought-out comment about what a fickle bunch they are. Well, we might think that Cameron with all his faults is still head and shoulders above Buff*oon Boris, or B*onehead Bone. But we could well be wrong, from the Tory survivalist point of view. Those guys can just see their cosy seats vanishing from under them in two years’ time, if they do nothing about it. Therefore, they are motivated to do something about it, even if it’s only a gambler’s throw. Therefore, the Tories have a genuinely better chance of turning their fortunes around.

    We, by contrast, have a constitution that is over-protective of the Leader, including ouster mechanisms which might seem to be effective, but aren’t. An amendment that would allow a few rash rebels to set themselves up for spectacular failure is not the way to improve things. Learning from the Tories is.

  • Tony Dawson 7th Feb '13 - 8:13pm

    @Joe Otten :

    ” I’ve yet to hear anybody articulate why a different leader would be preferable.”

    Irrespective of the merits of the arguments, I wonder which part of the Drangajokull glacier you are posting from. 😉

    “The danger of a no confidence nuclear option is that the button can be pressed without any serious examination of the alternative candidates.”

    You have a strange view of your own party members if you think that none would consider this issue before voting – or, indeed, address it in the debates. Frankly, if a Lib Dem Conference ever got to this point (of a 2/3 majority for ousting), the Leader in question should have left many many months before.

  • Tony Dawson 7th Feb '13 - 8:16pm

    @Liberal Eye :

    “What I would like to see is a constitutional amendment so that a reasonable percentage (perhaps 20%) of MPs could trigger a leadership election. ”

    Presumably, one could submit to the Conference Committee an ‘amendment to the proposed amendment’?

  • Tony Dawson 7th Feb '13 - 8:21pm

    @Geoffrey Payne:

    ” Realistically the only people who can force the leader to resign is the HoC Parliamentary party.”

    or (possibly more powerfully?) the Leader’s spouse!

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Feb '13 - 11:36pm

    David Allen

    Matthew Huntbach said:

    “Without this constitutional amendment, it would still be possible for a motion expressing a lack of confidence in the leader to be tabled.”

    Is that correct?

    Where does it state in the constitution that the conference cannot table and agree to a motion containing the words “Conference does not have confidence in the Leader of the Liberal Democrats”?

  • David Allen 8th Feb '13 - 12:03am

    Matthew, I was hoping that someone else, rather than you, would answer my question! I am not an expert on the constitution, and it was that rarest of postings, a genuine appeal for information. The fact that nobody else has answered suggests to me that you must be right. However, would there (I wonder) be manoeuvres to make sure that such a motion was never debated?

    The idea of a leadership challenge via Conference just looks like a terrible idea whatever side you are on. If a rebellion had to be headed off by backstage manoeuvres, it would make the Party look dreadful, and it could well make the rebels look much stronger than they really were. And yet, despite all that, it would also surely knock the rebellion on the head, and could thereby entrench a failing leader in place.

    So we really need a better mechanism – better than a Conference challenge, and better than the unrealistic “75 local parties” criterion.

    Liberal Eye, Tony Dawson, are you conference reps (I’m not), and will you float your amendment?

  • David Wilkinson 8th Feb '13 - 8:38am

    Two glory seekers put a stupid motion before conference, it should play well in media and press about the plot to remove Nick.
    What is needed is to reform conference in terms costs and acessibility by more ordinary members, not the same faces who can afford the luxary of going. We should consider the use of online voting etc to widen involvement.

  • Liberal Neil 8th Feb '13 - 11:48am

    @David Allen – if any Leader was doing so badly that they needed replacing, and the Parliamentary Party weren’t willing to do it, I doubt we would have any trouble succeeding through the existing 75 parties route.

