Liberal Democrats need to reform

A central tenet of Liberalism is trust in the people. That’s why reforming our party must be built on greater trust in our members and supporters. And why for me this new reform process must itself be open and belong to the members.

The most exciting change to our party in the last 3 years has been the increase in members.

In Kingston, people who’ve joined us since the 2015 General Election have been key to our revival: from getting the fantastic Sarah Olney elected in North Kingston to our best ever Kingston Borough Council results this May – with a dozen “newbies” now councillors.

When it comes to Vince’s party reform ideas, I’ve been struck by the reaction of these “newish” members: if anything, they’ve a desire to accelerate the change, given both the political opportunity for our party, and the threats posed to Liberalism, whether from Brexit nationalists or Corbynista extremists.

As a party member for 30 years next January, I share their impatience and frustration. If you compare our recent slow recovery with Canada’s Liberals’ fast-track to power, you’ll of course find quite a few differences – but for me the biggest is that Canada’s Liberal Party went big on reform – and grew massively as a result.

If we want to win – to stop Brexit, beat climate change, reduce inequality and renew British democracy – we have to be a much, much bigger party. Attracting people from other parties and people new to politics. In areas of the country where we aren’t currently strong, or even present. With new members getting involved quickly. And many more taking Vince’s new first step to joining – becoming supporters.

So as we debate Vince’s ideas, let’s remember why we need reforms. And then debate them in their spirit of openness: party members must be free to propose their reform ideas, so they truly own this process.

If LD HQ and the leadership were to allow an open debate on the changes we need, I hope we can be even bolder – and ruffle even more feathers!

First, members must get new benefits. If members are going to share some of their old benefits with a new supporter category, it makes sense to increase the value of membership elsewhere, to compensate.

And I’d look first at the party’s policy process. I’m a veteran of it – I even met my wife Emily on a Housing Policy Working Group! But this is an area crying out for change. Why can’t we crowd-source policy ideas from members? Why can’t we pilot virtual conferences to involve more members in testing out policy ideas?

NASA famously open up outer space problem solving in 2010 to the world. It was controversial for many of their most brilliant minds. But they started to solve problems of astrophysics more quickly and more cheaply. We could run membership competitions, and, NASA-like, allow party members to help solve specific policy problems – local and national.

Second, I think we should go further for the new supporter category. Couldn’t the selection of parliamentary candidates be open to primaries?

Local primaries involving local members and supporters choosing from a shortlist decided by the local party looks to me like more democracy, not less. And extending the franchise for their candidate could be a huge boost to a local party, helping raise funds and ensuring the campaign for that person to become the MP begins much earlier.

My final reform is a bit of a cheat – because it goes beyond changes to internal party rules. For me, this process must address voters too. So I hope we can see parallels between how we engage members and supporters with how Liberal Democrat Councils and a Lib Dem Government would engage the public.

Vince rightly spoke about this when he talked about modernising community politics. We must prove to voters Liberal Democrats are different – because we will give them real power and a real voice. Representative democracy must become participatory democracy, with citizens able to affect more decisions, in everything from setting budgets to new ideas for improving their communities.

I’m attracted by the concept of a new right to participate for individual citizens. As a party, we should experiment with a thousand ways to make citizen participation meaningful, learning from global best practice. From Paris to Reykjavik, from Portugal to Brazil, other places are way ahead of Britain and the Liberal Democrats: we need to catch up fast.

Let’s open up our party, so we can win again. And let’s debate how we would open up government and society too, when we win. So we – and everyone – can demand better, and achieve it.

What reforms would you propose?


* Ed Davey is the MP for Kingston & Surbiton and Leader of the Liberal Democrats

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Why do we keep comparing ourselves to the Canadian Liberals, who were (and are) the natural party of government and were only the third placed party very briefly? I am not sure how Canada’s experience is relevant here.

    If we want voters to listen to us we need to listen to them. That means hearing what they say about where we went wrong, and why they chose to leave us in a situation where we lost 90% of our MPs, and 90% of our MEPs. That means having a frank discussion about what needs to change, and accepting that fault lies with us for not doing what those who voted for us trusted us to do.

    Do that, rather than tinkering around with voting rights within the party – which risk creating a mechanism for entryism at the same time – and we may find things change for the better.

    The way to fix the loss of 90% of our party’s elected parliamentary representatives is not to create a new supporters’ scheme.

  • I like Ed Davey, but let’s stop pretending this is a sensible idea in the way it has been presented.

