Opinion: Time for constitutional reform..but not the way you think

It’s time for constitutional reform – of the Liberal Democrats. We need to redesign our party structures to make them fit for the challenges we face.

While there has to be a big debate on what needs change and what the best options are, here’s a rundown of options worth considering:

1. Either abolish membership fees or create an associate membership which costs nothing and has some of the privilege of full members. Why should you have to pay to join our movement instead of donating when you wish and are able to?

2. Reduce barriers to participation within the party. This means introducing one member, one vote everywhere in the party and should involve eliminating, or heavily reducing, the period of membership required to be able to vote in internal elections. In the Canadian Liberal’s leadership election the winning campaign signed up over 100,000 new members alone with the incentive of being able to vote for the party leader – why can’t we do something similar?

3. End the dominance of England in the federal party. At the moment the Liberal Democrats are dominated by England because England, uniquely, has given all of its policy making powers to federal conference. So instead of debating truly UK wide issues we tend to spend most of conference debating matters which are devolved everywhere else in the UK. We could do this either by abolishing the English party and having regional parties, by returning policy making to the English party or by abolishing the federal party and having completely independent parties in each country.

4. Make our structures more supportive of effective, mutually supportive campaigning. At the moment each local party is pretty much a silo. If you want to get involved in campaigning you rely on having a functioning local party to either make use of you or to direct you to a neighbouring local party which needs help. In practice this just doesn’t happen in far too many places, often because there isn’t a functioning local party. We need some sort of structure which is wider than local parties but smaller than regions (perhaps county sized) so that no talent even in the party gets wasted just because the member in question belongs to a derelict local party.

5. End the spectre of damaging leadership challenges and leaders who don’t just know when to go by making leadership elections a routine event which happens at least once a parliament with the sitting leader always being allowed to run in them. Routine elections would force people to put up or shut up, give us a way to remove disastrous leaders if we have to and stop the party from being damaged by failed attempts to unseat sitting leaders.

6. Create the scope for local policy making through local party policy meetings or conferences where members can pass policy on local issues. By doing so we’d not only develop a better basis for our local campaigns but we’d also provide an additional incentive for people to join the party and get involved in the area where they live.

So those are my suggestions to start the debate. If you have any thoughts please leave a comment below!

* George Potter is a councillor in Guildford

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  • To draw Canada comparisons you can also join a state party and not necessarily the federal one. This associated member idea could involve just joining your local teams and provides a bridge to the national (federal) party.

  • Abolish the state party, leaving simply regional would be a good start as well. Let’s move towards a federal Great Britain to reduce Scottish nationalism and create a decentralised , fairer society.

  • Lib Dem Write Ins 9th May '15 - 5:47pm

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  • I apologise in advance; I am not a Liberal Democrats member. I am somebody who used to vote LD but stopped several elections ago. What I find interesting in this and several other posts since the election is it is all discussion about party structure and campaigning strategies and so on.

    The question I have is what does the LibDem Party actually stand for? If you gain office, what do you want to do with it? What is different from the policies of the Conservatives and Labour? I see that LDs seem to identify themselves as progressives. Labour are progressives. So are the Tories (though around ten years behind, as always). What are the LDs? Ten years in front? What’s the brand you’re selling to the public?

    One of the things that specificall stopped me voting Liberal was the sight of Simon Hughes standing next to a giant prop cigarette, calling for higher tobacco taxes and general unpleasantness to smokers. Even if one agrees with that, one can get that type of policy from the two big parties, both of whom are not only plenty authoritarian, but have the actual power to pass laws.

    Might it be worth thinking less about your party’s structure and recruiting, and re-reading John Stuart Mill? Might a liberal party get more votes if it were recognisably liberal?

  • excellent and well considered article.
    there should be one local association for every constituency, no longer should active members in one constituency be used as membership fees and focus fodder by nearby stronger associations. of course one member one vote, new policy-making and deciding fora, use of virtual technology for such, and a culture of respecting members put into place.
    again, intelligent adults do not join poitical parties to shove out bales of focus leaflets written by recent graduates following a manual. when, even, did the party act to celebrate its members?
    somehow, the party must guard against elected representatives in future acting as deaf all-knowing grandees, instead of as the salaried supporters of the members and philosophy that they are.
    policies should reflect the preamble, not flinch from controversy, and be something that members and well wishers can take pride in – never again some statist mumbling about being not quite tories and not quite labour, and the illiberal obsession with preserving the union.
    lastly, no more feeble apologising and inept party management! the election was won by the two most ruthless and well organised parties, each fully confident in their thinking (the snp especially so). the parties that stumbled, looked week and had no real usp (labour, greens, yes us, really) failed to convice their own voters, never mind the wider electorate.

    all of which said, the way back for the liberal movement might be swifter and clearer than for labour. we need to resolve relations with greens, win back millions of missing liberals, be relaxed about scotland’s dvelopment and muscular about tackling privilege and disadvantage. the tories have to deliver a right wing agenda, and voters will return.

