Opinion: In coalition, more than ever, our leadership must listen to party members

lib dem conf votingThe Maria Miller furore has recently highlighted how voters between elections are powerless to change their MP, once they’re ‘in’ that’s it – you have to wait another five years to give your judgement on how they’ve performed.

In our ‘always on’ modern culture this is unusual. People can cancel utility contracts or switch broadband suppliers within days if they’re unhappy with the level of service, or give instant feedback online or over the phone which is listened to and actioned.  Shouldn’t we be able to do that with MPs, or political parties, or if enough of us agree entire governments?

The frustration over lack of feedback within our own party was clear in the comments to Caron’s post about the recent Liberal Democrats Members Survey.  Although I’m sure it was well intentioned, there was nowhere in the survey to voice concerns about policies being implemented in government. We are unique in that our members vote on policy and are involved in the creation of our election manifesto, but now we’re in government where decisions are sometimes made ‘on the hoof’ in response to changing events or negotiations with coalition partners our systems can’t keep up. I’m sure many of us remember Vince Cable’s ‘we can do better than a graduate tax’ email and the majority of us have been appalled by the implementation of the Bedroom Tax, but members have no ability to quickly give feedback on decisions being made by our leadership in our name, beyond motions at conference twice a year that may or may not get listened to.

Now we’re in government and policies are being ‘horse traded’ between the coalition parties we need a system of recall for our own leadership, where if enough of the membership voice concern over a policy the minister must publicly explain his or her actions, and if members are still unsatisfied alter the policy so it accurately reflects the views of the party. In extreme cases a Members Petition should have the power to block policies and force ministers to think again. Sure it will be messy and hard to implement, sometimes produce embarrassing results for the Leadership and it may weaken our position at the horse trading table, but it will ensure the party reflects the views of the grassroots membership who ultimately make the party what it is. Many will say it’s a recipe for anarchy, but I have faith in the intelligence of the members of this party that this powerful right of veto would only gather enough support in extreme situations and would not be invoked by the membership on a whim.

I passionately believe in the democratic decision making of the Liberal Democrats, but now we’re in government our systems must be able to respond rapidly to coalition policy changes and be fit for the ‘always on’ age we now live in. Maybe once we’ve got our own house in order we can roll out similar systems in government to rebuild trust between the electorate and a political class that is looking increasingly remote from the lives and concerns of the people they’re supposed to represent.

* Gareth Wilson is a Videogame Director turned Liberal Democrat activist who blogs here

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  • Paul Griffiths 25th Apr '14 - 12:46pm

    Article 2.5 of the Constitution: “No elected representative in any body in the Party shall be mandated.”

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Apr '14 - 1:00pm

    There is a clear problem with giving amateurs equal powers to specialists. We should elect our leaders who seek advice from specialists, or possibly elect specialists directly, not give amateurs binding votes on specialist topics.

  • Hi Eddie,

    You could argue amateurs are already given equal powers to specialists in that we propose and vote on policies at conference, influence what’s in our manifesto and vote for our leader. I think the amateurs do a pretty good job 🙂

    My worry really is that now we’re in government after years of opposition there’s a whole area of decision making around which Tory policies we support or which policies we compromise on that doesn’t have any input from the membership. Then there’s also feedback on how a policy that was agreed at conference is being implemented in the real world. How is the pupil premium doing? Is it working as planned? Does it need to be changed based on learnings from the real world? I’m sure this is all going on but from a member’s perspective its all very opaque beyond the occasional minister’s Q&A at conference.

    These things didn’t matter in opposition as the policies were never implemented or altered to fit get agreement in coalition. Now things we agree at conference are actually happening we need new systems that ensure these policies stay true to the values of the membership. I guess I’ m saying the amateurs should be able to stop the specialists doing the wrong thing now and again.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Apr '14 - 3:03pm

    Hi Gareth, I am sympathetic towards more democracy, but I prefer representative to direct democracy. Putting things like interest rates or foreign policy specifics to a public vote is asking for mistakes. I don’t believe in the monarchy, so I am just asking for representative democracy. 🙂

  • We should elect our leaders who seek advice from specialists, or possibly elect specialists directly, not give amateurs binding votes on specialist topics.

    But who is to elect the leaders or the specialists? Surely not amateurs?

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Apr '14 - 4:09pm

    Tim you make a good point, and so does Gareth, maybe it is because I trust the leader more than the grass roots, I just want more decisions made by professionals rather than amateurs. Amateurs can elect people, but ultimately the elected representatives need to be trusted to get on with it. As Paul Griffiths says, ‘no elected representative shall be mandated’.

  • David Allen 25th Apr '14 - 4:50pm

    The jibes about amateurism miss the point. This party was browbeaten into signing a premature coalition agreement. It turned out not to be worth the paper it was written on. It was then pushed rapidly through a Conference which failed to grasp the forthcoming tuition fee, NHS, education and welfare disasters which it concealed or glossed over. Our leaders sold us out for the sake of a shared right-wing ideology in some cases, for sheer careerism in others.

