Malcom Bruce writes….Vince’s reforms help us to become insurgent challengers

I fully understand why the party leadership is consulting on ideas to broaden our support.

I am a lifelong Liberal and want our party to be founded on Liberal values. But I never want it to be a purist sect.

I also understand the concerns that offering free association to registered supporters might devalue party membership.

However membership confers the knowledge that we are offering core funding to the party and we can help shape policy and stand for and participate in internal elections and become an election candidate.

I believe we have to be realistic. Our support has fallen to single figures in spite of standing united for what at least 40 per cent of voters want on Brexit.

We all know that the high levels of support for the two larger parties is mostly based on the negative reality of our outdated voting system.

While both have core support around half of their voters are motivated by fear and hatred of “the other lot”.

So Conservative voters are in fear or hatred of the prospect of a Communist-led Labour Government or, in large parts of Scotland, sick fed up with the indy-obsessive incompetent SNP.

Many Labour voters are sick of the self-serving, arrogant, selfish xenophobia of the current Government and want rid of them.

For these voters the Liberal Democrats are a weak irrelevance and an indulgence they cannot afford even if they recognise we more closely identify with their own views.

Yes, where we can connect in local by elections and the few constituencies where we retain credibility we can cut through, but to take us back to where we were, let alone  break through to Government, requires us to become insurgent challengers ready to take on all comers and unite the voices of reason.

Of course we need relevant policies on health, education, building a fair and inclusive economy and supporting diversity.

In Scotland we need to project an inclusive Liberal nationalism to give Scotland a positive identity within the UK rather than the whingeing, grievance- based negativity of the SNP. Everywhere we beed to promote local decision making.

But who cares if we cannot be seen as winners?

So let me address two issues.

1. Allowing the leader to come from outside Parliament and be elected by members and supporters.
2. The role of supporters in selecting candidates.

Taking the first. If we were a new party our leader would necessarily be drawn from outside Parliament. With only 12 MPs our pool is small – with no disrespect to the quality of our team.

By broadening eligibility for leadership we may discover, fresh, different and charismatic talent that might strike a chord with voters – not least offering an appeal from outside the perceived Westminster bubble.

It Is absolutely clear that all candidates must be party members. I support fast tracking as long as vetting is rigorous.

I also believe that supporters should sign a basic commitment to the party’s core values.

So what is the role of supporters? I believe it is to strengthen our base on the ground and help with campaigning. We have supporters who vote for us and often help deliver leaflets, attend events and contribute to fundraising.

Enabling such supporters to elect our leader or select candidates will firm up their commitment to the party.

It is very sad and disappointing to me to see our support in my part of Scotland has fallen to fourth place – having been first or second in almost every election for the past 100 years.

I want us to find a way back as quickly as possible before voters who supported us for years completely forget the habit.

Tactical voting doesn’t work from fourth place. Building back from scratch takes several elections as Ray Michie knew and Ming Campbell can testify.

Neither we nor the country can afford to wait that long.

Look, if we choose to select candidates in Gordon, West Aberdeenshire, the Borders and sadly quite a few other once great strongholds across England and Wales, this will be done by a small number of members and with almost no public interest.

By contrast, if we seek to choose a candidate involving registered supporters we may generate some excitement akin to a US Primary.

This may attract candidates who would otherwise not put themselves forward for election. It might lead to a higher profile process capturing the imagination of former Lib Dem voters and disillusioned tactical voters from other parties.

From being the rejected former incumbents we become, once again, reinvigorated challengers.

Many people, including a lot of Lib Dems voted Tory at the last election in Gordon because they wanted rid of Salmond and the SNP. The Tories persuaded then that they were the means to do it.

At the same time, anti Tory Lib Dems voted SNP because they thought we had lost our way and they wanted to stop the Tories.

We need to generate the excitement which can reconnect our former voters and draw in new ones.

Allowing new members to be candidates and supporters to help choose them might be just the juice we need to become insurgent challengers in former strongholds and new breakthrough seats.

Editor’s Note: The consultation on party reforms is open until 14th October and you can take part online here. 

There are also nine consultation events taking place over the next couple of weeks around the country. Details are here. 

* Malcolm Bruce was the Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon until 2015 and was Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats from 2014-15. He led the Scottish Party from 1988-92 and is now a member of the House of Lords.

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21 Comments

  • Michael Cole 28th Sep '18 - 2:01pm

    I am not against breaking with tradition and electing a leader who is not an MP, but we have to bear in mind the difficulties involved in leading the Party from outside the Westminster chamber.

    “We all know that the high levels of support for the two larger parties is mostly based on the negative reality of our outdated voting system.” Yes, FPTP inevitably involves the choice between the lesser of two evils. Why are we no longer actively campaigning for voting reform ?

  • Richard Underhill 28th Sep '18 - 2:41pm
  • Richard Underhill 28th Sep '18 - 2:52pm

    Could a member of the House of Lords be leader? If so would hereditary peers be allowed to stand? Lord Halifax did not become PM. There was “an abler man”.