  • David Allen 8th Feb '13 - 12:05pm

    @ Ian Hurdley – Of course a leadership election itself should be “one member, one vote”, as it is now. But I can’t see how the same could be applied to the decision whether or not to hold such an election in the first place. When would we have the membership vote on this – once a year, say? And when we have done that, how is it going to look when the Press report something like “12% of Lib Dems Vote to Throw Out Asquith” or “Asquith Twice as Unpopular with Lib Dem Members Than Last Year”. We would be stirring up silly adverse publicity for ourselves despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of members were perfectly happy with Asquith’s leadership. And what about the case when say, 30% of members vote for a leadership election – which formally means no election – but isn’t half destabilising…?

  • My experience of voting reps and local parties is that it tends to be those with axes to grind who seek to become one.

  • David Allen 8th Feb '13 - 12:21pm

    Ian Hurdley said: “If a leader is believed … to be mad, bad or dangerous … or not up to the job or politically unacceptable…”

    Liberal Neil said: “if any Leader was doing so badly that they needed replacing”

    We seem to have a mindset that we should hang on to a poor Leader like grim death, until it was proven beyond peradventure that the horse should be shot. This is not a winning attitude!

    I’m sure the Tory mindset will be “If Boris looks fairly likely to improve our chances of winning the next election, then Boris it must be, even if we’re also going to shower David with praise for his achievements and find him a suitable grandee status and position.” That is a winning attitude!

  • David Allen “We seem to have a mindset that we should hang on to a poor Leader like grim death, until it was proven beyond peradventure that the horse should be shot. This is not a winning attitude!”

    Or, you could also say that we respect the democratic will of party members and, more importantly, the electorate.

    (And be thankful for those few hundred votes in 2007 … )

  • Liberal Eye 8th Feb '13 - 1:10pm

    David Allen – In answer to your question, I am not a conference rep which is why I phrased my earlier comment as I did.

    Ian Hurdley – “If a leader is believed by Federal Conference to be mad, bad or dangerous ( a pretty rare occurrence), or not up to the job or politically unacceptable (more likely)…”

    Of the last four Prime Ministers before Cameron – Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown – arguably ALL ultimately came to be seen as problematical by their parties for one reason or another. Thatcher and Blair were deposed, and it was an open secret that many Labour MPs and activists wanted Brown out of office but he was allowed to hang on and take down the whole party with him (although that was probably inevitable given the economic backdrop). Even Major had his problems with the eurosceptic wing of the party but he also won an election against the odds for which a lot was forgiven. In Cameron’s case it remains to be seen how things turn out, but the growing unhappiness in Tory ranks points to another defenestration. The tricky calculation for dissident MPs nervously checking their canvas returns is whether this should happen before or after the general election and whether or not they have a credible alternative.

    Whether one judges a particular coup to be because the PM is mad, bad, dangerous ore merely unacceptable is probably in the eye of the beholder. The point is that, for a party of government, this is the NORMAL outcome. Power corrupts and time moves on so that the best leader for today’s problems may not be the best for tomorrow’s but the last person to know that is usually the incumbent.

    As far as OMOV goes my proposal doesn’t call that into question. If a majority of MPs or (as in Thatcher’s case) a substantial minority comes to have no confidence in the leader then there needs to be a mechanism to make obvious what insiders like MPs (but not necessarily the party at large) must already know – that his leadership is a dead duck. It would be intolerable for a leader to attempt to continue without the clear support of the Parliamentary party; at that point the greater good of the party has to take precedence over the feelings of one individual and, with the way cleared, a OMOV election for a successor can take place.

    Incidentally, if the rumours surrounding the closing days of Charles Kennedy’s leadership were correct we came perilously close to finding out how inadequate existing rules are. It was said that he considered (or his advisors suggested!) that he appeal to the membership over the heads of the MPs. Given his huge popularity in the Party and that many didn’t know the extent of the problems, this is a vote he would probably have won – which would have caused incalculable damage. Fortunately CK is a paid up member of the human race and his good judgement (already demonstrated over Iraq) prevailed – for which good call he rose substantially in my estimation as the facts emerged.