  • to Ian B – yes! a proudly liberal Liberal party would certainly do no worse than the LDs did last week!

    the messages about structures though are right, until the party is reformed it will not emerge and will continue to squander its resources and lose its way.

  • John Minard 9th May '15 - 6:23pm

    I think the Scottish and Welsh parties should have the option of a technical independence pending a referendum in each as to what their relationship will be with the Federal party. They may wish to just be associate party’s or perhaps as they currently are or some relationship that I cannot yet imagine but they need to be credible in their own nation.

    I’d also like to see some of our defeated Scottish MPs standing for Holyrood – now that would be a powerful list!

  • I love some of those ideas – if anyone has any influence can they pass this article on?

    By allowing people outside of paid party memebership to vote for the leader you give a sense of ‘belonging’ to the party.

    And I love the idea of having Welsh Lib Dems, Scottish Lib Dems, English Lib Dems – it cuts off the right-wing nationalist rhetoric that parties aren’t focused on communities/countries. They could come together under the banner of British Lib Dems for conferences etc etc. I think that’s really proactive approach – if nationalism isn’t going away then take it, change it but offer it in a different and more liberal way.

    I really enjoyed the article George.

  • Bridget Kendrick 9th May '15 - 6:40pm

    I agree with most of this, especially about having a free level of membership and better ways to help people get involved. I joined the party years ago and despite reaching for out to the local party many times, with my marketing CV offered but there was never anything for me to do or even many occasions to meet people. I moved 6 months ago and when canvassed on the doorstep shortly after offered to help and have busy ever since, including using my digital marketing skills on local cause campaigns. Do yes we do need to find better ways of harnessing our skills across the party regardless of location.

  • George Potter 9th May '15 - 6:41pm

    Thanks for all the comments – I expect to be putting some amendments to conference in the autumn.

    In the meantime there’s nothing to stop local parties working out ways to pool membership lists with their neighbours, set up a shared, single point of contact, holding local policy debates or creating their own local associate membership system. So please don’t just hope that these ideas get passed on – try and put them into practice yourself!

  • George Potter 9th May '15 - 6:43pm

    @Ian B

    What we stand for, what our message should be, etc. are all debates we also need to have. But this article focused on the constitutional machinery of the party because that’s also an area in dire need of an overhaul. If you’re structures aren’t working then you’ll never achieve your potential.

  • Jane Ann Liston 9th May '15 - 7:05pm

    @John Minard
    ‘I’d also like to see some of our defeated Scottish MPs standing for Holyrood – now that would be a powerful list!’

    That might be tricky, as candidates have already been selected for at least some of the constituencies, as well as the top places on the regional lists.

  • This is very much along lines that I’ve been thinking of myself. Devolution in the Party should at the very least keep pace with, and even better be ahead of, devolution in the country.

  • This is like ADHD, when faced witha difficult problem find something else to do. Whenver we face difficult times we take out our constitution and play with it. That is constitutional masturbation, nothing less.

  • Stuart Wheatcroft 9th May '15 - 8:12pm

    How is (5) different from the status quo? A leadership election is already required following every General Election. The only exception is if the Leader is a member of the government.

    We would only go to a ballot if there were multiple candidates, clearly, but that would be viewed by the media as just as much a leadership challenge as any of the means of forcing a contest.

  • I have just rejoined. Always supported the party, as a whole, but felt I needed to make my support official again. So angry… My aim is to be much less passive in the future.

    1 & 2) Associate membership including for members of other parties / movements, student and youth membership extending down to 16, open participation & electronic voting on issues (even if only to be used as a guide for conference debates, offering demographic details and opinion breakdowns ). Be the “party of the people”.