    Movements are not created by a party hierarchy. They are self creating, whether they happen in a party, like Momentum, or externally like the Peoples Vote or in Scotland the Indy movement.

    Party created ones or those created by self interest groups seldom gain traction or if they do, not for very long. Examples of both are ‘No Borders’ and ‘Progress’ respectively.

    Movements are built on a common need, common goal, common idea. They happen when groups or individuals coalesce around a one of these.

    It’s portrayed as an exciting new way forward, but it isn’t, if you take the comments Vince and other elected officials are taking. It’s a ‘movement for moderates’ apparently but we are not a party of moderates. We are a party of radicals. More so than at any time in history our party needs to be the radical progressive party the country actually needs.

    Labour’s infighting, Tories in civil war. LibDems stability is not beijg exploited enough. Diluting our radicalism in the hope we can attract Wollaston or Ummuna is counter-intuitive.

    As a party we have to work 10 times as hard as tue other two. We have to scrimp and save on our funding so we can compete in elections with parties that clearly ignore spending limits and use alternative means of getting the message across. They have the support of a complicit press in trying to ensure it is painted as a two way battle for the country, and we need to stay relevent by staying radical.

    Going down this line, is at best risky in terms of losing momentum, but more importantly it risks us becoming an irrelevance.

  • “for me the biggest is that Canada’s Liberal Party went big on reform”

    This is true, they did. Electoral Reform, for the electorate. They may well have reformed their own party structures as well, but the big promises on reform were for the people, not navel-gazing. And they have since reneged on it and lost trust as a result.

    The actual reason that the Canadian liberals got somewhere, though, is not because of the reasons you state at all. It is because they inspired people. Just like Macron inspired people. Just like Obama inspired people. And actually, for all that I loathe him and everything he stands for, just like Trump has inspired people.

    No amount of tinkering with process is going to inspire people.

    We need clear, bold, inspiring policies (not horrendous fudges like the immigration motion), and we need to be unambiguous about shouting about them, and we need to /accept that this is going to put some people off/.

    At the moment we are putting EVERYBODY off, including our own activists, and that is far worse than putting off the bigots who will be put off by some actual liberalism.

  • Absolutely agree with William.
    To me the issue is not the what the proposals are, but the way in which it is being done. It has illustrated with great clarity the top down nature of our party. Communication is not good enough. The ideas are in reality not going to address the issues facing the party. Why talk about open primaries does not make sense when most constituencies struggle to find a candidate. They also of course struggle to find the money for a deposit. And then there is the leaflet. We urgently need much better communication from headquarters to members. We need a clarity about how members can be involved. And what on Earth does modernising community politics mean? Why not just put it into practice?

  • The Lib Dem internal processes may need reform, but anyone who thinks that a supporters scheme will solve all our problems is living in a fantasy world.
    The key to getting votes is to be seen to be offering solutions to the problems people have and that means a radical change to the current economic and political status quo. Trouble is some of those whose job it is to promote our policies are scared to tell voters what we really think, because they fear it will put some voters off.
    Wake up call! We have already put most voters off. Preaching motherhood and apple pie or offering policies that UKIP could support (viz the Immigration Motion) won’t cut the mustard.
    Huge income and wealth disparities that ALL governments this century have allowed to grow must be tackled to create a more equal society. Then we need policies that give people control over their lives and a democratic input into decision making both in politics and at work. We also need to devolve power out of Westminster to the lowest level possible be that regional, local or town/parish with the necessary financial powers to fund what people want and are prepared to pay for. We need genuinely democratic electoral systems. We need education free at the point of use. We need a welfare system that cares for those who need it and ensures a minimum income for all that ensures poverty is abolished.
    I could go on. I know that the Canadian experience is not parallel to ours. Trudeau is pretty good on plain speaking and not being mealy mouthed about what his party wants to do and we can learn from that.
    If we get our electoral offer right and plug it hard then there will be a time to get people who agree with it to join us in whatever form they want. Inviting people to support a party that hides its light under a bushel is a sure way to disappointment.

  • ♡ excellent comments from Mick, Nick and William there

  • David Becket 11th Sep '18 - 10:52am

    Policies to meet the current climate are more important than structures.
    We could make a start at Conference by agreeing to explore the ideas promoted by the Commission on Economic Justice recent report, with a view to turning them into a workable policy.
    Already the right wing press has jumped up and down, and anything we propose to tackle inequality will result in a media attack.
    We will never get them on our side, so let us go on the attack against the current economic system.