    Most here probably know that I am not a huge fan of Nick Clegg (!) but this is NOT about him. It’s about making the Party fit for purpose; I would suggest it even if I thought him the best leader ever.

  • If 30 local parties passed teh requisite motion the pressure on the leader to voluntarily call a clear the air vote would be irresistible. After all most recent removals of leaders have not come through the formal constitutional route (I think IDS is the only leader to have been voted out in recent history – and he got more votes in defeat than he did in victory!)

    Having chaired an organisation which debated such motion at a moment when the leader had done something deeply controversial (it fell with me among others being opposed) – you need some pretty extreme situations to vote in favour

    “It was said that he (CK) considered (or his advisors suggested!) that he appeal to the membership over the heads of the MPs. ”

    That’s exactly what he did – he called for a leadership election a couple of days before resigning.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Feb '13 - 7:18pm

    David Allen

    However, would there (I wonder) be manoeuvres to make sure that such a motion was never debated?

    Yes, quite obviously so, as Stephen puts it, it would have to be agreed by the FCC, and I suspect they wouldn’t do so unless there was widespread and obvious support for it. If that was the case, any leader who was not a complete fool would already have resigned. That is why I feel this motion is not a big thing, and it would be silly to make it such. In practice it would be one of those many thing constitutions have which are there just as ultimate fallbacks, consider for example a leader who has suffered some sort of breakdown but refuses to resign.

    We seem to have a mindset that we should hang on to a poor Leader like grim death, until it was proven beyond peradventure that the horse should be shot. This is not a winning attitude!

    Yes, I agree – I wish it were the case that changing the party leader was viewed as something fairly normal, just as changing the roles of anyone else in an organisation to the ones that most suit them is.

  • Simon Banks 8th Feb '13 - 9:53pm

    Only in extreme circumstances would such a vote be passed. That’s practical political reality. As for the conference reps versus the whole membership point, conference could trigger an election, but the whole membership would determine the result, which could include the re-election of the controversial leader.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Feb '13 - 1:37am

    Joe Otten

    I hear the usual grumblings from the discontent but they don’t paint a picture of how having Chris Huhne Tim Farron as leader would turn their discontent to happiness.

    Why Farron? Why people keep putting that leadership-apologist as the prime candidate of the “left”? So far as I am concerned, he’s the Liberal Democrat’s equivalent to John Prescott, says a few token lefty things in order to balance a right-wing leader, but it’s all a show and the leadership is happy to keep him there because they know that, and so long as he’s seen as the main lefty it will keep out a more serious challenge with some brains behind it.

  • let the question be put

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Feb '13 - 12:22am

    Joe Otten

    Matthew – fine whatever. But you wrote a whole comment there not saying who it should be rather than Tim Farron. Until you do, people will use Farron.

    Yes, and so? Am I am expert on who’s who in the Parliamentary party? What I do know is there’s a big bias in the press towards the right of our party, so the right-wingers get all the favourable mentions and thus are seen as suitable challengers for the leadership when the time comes, whereas those to the left of the party are ignored and so are not seen as possible leadership candidates because press bias means people do not know of their existence. As I’ve suggested, Farron strikes me as Prescott to Clegg’s Blair – a nominal lefty who is in fact a leadership loyalist and is incapable of mounting a serious challenge to the dominance of the right at the top of the party. So put forward in the press as the main lefty challenger because they know he’s harmless.

  • The real constitutional change we need is to remove the clause preventing a leadership election if the leader accepts a post as Government minister.

    I don’t agree with this Farron-bashing and he certainly isn’t a Prescott. As President, Tim Farron has to be loyal to the Leader. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be a suitable leader if Nick Clegg were to stand down. Indeed I can’t think of anyone I would rather have taking part in any leadership debates before the next general election. Having kept his promise on tuition fees, he has a lot more credibility than many of his rivals!

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