Opinion: MPs have the power – so how do we involve the members?

It is 1946, and Labour have just won a landslide under Clement Attlee. Harold Laski, head of Labour’s National Executive Committee, tells Attlee that he must not sign a peace treaty at Potsdam, because it is the NEC, not Attlee or the parliamentary party, which is the sovereign body of the Labour Party. Attlee replied that

You have no right whatever to speak on behalf of the Government. Foreign affairs are in the capable hands of Ernest Bevin . … a period of silence on your part would be welcome.”

Now imagine the Liberal Democrats win the 2010 election. For financial – or other – reasons the party leadership decide to defer or abolish our pledge to abolish tuition fees.

The head of the party’s Federal Policy Committee, unanimously backed by all members of that committee, writes to Nick Clegg to tell him he must not do that, and that FPC is the sovereign policy-making body. But we all know the reality: Clegg will mimic Attlee’s response to Laski.

People vote for MPs and not for parties, and it is MPs and not parties that have the authority of the popular mandate. That is the way that the British constitution works.

It may be that FPC defeats the leader over tuition fees, but, if it does, it is a pyrrhic victory that would disappear as soon as we gain power. More important than this particular skirmish, or this particular issue, is the underlying incompatibility of our party and our country’s constitutions.

If we are serious about being a party of power, isn’t it time that we came up with a way in which party members can have a say in developing policy and the like, that works with the way the British constitution works, not against it?

* Tim Leunig teaches at the London School of Economics and is an occasional contributor to Lib Dem Voice.

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19 Comments

  • What “Constitution”?

  • This is quite problematic. The attraction of membership of a political party seems pretty limited anyway, without dispelling the illusion that being a member gives you the ability to determine (in part) the policy of the party.

    Personally I think that the version of internal party democracy that we have is overrated. The only internal party votes I’ve taken part in have been for local PPC selection and for the selection of the party leader. Conference, for all of its ‘democracy’, is still a representative democracy that requires a certain amount of effort from party members to engage with which many do not make. As a member, I have a theoretical ability to influence policy that I will almost never exercise. I’d be more likely to exercise it if, say, we decided policy based on a national one-member-one-vote system, although I imagine that this would be considered impractical. My point is that there’s a certain sense in which many of us have chosen the leader, but haven’t chosen the policies or the people making them, therefore most ordinary party members (those who don’t attend conference and don’t input into the decisions of their local representatives) would, in theory, be better represented by having the leader choose than by having the decisions made by other people who they didn’t choose. That’s not to say that we should do it that way, but it does suggest that we have a problem somewhere.

    My point is that whilst either the FPC or conference is nominally the democratic voice of the party, in practice it probably isn’t. I don’t know if anyone has the stats on this, but I’d be willing to bet that the number of party members who voted in the leadership election is significantly larger than the number who participate (indirectly) in conference votes or in the proceedings and composition of the FPC. Now, I’d still say that the FPC is the legitimate decision-making body, but that’s for reasons that have almost nothing to do with whether it’s democratic or not. It’s mostly because those involved have put in a lot more effort than a Joe Bloggs armchair member such as myself and are therefore more entitled to a say and are more likely to have an informed opinion.

    My preference would be for getting ordinary members more involved in voting directly, but it seems hard to do that without diluting the precision of what they’re voting on. The FPC is great for considering points of detail, and conference can generally be trusted to consider the nuances of quite specific amendments, but a general vote within the party would probably have to be on very broad questions of priorities rather than specific policy prescriptions. I’d still like to have something like this because I think that it would improve engagement amongst ordinary members (my big idea for the party is that it should start thinking about why anyone would want to be a member of the party, and work towards improving the party in those respects), but I’m not sure that this at all answers the original post’s dilemma.

  • Andrew Suffield 25th Sep '09 - 11:34am

    The role of FPC members is to deliver a framework that the MPs and the leader can campaign on, not to come along to vote on the single issue of tuition fees and do bugger all about the rest.

    I don’t see how this is in any way related to the recent actions of the FPC.

    As to the original point: the party decides the campaign issues. The candidates campaign on those issues. The people at large select candidates based on their campaigns; if the candidates then weasel out of their promises, then they are unlikely to be re-elected. This process could be accelerated with a “sack your MP” system. It’s really very simple and there is no issue here.