  • OnceALibDem 28th Sep '18 - 4:06pm

    “By contrast, if we seek to choose a candidate involving registered supporters we may generate some excitement akin to a US Primary.”

    Many (most?) US primaries don’t generate much excitement. And those that do usually involve candidates who have (or less commonly are able to raise) substantial amounts of money. With tight spending controls you won’t get any excitement, without it’s largely a free run for those with wealth.

  • Lord Rosebery was a Liberal Prime Minister – and an hereditary peer. He made a complete hash of it – though, as with the Coalition – one lives in hope that the vast majority of the electorate will forget about it.

  • Lord Rosebery is a warning to us all! Seriously though, the crucial issue is to what extent do we have to compromise with the political media’s cosy relationship with the Westminster Parliament. It goes with us being one of the most centralised states in Europe. Even if Ruth Davidson wanted to be Tory Leader she would struggle with establishment assumptions that have more to do with geography than sexuality! I think having our Local Government Association Leader as Party Leader could be quite healthy. That is not a comment about the present holder of the post but the alternative take on the country that goes with it.

  • Malcolm talks a lot of sense here on many levels. Lib Dem lack of significant upsurge in polls is mostly due to being seen as a weak irrelevance in most areas. In the May 2018 local elections where Lib Dems were clearly strong and relevant they had big wins (Cheltenham, Richmond, Kingston, S Cambs). In my opinion perceived lack of relevance is a much bigger factor than record in coalition government.

  • I was OK with this till we got to ” Our support has fallen to single figures” which is 6 Months out of date. How much effort does it take to keep up with Polling ?
    In fact our Polling has been rising since the Spring Is now averaging between 10% & 11%. In terms of both Polling & our showing in Local byelections we are doing better than we have in 18 Months & are on the cusp of getting back to our performance of 7 Years ago. Its frustrating that our recovery has been so slow but lets not talk ourselves down.

  • Old Liberal 29th Sep '18 - 1:50am

    Malcolm, You say “By contrast, if we seek to choose a candidate involving registered supporters we may generate some excitement akin to a US Primary.” On the other hand it is much more likely to be seen as another desperate attempt by a nondescript party whose leading figures will do anything other than face up to the fact that they totally squandered the one chance they had to make a difference by proving that once in power they broke promises just like the rest.

    The activists who gave you this chance have seen six years of you and your ilk kicking the can along the road on the off chance something will turn up. Well it hasn’t and it won’t until someone has the courage to admit that he or she totally messed up and destroyed their inheritance whether it be in you or Vince or Tim or Nick or Jo.

    Until then, I see nothing more than continuing irrelevance, periodic further decline and the total loss of our party as a parliamentary force in the UK. However, based on the evidence of the past few years, I won’t hold my breath for any real response or change.

  • Sue Sutherland 29th Sep '18 - 1:00pm

    Our party has recruited a huge number of members recently so why does the leadership think having a lot of supporters will invigorate the party if they think those new members haven’t? The problem lies with the culture of the party which doesn’t support our avowed commitment to community politics and bottom up decision making.
    Members need to be consulted at every level of decision making especially the ideas stage. This is the way to invigorate the party, to invert the power structure. Conference being the decision making body has lulled us into a false sense of democracy. We need our leaders to start valuing the members properly before we have a whole load of supporters feeling frustrated their message isn’t getting through as well.

  • OnceALibDem 29th Sep '18 - 2:40pm

    “I fully understand why the party leadership is consulting on ideas to broaden our support.”

    But that isn’t really an accurate description of Vince’s proposals. They are to give existing supporters a greater role with the party. That won’t really do much to increase the support base – though it may deepen the commitment of existing supporters.

    No-where in the country is someone thinking, I’d vote LIb Dem if only they allowed non-MPs to become leader.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Sep '18 - 3:12pm

    Good to read this very sensible piece from Lord Bruce who I have liked for years as a voice of pragmatic and mainstream views.

    I agree with these reforms.

    By the comments of our most wise and humane of commentators often, Sue above, she has a point.

    Maybe we should combine both and see what is wrong.

    The selection of mayoral and parliamentary election candidates depends on being on a national list.

    The panel is made up of the activists who decide on suitability not based on service or record or anything initially other than some absurd and arbitrary notion of suitability on the day of the so called workshop.

    I have led and taught it must be so very many workshops, confidence building, presentation, assertiveness.

    The notion that I refer to thus is nonsense and the party needs to do what our American relatives do, have proper local democracy, every member of a years standing should now be able to submit themselves for consideration as a candidate at every level and run a mini campaign only on a very small budget, to persuade fellow members in said area.

    It is referred to often as something called democracy and is the noun we stand for.

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 29th Sep '18 - 4:50pm

    Lorenzo Cherin

    I agree to a point in particular:

    “The panel is made up of the activists who decide on suitability not based on service or record or anything initially other than some absurd and arbitrary notion of suitability on the day of the so called workshop.