  • Paul Reynolds 11th Sep '18 - 11:24am

    Thanks Ed for this excellent article. These, and other, dimensions of policymaking reform, should be fully formulated and implemented quickly and decisively.

  • We’re not the Canadian Liberals, and we ain’t Canada either – a small country with a large degree of social consensus. We need to be radical practically as well as politically. Why isn’t Conference now a streamed, interactive, digital event? Why can’t we support the poor and disadvantaged? One strong local LP’s website praises new serviced sheltered housing, without reference to the actual cost to people or the required income to enjoy it. Let’s get real.

  • Bill le Breton 11th Sep '18 - 12:54pm

    Ed, you begin your piece with “A central tenet of Liberalism is trust in the people.”

    But you well know that this is only half that central tenet as Gladstone added three very important words of condition:

    Trust in the People – tempered by prudence.

    In these reforms and in their consideration who will exert the tempering power of prudence?

    Otherwise I am hearing words that echo in tenor with the cries of a century ago.

    “This new reform process establishes the real equality of supporters before the Party. The object of these proposals, this new system, is to ensure higher participatory justice for supporters. What does participatory justice mean? It means the hearing of their voice is guaranteed, fair access, decent consultation, it means the possibility of continuous reform and improvement. Nor is this enough. It means that supporters must enter more and more intimately into the policy process and share its necessary discipline. As the past thirty tears were the years of activist power, the next thirty years is the time of power and victory of Liberal Democrat supporters.”

    If this is what I am hearing or reading in words such as yours, then, I warn everyone that we should proceed carefully and examine the unintended consequences of our actions now – which are more the product of a reaction to present political frustrations than they are of the pursuit of Liberty.

    Trust in the people is only half the story of a Liberal Party campaigning for Liberal Democracy.

  • Ruth Coleman-Taylor 11th Sep '18 - 1:34pm

    The main reason why people are not flocking to join us is that they haven’t a clue what we stand for. For years the party has been running scared of annoying the public and putting people off. Take the EU: we pride ourselves on being the most pro-European party but you wouldn’t guess that from much of the literature Lib Dems put out. There have even been Euro-election leaflets which barely mentioned the E-word because Europe was regarded as toxic by the Powers-That-Be. Was it really such a big surprise that people didn’t get our message in the referendum?
    If we actually went out there campaigning for Liberal principles, I expect we would get into a lot of arguments but we would start to attract the radical activists we need. Trudeau and his party earned their surge in support by talking about Liberal principles and policies and, yes, by upsetting some voters, but they inspired many more.
    We don’t need new principles. We don’t need dodgy policies that avoid upsetting the voters who will never support us anyway. We don’t need a new way of signing up to the party. We need to get out there and fight for what we believe.

  • Sue Sutherland 11th Sep '18 - 1:46pm

    I agree with Jennie that we need bold inspiring policies not fudges but unfortunately the way the policy making system works in our party means we aren’t going to get them and I don’t think a supporters scheme is going to result in fresh thinking and inspiration either.
    I think Ed is right that we need more membership involvement in policy making and at an earlier stage but unfortunately our leaders have well and truly put the cart before the horse with Vince’s proposals. I had great hopes of Your Liberal Britain because they were consulting members about our core beliefs and I hoped this would inform our policy making but this seems to have died out, or maybe it’s just resting.
    When I joined the SDP, one member one vote was something to shout about, even though it wasn’t quite accurate, now it’s become old hat except for the Tories of course. We saw in Coalition that our leaders could go off in a direction that members didn’t want. First of all we need a change so that members can express what they want and I like Ed’s idea of using new technology to achieve this. So we could consult about whether or not we agree with austerity, what kind of policies do we want, bold and radical or a fudge that might encourage some undecided Tories and Labour to vote for us? Do we want to portray the sort of society Lib Dems want in our policies or do we want to tinker around the status quo? This would at least give policy working groups a bit of a steer so they didn’t think they had to accept austerity for example, that those working on proposals for the economy would come up with ways to fund their ideas.
    I have M.E. which means that every day I operate under a heavy fog. Unfortunately I see my beloved party doing the same thing, except for the enthusiasm of many Newbies who’ve taken to campaigning like the proverbial quacking bird. Other Newbies don’t know how to get involved. I’m an Oldbie but I don’t know the ins and outs of the mysterious workings of our party, which professes to be a bottom up organisation in favour of enabling the individual to make decisions about their own lives, but which in fact seems to be led by a group of people who most of the time don’t value and cultivate their own grass roots.

