Opinion: Could we have a #libdemfightback conference, please?

On 16 May 2010, 10 days after the general election, the Lib Dems organised a special conference to debate the Coalition Agreement. It was put together in four days.

As Duncan Brack, then Chair of the Federal Conference Committee put it “In holding this special conference we are demonstrating again that we are a democratic party which listens to and trusts its members.”  It also gave the impression of a party which is nimble enough to react swiftly to major developments.

On the morning after the general election on 7 May 2015, I woke up to the sad news that we no longer had a Lib Dem MP, the Parliamentary party had been decimated to just 8 and Nick Clegg was announcing his resignation. The perspective that the Conservatives had been given enough MPs to inflict their darkest, illiberal whims on the country for the next five years was even worse.

On Facebook, Mark Pack posted the news that the new Lib Dem leader will be elected by July. Yes, I thought, we do need a new leader to fight this situation urgently.

However, the Facebook conversation revealed a problem which had not occurred to me before. The party Constitution, formulated when there were 6/7 times more Lib Dem MPs than today, insists that “Nominations must be of a Member of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons, …”.

As Shirley Williams pointed out and Tom Brake confirmed from his experience in Carshalton and Wallington, the Conservatives appear to have applied a ‘decapitation strategy’ targeting leading Lib Dem MPs in the Coalition Government. In this perspective, some members argued, should the party leader only come from among the party’s MPs?

After all, the newly enlarged SNP, the Greens, UKIP or Plaid Cymru all have leaders who are not MPs. Other arguments included:

  • The national result being so much worse than expected surely calls for more than a business as usual approach.
  • To be honest only Conservatives and Labour, now have the luxury of being able to appoint a leader from their own parliamentary parties.
  • A coronation for whoever would be a disaster
  • To allow for a more diverse (race, age, gender) set of candidates
  • To use the position as leader to build a public profile, 9 Lib Dems in the media spotlight is better than 8.

And yet, since the general election on 7 May, there are over 20% more Lib Dem members. Shouldn’t we have a #libdemfightback special conference before the 3 June close of nominations for the party leader?

For this timeframe, such a conference would need to be called by the Federal Executive or the Federal Policy Committee. An obvious debate would be whether or not to change the Constitution to allow any member to be nominated as a leader. The changes are minimal:

  • Article 10.5 would need to begin “Nominations must be of a member, who must be proposed by at least ten percent of members of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons …”
  • Article 9.1 would need to be adapted accordingly to say that the Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons “shall be the Leader of the Party elected as provided in Article 10, if the Leader of the Party is a Member of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons.”

Of course, such a change to the party constitution would usually need at least six weeks’ notice. However, it could be argued that the six-week rule should not apply to a special conference about such a change. Otherwise, the party would never be nimble enough to react to major political developments.

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  • I think a #libdemfightback conference is a great idea.

    Not only for choosing a party leader as described above, but for also tapping into the energy thats been pouring into the party from new and old members alike.

    Discussing the leadership and the needs of the party in the coming months are more effectively and efficiently done under one roof, as oppose to lots of small debates on occurring all at once on various platforms.

  • How would this be funded?

  • Shouldn’t be too difficult to organise a ‘conference’ – given the use of hashtags for the campaign, I don’t see the need for a ‘traditional’ conference where as has been discussed previously on LDV the majority of members don’t attend and are not democratically represented…

  • Obhi Chatterjee 21st May '15 - 9:21am

    @Thomas: Thanks! Absolutely.

    @William: Presumably, since everyone was expecting a hung parliament, there was a budget for a special conference to discuss a negotiated coalition agreement. That was before 11,000-odd new members joined … .

    @Roland: Completely agree. However, I don’t think the current Constitution envisages a virtual conference. The party has conference reps selected by local parties who are the ones able to vote at ‘traditional’ conferences.

  • Yes!

    A great idea, and one that as you say would allow us to really capitalise on the energy coming through from our new members.

    Why need we wait until September, and follow the usual and somewhat tired format of Autumn conference; to long and too set-piece staid IMHO. If a large-scale conference isn’t possible then we could look at a series of regional ones, with the same debates and questions being posed at each, and the combined responses and ideas being brought together to help shape the parties future and strategies for the coming Parliamentary session.

    Having just posted on the discussion about ‘Tim or Norman’ I do like the idea, ‘a la the Greens’, of having a non-Parliamentary party leader.

  • Rather than a formal, centrally organised, Special Conference, let’s just all get together over the bank holiday weekend?

    Where’s convenient for everyone?

  • Great idea!

  • matt (Bristol) 21st May '15 - 5:20pm

    Even if we don’t have such a conference, I would switch my vote for the leadership candidate who commits eplxicitly upfront to campaigning for the above rule changes (of coure they cannot bring them about in themselves, which would be unconstitutional).

  • Neil Sandison 22nd May '15 - 1:42pm

    Why are you all thinking in such a conventional way ?
    Try thinking outside of the box of a conference centre .Why not have a Liberal Pheonix in the Park event over the summer open to all members and supporters .plenty of other organisations have had similar events.

  • Now that all the Liberal Democrat MEPs and MPs can fit into a mini-bus why not drive them round the country in a permanent “rolling conference” of pubs recommended by Gareth Epps and Greg Mulholland.

    This could continue for the next five years non-stop with occasional trips to Westminster when the need arises.

  • Even if we don’t have such a conference, I would switch my vote for the leadership candidate who commits eplxicitly upfront to campaigning for the above rule changes (of coure they cannot bring them about in themselves, which would be unconstitutional).

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