No Vince, I don’t want a “Gina Miller-type figure” parachuted in to be our leader (and it’s not worth a special conference)

Norbreck Castle hotel (northern section), Blackpool - DSC06518
The Norbreck Castle Hotel, Blackpool. It was here in 1988 that a special Liberal party conference was held to decide to merge the party with the SDP*

One of the frustrating things about the debate over Vince’s two constitutional proposals** is that I am yet to hear Vince come out and actually outline why they are needed. This is maddening. It is especially maddening because I greatly respect Vince and normally he is very good at articulating ideas and proposals.

Instead, we have vague “smoke and mirrors” mutterings about somebody out there circling the political scene with a vast shedload of money which they want to chuck at a “centre movement”. We have got to pull up our socks and be part of this “movement”. And we only have two months to do it, because otherwise we’ll miss the boat and the shedload of cash will go to someone else. We’ve got to be like Justin Trudeau and the Canadian Liberals. We need to allow someone like Gina Miller to come in and lead the party so that people see us as a new centrist movement.

Well, this is all vague nonsense. Vince, or someone, should come out and be specific about all this. Who is this person (or people) with the money? What do they want? Name the people who could be our leader outside of the House of Commons – not just now – name anyone in the last fifty years outside the Commons who could have had a shot at being our leader.

Past and current leaders of the Liberal Democrats have had great difficulty themselves leading the Liberal Democrats and its predecessors. We are the awkward squad – we even have tee-shirts declaring it! Our procedures and structures are labyrinthine. Our culture of scrutiny of policy and procedures are enough to bring any outside business manager to tears. Expecting someone who has recently arrived in the party to understand and navigate all this is unrealistic.

The idea that someone “like Gina Miller” (and I apologise to Gina Miller for using her name in this respect but she is the very name that has been mentioned in hushed tones) can be parachuted in to be party leader is nonsense. It just won’t happen.

To build a “movement” we need to be looking at the excellent model that was used to effect change in Scotland after 1997. The Scottish Constitutional Convention was an association of Scottish political parties, churches and other civic groups. It was remarkably broad and co-operative and led to the Scottish Parliament.

And I agree with Richard Kemp and others that a special conference in January would be absolutely ludicrous. Clinically insane. I am just so enraged that it might be a possibility that I can hardly articulate sensible words about it. A waste of money. A vast, weapons-grade distraction from the real issues. It would be a national embarrassment. Such a debate could easily be done at the Spring Conference.

Updated 23/10/18 00:36 I have changed the word “wonga” to “money” – thank you to those who educated me in the derogatory connotations of the word “wonga”. Every day is a learning day!

*Jonathan Calder wrote of the 1988 special conference: “Blackpool’s Norbreck Castle Hotel does not lift the spirit at the best of times, and in January 1988 its Soviet ambience was enhanced by the trams and melting snow in the streets outside.” The conference itself was held in the part of the hotel known as the “Norcalympia Exhibition Hall”.

**The two constitutional proposals are to 1) allow supporters to vote for the party leader and 2) allow people who are not an MP to be nominated to be leader. These two proposals are separate from the proposal by the Federal People Development Committee to start a supporters’ scheme.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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37 Comments

  • Agree 100%

  • Martyn Wilson 22nd Oct '18 - 11:48am

    As someone who was at the Norberto, I also agree 100%

  • Can I first say that I am not a member of the LD Party and I do not vote for them. (Sorry I wanted to add that to start with so there are no misconceptions at all.)

    I would like to express two thoughts if I might, both brief, and both pertinent to try and help the party see things from an ‘outsiders’ point of view.

    I totally agree with the author of this article about how such a ‘Special Conference’ will be seen by the general electorate.

  • David Evershed 22nd Oct '18 - 11:53am

    There are no barriers to anyone joining the Libral Democrats as a member.

    There is no need to have a ‘supporter’ section.

  • Peter Watson 22nd Oct '18 - 11:59am

    “We have got to pull up our socks and be part of this “movement”.”
    From the outside, it looks as if these proposals are designed to facilitate the Lib Dems being hitched to somebody else’s new “centrist movement” rather than to lead one.