  • Sue Sutherland 11th Sep '18 - 1:59pm

    I’ve just read Adam Knights’ post in which he says he wants to build a movement that puts citizens and communities at the heart of politics. I thought our party wanted to do just that so wonder why he didn’t join us.
    A new way of working means that we should be putting members and communities of members ( our Lib Dem groups) at the heart of our political party. Our structures and decision making processes must represent this or we won’t succeed. It’s a new way of working for a political party which could turn into a movement practicing those ideals in central and local government.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Sep '18 - 2:17pm

    The party has a need to be open to new ideas.

    I was very involved in the old to new Labour project. As a young member of the Fabian Society, I and colleagues, received national coverage for our attempt after Blair revitalised Clause Four, at an alteration of their one hundred year old rules of ideology and entry.

    At a national meeting , I proposed that we change the words, “the society consists of socialists,” to ” the society consists of democratic socialists, social democrats and progressives.” Tony Wright mp, the chair, summing up my motion, against it though he was, ” what does it mean, are we to, for instance, admit, Liberals?!!!!”

    My answer was…why not?! Derek Draper came over to say well done, !!!

    We need to be careful by can be adventurous.

    Ironic to be in favour of a change in leader mechanisms, and as one who has supported the changes Sir Vince calls for since before he did, we have four leaders in embryonic stage, in my opinion, all up to it ,Messrs, Davy,Swinson, Moran….and Brake!

  • I don’t often visit here anymore, much less say anything. However I must, as a former Lib Dem voter and supporter, voice what most of us ex-supporters are thinking: a party that does not demonstrate that it has learnt the error of its ways and understood why it alienated millions of people will struggle to rebuild itself. It’s all down to one word: trust.

    I do actually suspect that Vince know’s that the Lib Dem brand cannot be saved, hence his comment about the Lib Dems “not precious” about changing the Party name. I am sure this is the start of the re-invention of the Lib Dems as a totally different party, uncontaminated by its conduct in government.

  • innocent Bystander 11th Sep '18 - 9:00pm

    “increase taxation by 5p in the pound not 1p!);”
    Why not 100p? It would raise all the money you need?

  • Christopher Clayton 12th Sep '18 - 8:05am

    A very good article by Ed Davey suggesting practical changes to widen involvement and influence within the party. I would add that a crucial additional ingredient for political success is a passionate, charismatic leader, who is a superlative public platform performer, unafraid to challenge both the public with what needs to be said and done but also the existing members, some of whom do not like any challenge to their own sense of hegemony and fixed ideas. It is remarkable that only one of the previous comments here makes explicit thanks for the ideas Ed Davey has put forward. Could you be that leader Ed?
    Certainly not thè current incumbent, previous challengers and others often spoken of within the current parliamentary party, in my opinion

  • innocent Bystander 11th Sep ’18 – 9:00pm…“increase taxation by 5p in the pound not 1p!);”……Why not 100p? It would raise all the money you need?………………………..

    Why not, indeed! In June 2016 a survey, by ‘This is’ found that, among the raft of high-earners, nearly 50,000 make over £1,000,000 p.a.
    That would be a good threshold for 100% tax.

  • Peter Hirst 12th Sep '18 - 3:07pm

    We need to engage those people who think politics for ten or so minutes a day while commuting or standing at the school gates. They don’t understand the minutia of policy but they do understand how changes effect them and their families. Give them some radical though progressive policies and explain them in a way they understand and they’ll be eternally grateful.

  • Whilst I didn’t like some of the decisions made by Lib Dems in government and certainly think the party needs to make clear that it has learned from those mistakes, there is a real problem about the simplistic idea of just rejecting everything done in coalition.
    Put simply it would stop the party ever joining another coalition government. If the party is ever to grow again it will not be from where we are now to a Lib Dem Government at a stroke. Somewhere along the line it will be necessary to join with others to form a government. No coalition can avoid some compromises so it might be a lot better use of brain power to discuss how we could avoid the pitfalls and banana skins that tripped us up in 2010-2015.

  • Anyone can call their party a movement. A real movement has a clear idea of where it’s going. I do find among activists a large degree of agreement on basic values and our characteristic approach to politics (there are arguments, but that’s constructive). However, I’m not convinced we’ve communicated this enough among current fairly inactive members, let alone potential supporters. I’m also not sure it’s adequately reflected in our policies or our self-generated publicity.

    I’m in favour of a supporters’ scheme with the power to vote for the Leader, provided safeguards against entryism are adequate (which they’re not in Vince’s model), but a Movement of Moderates? That’s a recipe for not changing anything if it’s awkward.

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