    I have led and taught it must be so very many workshops, confidence building, presentation, assertiveness.

    The notion that I refer to thus is nonsense and the party needs to do what our American relatives do, have proper local democracy, every member of a years standing should now be able to submit themselves for consideration as a candidate at every level and run a mini campaign only on a very small budget, to persuade fellow members in said area.

    It is referred to often as something called democracy and is the noun we stand for.”

    However, the track record, services or even suitability is necessary, like you say, but most crucially a personality that speaks widely on most levels is important, those who are, are only own known among ourselves within in the party. Currently, we have weak local publicity surrounding a candidate profile until when elections occur, it has to be a campaign that is 24/7 364 days, a strong presence. it need not have to run on a controversial platform to get noticed, but among the community/city wide it definitely needs to work with strong agents doing their thing for mayoral campaigns publicity when and where it counts in future.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Sep '18 - 5:18pm

    Mavarine

    A good response, and lovely to have one from you, used to enjoy your comments here , not seen you as often recently.

    I think you are right, there are aspects to be very keen on in our party now, excellent local hard working campaigners. My believing in individuals and togetherness, is not quite what is seen, the party believing in committees and lists.

    Every person should have the chance to say, I want to stand, in any area, and members decide their suitability, at hustings, whether three are there or three thousand!

    We should , as I was standing for council, be interviewd only by the appointed person, to look over a form, which shows a lack of a criminal record, and no likely scandals building up, ie no corruption or illegalities in the offing.

    The national approved system is illiberal undemocratic, elitist outdated and does not sit with the increasingly innovative Sir Vince’s ideas.

  • OnceALibDem 29th Sep '18 - 9:58pm

    “The notion that I refer to thus is nonsense and the party needs to do what our American relatives do, have proper local democracy, every member of a years standing should now be able to submit themselves for consideration as a candidate at every level and run a mini campaign only on a very small budget, to persuade fellow members in said area.”

    This is not the American system. You don’t need to be a member, primaries are not of party members (many states don’t have partisan registration) and campaigns are very much not on a small budget!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Sep '18 - 11:18pm

    Oncealibdem

    I want us here to do better, and sighing about us not being America, isn’t my point, why say what we do not share with them, I try to be more constructive and give a description of what we should do in the same way.

    They have , without big money, strong democracy local areas in charge of their processes, individuals count there, you can by your own or with a few friends , get a small campaign off the ground, attract media, and votes.

    Here, party elites, committees, restrictions even without getting out of the start gate, sorry, not for me to be judged by them, but by the electorate, party or public voters.

  • Malcom Bruce, We all know that the high levels of support for the two larger parties is mostly based on the negative reality of our outdated voting system….While both have core support around half of their voters are motivated by fear and hatred of “the other lot”…………….

    Do we all know these ‘facts’? I don’t.

    ……………….. With only 12 MPs our pool is small – with no disrespect to the quality of our team…………………

    But that is exactly how it will be seen; as a ‘gimmick’ in “a small party lacking in talent”.

    …………..I also believe that supporters should sign a basic commitment to the party’s core values………..
    Just a quick ‘Google’ gives our ‘core values as…”to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”. Would any other party deny that those are ‘their’ values?
    As for signing up? When I used to visit the USA I was asked to sign a questionnaire regarding my, “Advocating the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or subversion”; I’m sure that question trapped all potential ‘baddies’.

    Regarding your, “We need to generate the excitement which can reconnect our former voters and draw in new ones.”?
    Our past adventure with Lord Rosebery has been mentioned. Perhaps, to generate excitement, our 12 MP could wear our leader’s face on T-shirts and chant “Ohhh Lord Rosebery “at every opportunity?

  • It’s worth looking at this polling from YouGov on the policies which people feel least represented by the main parties:
    1) The justice system not harsh enough
    2) Immigration restrictions should be tighter
    3) Britain should not militarily intervene in other countries
    4) Government should regulate big business more
    5) The benefits system is too generous
    https://yougov.co.uk/news/2018/08/01/where-most-fertile-ground-new-party/

    The fertile ground for a new party may not be the centrist Pro-EU grouping people think.

  • John Littler 30th Sep '18 - 6:14pm

    A lot of people on the progressive side believe that the LibDems have no policies, because they have not been published in newspapers.

  • Oncealibdem
    I think some of this cuts to the heart of the real crisis for liberalism. Or at least liberalism of the centrist variety. By and large people do not really have ideological positions that adhere to party political ones. The biggest factors in how you vote are your upbringing, where you live and what your income is. Politics is a reflection of mostly local culture and circumstance rather than the ideological purity of the big picture. This means that it is innately small c conservative rather than radical because people seem to want to protect what they have and make small improvements to personal wellbeing above advancement in the broad sweep of history. In short people are a bit tribal even when they think they have transcended tribalism.

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