    Also, with regards to a special conference, it makes the party appear very inward looking at a time when it needs to be very outward looking (Brexit, possible general election, definite local elections, etc.). This might make sense if this new “centrist movement” is planning an immediate impact on Brexit and these elections, but if that is the case there should be more openness and less furtive secrecy.

  • William Fowler 22nd Oct '18 - 12:04pm

    There are two incredibly important things on the agenda. staying in the EU and making sure a Marxist Labour govn is not elected – either will be an economic disaster; both together will make the ruination of Venezuela look like amateur hour… in that context, much more important to arm and load whatever the LibDems become than moan about the changes. An alternative would be for Sir Vince to step down and let the new leader stand in his seat, sure Vince would appreciate a holiday in the sun.

  • Phil Beesley 22nd Oct '18 - 12:51pm

    Paul Walter: “Name the people who could be our leader outside of the House of Commons – not just now – name anyone in the last fifty years outside the Commons who could have had a shot at being our leader.”

    Dunno, Paul. In the 1980s Harriet Harman was a prominent defender of civil liberties and observers expected her to front the “liberal tendency” in the Labour Party, but it never happened. People don’t always turn out to be the type we expect.

  • I am doubtful about having a non-MP as a leader. But we do as a party trust the people and shouldn’t it be their say and choice – our members and/or registered supporters? Many parties in the Commons (SNP, Greens, DUP etc.) do have non-MPs as leader.

  • How about Justin Trudeau? Would he be interested in the job?

  • paul barker 22nd Oct '18 - 1:23pm

    The thing that I find most frustrating about the current situation is that there is a move which could transform British Politics within a few Months. If the small group of Centrist Labour MPs who have, allegedlly, given up on Labour were to actually leave, either to join us or to form their own Party, in alliance with us, that really could break the logjam.
    However, I dont see how the proposed Constitutional change to allow a Leader from outside Parliament is relevant to that possibility.
    The 12 Month time-limit is obviously a barrier to someone like Chuka Ummuna becoming our Leader within a few Months but that would strike me as more relevant if he actually joined us. Is that likely ?

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Oct '18 - 2:20pm
  • Richard Underhill 22nd Oct '18 - 2:28pm

    “The Norbreck Castle Hotel, Blackpool. It was here in 1988 that a special Liberal party conference was held to decide to merge the party with the SDP*”
    a special Liberal Party Assembly was held to merge the party with most of the SDP.
    Dr David Owen later used the front page of the Mail on Sunday to urge some of his supporters to vote Tory in the 1992 general election, although he did not do so himself.

  • Jenny barnes 22nd Oct '18 - 2:30pm

    It w,ould be a socialist labour government. It would be good if people stopped using { Marxist } as a general bogey word and used it correctly as a description of a method of analysing society in terms of class relations. Would you rather another 5 years of the incompetent shower in government now.? Aka vote ld get a tory.

  • Jayne Mansfield 22nd Oct '18 - 2:43pm

    @ Jenny Barnes,

    I fear that the answer to your question is yes they would.

    A government that is not only incompetent, but has MEPs and a cabinet minister who cannot bring themselves to censure the fascist leader of Hungary for his behaviour.

  • nvelope2003 22nd Oct '18 - 4:30pm

    Please name the Liberal Democrat MP who would inspire large numbers of people to vote for the party at an election.
    Go on ! Name them !

  • William Fowler
    I think you have a totally unreasonable view of a potential Corbyn / McDonnell government. I think the likelihood of it going down Venezuelan (or at least Maduro ) lines is very small indeed. We may be called on to cooperate with such a Government, and we should be ready to do so, and not totally burn our boats by making adolescent comments like that.

  • Alex Macfie 22nd Oct '18 - 5:13pm

    Jenny barnes, Jayne Mansfield: Lib Dems refused to prop up the Tories after the last election, even though the parliamentary arithmetic allowed for it. There can be no doubt that the Tories would have preferred to form an arrangement with us than the DUP, a party they cannot so easily shaft (due to its detachment from mainland British politics). And we would refuse to do a deal with them again if the next election resulted in a hung parliament. We would also refuse to deal with Labour under its present leadership — currently our attitude is “plague on both their houses”. Therefore, it’s Vote Lib Dem, Get Lib Dem.