    Under no circumstances can a fair system permit a subset of the population (the party members) to dictate policy. The party selects the campaign, not the policy of the government after it is elected. There is merely a presumption that the government would like to be re-elected later and hence will at least try to fulfill their campaign promises. (There is also a presumption that they will fail, to some extent; no government manages to do all the stuff in their manifesto)

  • Yes Tim – I leave each conference puzzling over the same question. The answer I think rests on what we see as the purpose of policy.

    If policy is to set the programme for government then there is a problem.

    If, however, policy is less about setting a programme and more about committing to a direction of travel and to give a tangiable example to voters of something that the party believes in and aspires to, then there is no problem.

    I’d suggest that the party needs to move towards the latter position, and this will undoubtedly have some rather significant implications…

  • OK, but you have to pick your fights. How difficult would it be, for example, for Tavish Scott to ignore a clear vote at the Scottish conference supporting a referendum on independence?

  • Given we now only have Federal Committee elections every two years why not have a hustings at conference for FE, FPC and FCC candidates every other year?

  • David Allen 25th Sep '09 - 1:21pm

    “If policy is to set the programme for government then there is a problem. If policy is ….something that the party believes in and aspires to, then there is no problem.”

    Yes, I broadly agree. It follows, though, that all those words about downgrading scrapping fees from a policy to an “aspiration” were meaningless and should not have been used. All policies are, in a sense, merely aspirations.

    Hang on, I hear you say, that’s just a bit too lax. The Attlee example notwithstanding, we surely don’t want to tell people that Clegg has carte blanche to tear up all the policies we ever made, once he gets to be PM?

    So we need to find a middle way. And that, I suggest, is what we must now do, in order to regain any sort of credibility over tuition fees.

    We do, rightly, boast about our fuly costed programmes and the fact that we get them independently audited by the IFS. Very well then. Our FPC should be prepared to do some hard work. They will have to juggle figures and sort out exactly how scrapping fees can be fitted into a rigorously costed programme. If it can’t be done, then never mind what they told the Guardian, they will have to take the pledge out. In my own view they would do well to think of creative ways to leave it in, such as phasing, or bringing in a graduate tax.

    If scrapping fees makes it into a fully costed programme, it becomes a firm proposal. And yet it is still not cast in concrete. By the time Clegg or anyone else becomes the new PM, economic and other circumstances will have changed, and a leader will have to be able to change the message. But he will not get away with changes that are capricious, that use bounce tactics, that don’t relate to real external pressures, that fly in the face of a clear majority view.

    I think he may now be recognising that. It will help him to do so if, in return, the activists put effort into the financial integrity agenda.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Sep '09 - 1:38pm

    The party is, in the end, only advisory to politicians elected under its label. This seems to me to be a correct separation of power.

    It is up to the party to ensure those it selects to run under its label are people it can trust to take its advice seriously. The only sanction it has is to remove its support from them. As the leader is elected by the party as a whole, there should be a mechanism where the party as a whole can depose him or her from that position. I don’t have the party constitution with me now, so I don’t know if there is such a mechanism. It can remove the party label from its MPs, forcing them to stand as independents at the next election.

    One hopes that such a catastrophic thing would never come about, but the lesser sanction is that party members drift off if they find its leadership never listens to them and when in government pushes through policies it opposes. This is precisely what has happened in the Labour Party. During my time of activity in LB Lewisham, we went from a time when Labour had enough activists to swamp us if ever there was a council by-election, to the point where we were left wondering “where are they?”. It was weird – suddenly we were winning by-elections because no-one much was turning up to fight for the Labour cause. Suddenly we found we held all but one of the wards in what is still nominally a safe Labour seat. Whether this will shift to a vote for us at Parliamentary level is still to be seen. Media commentators don’t cover this, because they think local party activity counts for nothing, and it’s all just about national swings. My feeling is that the falling off of serious political coverage in the media means this is less so than it has been in most of our lifetimes.

  • Nick Barlow is right that if elected Nick Clegg could have govt by FPC instead of cabinet govt. But I don’t think anyone inside the party or outside it expects him to do so. And as some people have noted, Nick has a wider democratic mandate inside the party, as well as from the country as a whole. I can vote for the leader, but I can’t vote for FPC members, because I am not a conference rep (I can rarely make conference, so it is unfair to others locally to be a rep).

  • Sorry that was not my intention – but still, I can’t see why Nick and Co would want to consult FPC once in govt, if they had won a mandate from the British people.

  • Sorry – consult was not the right word. Consult yes, but not necessary with FPC, and not in any way that gives FPC or anyone else with whom they consult any power, and not to give FPC the right to be consulted, and not to give them any veto over any aspect of policy.

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