    Concerns about an internal party democracy which gives the unelected too much power are ludicrous, given that the reality is that they had no power whatsoever, and could not prevent their party being captured by the Clegg coup. (NB, for anyone who doesn’t know, the words “Clegg coup” come from one of its biggest supporters.) Of course, many have now left in disgust.

    Unless or until something like Gareth Wilson’s ideas are implemented, our party is unlikely to recover.

  • @Eddie
    No, you are talking about blind faith. Blind faith is always bad news in politics.
    Simply trusting those elected did not work for student fees, did it? Politics is more complicated than you make out and I think it pays to reognise this

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Apr '14 - 9:02pm

    Voter, it would be blind faith if our representatives were picked at random, but we’ve elected them, so it’s about trust.

  • Nixon was elected. Obama was elected. That makes them human and therefore fallible. The fact that a random process was not used is completely irrelevant

  • Eddie – So you trust the leader more than you trust the grassroots, who together have a massively wider understanding and wisdomm than any individual. A leader who has presided over and driven an organisation and strategy that has led the party to the brink of disaster through refusing to listen to the grass roots on so many occasions.

    You want more decisions made by professionals even though many do not subscribe to a liberal philosophy. Do you trust the community or is that just a nice phrase to have in the constitution? Do you believe in conformity, because that is the inevitable conclusion of your approach.

    You know, I’ll bet all the expert advice in 1950 was that id cards were an essential part of maintaining civil order in post war Britain, It took a liberal, Clarence Henry Willcock, to say “I am a Liberal and I am against this sort of thing”. Perhaps you need to say it a bit more often too.

  • Eddie Sammon 26th Apr '14 - 4:36pm

    Hi David, I think it is a case of having faith that the leader has access to expert advice. I used to be quite passionate about one member one vote on policy, but that kind of changednwhen at the conference on economic policy the Social Liberal Forum tried to pass an amendment for NGDP targeting. This is something I believe to be so immoral it should be criminal, as it is basically using the monopoly of the central bank to exploit the people and would erode the incomes of many pensioners. Of course, the Social Liberal Forum had the best intentions, but they fell for the misleading claims of the benefits of abandoning the inflation target.

    Maybe it was just a mistake and one member one vote on policy is still the best thing, I just lost a bit of faith in ill-informed people voting on technical issues after this got to a vote and no one in the debate prior seemed to understand it either. Or at least they didn’t use the best arguments against it.

    I don’t want non – Lib Dem professionals to make decisions, I just want their advice on technical issues and science to be sought.

    Sorry for the offence caused, I’ll try to think if I really mean something before I say it next time.

  • David Evans 26th Apr '14 - 6:42pm

    Point taken Eddie. We all express ourselves badly from time to time. I do it as well and if you pick me up on it, I will try top be as gracious as you in accepting it. But if I don’t it might just be a bad day. That will be my excuse and I will stick to it, even if expert weather men tell me it was wonderfully sunny! 🙂

  • David Allen 26th Apr '14 - 7:41pm

    Dave Page

    “There are various ways for the membership to hold the party’s ministers to account, including through the Federal Executive and through Q&As at Conference. I fear that a right of recall would effectively cripple our Ministers”

    The current “ways” are completely worthless, we see the leadership saying and doing just what it likes irrespective of what members or Conference say. However, too strong a “right of recall” would be wrong. How about a requirement that over 50% of the membership must call for any recall, by opting to vote online for it – and that this only triggers a short block on any decision to allow for open debate? That would not cripple anybody but it would give the party a real voice.

  • @ David Allen / David Page

    Something like the system you’re proposing David sounds like a good idea. I don’t want the party to be held to ransom by a small percentage of our membership. If the requirement was set high, say 50% of the membership only extremely controversial polices, tuition fees and the bedroom tax probably being the only two issues of this parliament that might come close to hitting this threshold

    David I also agree with the sentiment that it feels like ministers aren’t listening to conference. We recently voted to reform the bedroom tax. Besides Tim Farron the Leadership seem to be ignoring this at the moment. A recall vote on a policy would force it to be discussed and dealt with immediately. I’m sure Nick et al believe in party democracy, but our current systems lack teeth and its too easy to kick conference decisions into the long grass if they’re controversial.

  • Great discussion, I agree to some extent with most views here, even the ones that contradict others! It’s one of those topics where it’s pretty easy to find exceptions to someone elses rule, much harder to formulate exception-free rules yourself.

    I believe the structure of a party should be decoupled from its content and then examined vigorously for utilities such as integrity, democracy, transparency, accountability, plasticity, etc. Once the structure was designed it should be modelled and measured for many of these utilities. It would be prudent to make such a structure open source, so that any other political organisation can adopt it and to increase transparency/security/trust (I know that didn’t help OpenSSL, but it did make it easy to diagnose and fix Heartbleed).

    Current systems are weak and easily hackable, we could design something far more robust. Its already happened in many other modern systems but politics lags behind.

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