    William Fowler: I think the Twickenham Lib Dem party will have its own ideas about whom it might put up as candidate when Vince retires. Local party members would not take kindly to having someone foisted on them, and nor would the electorate. Whereas the two big parties can (sometimes) get away with parachuting people into seats, we definitely cannot. And if Vince were to stand down mid-term to make way for this new leader, then it would likely result in the first by-election loss in a previously held seat by the Lib Dems or any of our predecessor parties since 1982.

    nvelope2003: Name a non-MP who would do the same.

  • Peter Watson 22nd Oct '18 - 5:33pm

    @nvelope2003 “Please name the Liberal Democrat MP who would inspire large numbers of people to vote for the party at an election.”
    A similar challenge would be to find a Liberal Democrat non-MP who could make people want to re-elect those uninspiring MPs!

  • nigel hunter 22nd Oct '18 - 8:29pm

    . We should be putting all our efforts into WINNING more Councillors in May. Associate member business should be planned for AFTER May elections The canvassing etc can discover possible supporters before/after May who can then be approached. Do it as a test/sample in certain areas to see how it goes they can then be approached if we must have the rigmarole To me we should be aiming to WIN in May to build up the party and get noticed

  • History is useful here; as some of you will remember, our 1987 General Election campaign was one of (in effect) 2 leaders, Steel and Owen, aka “The Two David’s”. The press made us look stupid by asking both the same question and, inevitably, getting different answers. Maybe we’d manage that better nowadays, but the press would still find a way to manufacture “Lib Dems SPLIT!!!” headlines. For any party serious about winning a significant number of Parliamentary seats, having 2 leaders, one in Parliament and one outside who was the “real” leader, would be a recipe for disaster.
    If in addition, we let anyone who said they supported us vote for our leader, we’d be wide open to some group, for political reasons or just for fun, running a campaign to get thousands of people to tick Supporter then elect someone who was far from being a Lib Dem, never mind being a suitable leader for our Party. Remember the power of the internet mob: someone called Boaty McBoatface could be our next Leader.
    N.B. Having a supporters’ scheme WITHOUT voting rights would be a good thing. They could be invited to local events, and consulted on policy, issues, priorities etc., so long as the actual policy decisions were still made by members at Conference. That way, supporters could play a useful part, participate, bring in new ideas, learn more about us and perhaps join, but not be open to exploitation by those who wish is harm.

  • John Marriott 23rd Oct '18 - 8:38am

    David Wright’s mentioning of the 1987 General Election campaign (the second in which I was actively involved) reminds me of the ‘send off’ outside 4 Cowley Street. Two gold campaign buses, one for Owen and one for Steel. A brief handshake, a few warm words from both gentlemen and then both climbed on board their respective coaches which departed symbolically on OPPOSITE directions!

    As regards the idea of a ‘Leader’ who doesn’t sit in the House of Commons, the immortal words of Brenda from Bristol come to mind. It’s surely better to save what meagre funds the party currently has to fight real campaigns. But I’ve forgotten we are talking about the Lib Dems who just LOVE such gatherings, just like they LOVE by elections. Talk beats action every time!

  • @David Wright

    Currently a candidate for leader “must be proposed by at least ten percent of other members of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons and supported by 200 members in aggregate in not less than 20 Local Parties.”

    Clearly we should keep those regulations or something similar.

    On the problems of having two “leaders” – a parliamentary one and a party one – that is obviously something for the party electorate to consider if the party were to agree it. But as well as the problems of the Alliance we do have some electorally very successful examples in the SNP and the DUP. And SOME if not all of the problems in the Alliance came from the fact that the two Davids were leaders of DIFFERENT political parties. Plus at the moment I would settle for 23%!

  • nvelope2003 23rd Oct '18 - 9:47am

    Tim13: Jeremy Corbyn supports the Venezuelan Socialists so why would he not want the same policies here ? Political leaders often conceal their plans under the guise of a moderate manifesto as they think that will lull the voters into voting for them when more radical changes might frighten them. David Cameron did this in the 2010 election and then introduced changes to, for example, the NHS, which they had promised not to do which is one of the reasons for the Liberal Democrat disaster in 2015. Lenin promised land for the peasants but he had no intention of giving it to them, at least in the form which they wanted. History is full of such examples.
    Corbyn’s shadow Chancellor has stated that compensation for shareholders of nationalised companies will be decided by Parliament after the election. If Labour has a majority of the seats this could allow them to refuse any compensation especially as we would be outside the EU by then. OK for some but not for those who depend on a pension invested in former private companies.

  • @Ian Sanderson (RM3)

    I of course appreciate the difference between parties that stand in only part of the UK and UK-wide parties. But it shows it can work and indeed work well but it may well be different for us as UK-wide party. And indeed the electorate are partly evaluating us on our “candidate” for PM. It is one of the reasons why I would be doubtful about supporting a non-MP. However one of the issues now is that there is greater number of elected positions including the devolved assemblies/parliaments but also mayors, council leaders etc.

    Arguably there are also a large number of people from charities, political activists, business leaders, trade union leaders, people in the media etc. etc. who could be highly effective leaders and our principal spokesperson.

    I think it has also worked relatively well for the Green Party – not necessarily having an MP as leader albeit with a minuscule parliamentary party. And their current joint “job share” leadership is working well IMHO.

    I am sceptical myself of a non-MP as leader and should there be such a contest I would need a lot of persuading by the non-MP candidate(s). But I also pretty sure that there are more than 12 people in this country that could lead the party successfully – and also have an effective relationship with the parliamentary leader. I may be naive but I am also a democrat and believe in the good sense of my fellow Lib Dems and arguably they should have widest potential choice. I have only once voted (as first preference) for the successful leadership candidate! But I would concede that my fellow Lib Dems have made not bad choices!

  • The problem for the party is not how it’s organised, who gets to lead it or whether it has both supporters and members. The problem is that it does not have a clear message or philosophy and much of what it says is just plain boring.

  • Alex Macfie: Peter Watson: Actually Gina Miller was very inspiring so such people do exist. Unfortunately she is not a Liberal Democrat or interested in the job and because of that the Party is unlikely to recover until someone like here emerges. I hope that I am wrong. I do find the hostility to her which seems to be expressed here more than a little alarming in fact quite depressing. This seems more like a clique than a serious political party.

  • Sorry Paul – you’re right of course. There’s another typo there too, even though I thought I’d checked it before posting. I wish LDV had an Edit feature to let you correct your post when you notice errors. As many other sites do nowadays.

  • paul barker 23rd Oct '18 - 2:30pm

    So what was decided last night ? It would be nice to know.

  • David Franks 23rd Oct '18 - 6:10pm

    Big thank you to Michael Meadowcroft. As so often (letters to The Guardian etc.) he has got it absolutely right.

  • Alex Macfie 23rd Oct '18 - 6:55pm

    Tim13: perhaps the more pertinent question regarding Corbyn-led Labour is whether would they be willing to co-operate with us. This is a Labour party that has been parking its tanks on our battlegrounds, and does not mind if the Tories win as a result. Reportedly Labour cheered when the Tories won Southport and Richmond Park from us at the last general election. This is not a Labour Party that plays nicely with others.

  • nvelope2003: I’ve nothing at all against Gina Miller But I don’t think that parachuting a celebrity into the party leader role would work. The party is not defined solely by its leader, it’s defined by its membership, its activists and the political system in which it operates. Whoever the leader is, will still have to work at building the party’s profile within the context of being the 4th party nationally, and against a media that tends to ignore it. Being well known outside party politics does not necessarily mean they will be able to do the specific role of leader. Look at Michael Ignatieff as Canadian Liberal leader. Also the Lib Dems have never done well in London Mayoral contests, even when we put forward someone well known as candidate.
    This is not France, where political parties are often built around personalities (and usually don’t survive said personalities, so it is unlikely that Macron’s party will outlast his leadership, for instance). Established party machines and local campaigning matter a lot more than big names.

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