    3) Decentralisation would seemingly be welcomed by the Welsh and Scottish. With formal agreements to be a part of the “British” or “United” LDs, but where local issues and local views take priority. Retain a conference for national issues and national strategy, (with PR delegations?)

    Beyond all of this though, we need to move away from the message that LDs will dilute and / or steady Labour or Tory or SNP, or left or right.

    Our voters and the party are a coalition of left AND right leaning liberals. Being Tory-lite is toxic, being labour-lite is too. Questioning the legitimacy of SNP MPs hurt us, and helped the Tories. We need to fight on the liberal / authoritarian axis instead.

    Yes, we will work hard with whomever the electorate vote for to ensure growth, fairness, etc etc. But we will always be the party that stands for liberty and equality. More power to the people not to the state.

    PR / STV needs to go back on the agenda. Forgotten ideas such as votes at 16, personal privacy, animal welfare, justice and human rights need to be highlighted. Broaden the debate beyond the narrow focus of labour, Tory, UKIP or the press.

    Although I applaud the current leaders for having made the case for the parties economic legitimacy, much of the heart of the party has been forgotten. Not by us. But by them.

    Apologies if ive been incoherent… Still a little… Well.. You know.

  • Further to the above… While Mental Health is not a political issue, I’m proud that the party I support made it a talking point this time. It needs to stay on the agenda.

  • Matt (bristol) 9th May '15 - 8:41pm

    Yes to some form of regional parties in England, not one English party that effectively dominates the national Lib Dem agenda. I would go further, personally, and abolish the Federal party in its current form, but I am probably an extremist on that count.

    I think we should emulate the Nationalist /Green bloc and the way it was able to campaign with tailored messages in each area, but around common aims and themes, without succumbing to trying to nationally control everything. For a campaigning, opposition grouping, this could work pretty well – and we’re going to be an opposition party for some time, I fear, so we’d better find out how to do it well – for now, not just being the 1992 re-enactment society. Let’s create a liberal bloc – Liberal Democracy philosophically embraces pluralism; a monolithic national party structure – in its presentation, at least – does not easily let pluralism breathe.

    To be honest, I am of little account in party matters, nor do I have much opportunity of being much other than an armchair general until my job changes which I do not wish it to. So don’t feel you have to listen to me.

  • Structural reform has an important part to play, but something else has to be done to overcome the institutional inertia that plagues the Liberal Democrats — a problem which is more psychological than down to rules and charts.

    As far as the leadership goes, I now believe that if Nick Clegg had had to face a leadership election every year since 2007, he would have won every time. Not because of his proven record of excellence, but because the membership has been in a stupefied state of denial, unwilling to take necessary steps and too easily convinced that any attempt to change leadership — or anything else — would be more disastrous than the least-resistance path of inaction. Unless the Lib Dem membership, as a whole, abandons the risk-averse assumption that continuing as we are is the least bad of all possible choices, no amount of tinkering with the machinery will stop the collapse.

  • Stephen Hesketh 9th May '15 - 9:27pm

    David-1 9th May ’15 – 9:07pm

    Much truth in your observations David.

  • Ian B: re

    Might it be worth thinking less about your party’s structure and recruiting, and re-reading John Stuart Mill? Might a liberal party get more votes if it were recognisably liberal?

    Mill does not appear to have recognised addiction, let alone address the topic, however, he often writes about he is very clear about social and political pressures that restrict people’s freedom of action. Addiction is clearly a very severe restraint on freedom to choose, freedom to act. He argues that societies that limit freedoms slide into paralysis and fail to thrive and progress. Mill does however address the question whether selling oneself as a slave might be a valid liberty and concludes that since it is self defeating; it is not. There is a parallel here to addition.

    Mill also uses a form of utilitarianism that emphasises reduction of harm to other individuals, social groups and to society at large; Mill would therefore have considered the freedoms of those who do not want to be subjected to an unaccommodating level of smoke.. He was also had not experienced the exploitative power of large multinational companies.

    Nonetheless, you are right that if an individual smoked in such a way that no one were troubled, did not affect his/her duties in the work place and did not place potential stress on the care system, he would argue that in the absence of harm no government has the moral right to intervene. I think this question might have more relevance to aspects of drugs policy.

    Although I reject your interpretation, I strongly support your suggestion that a re-evaluation of the Party’s core values could start with a reading of J.S.Mill.

  • Sounds fantastic to me.

  • Jonathan Webber 10th May '15 - 12:23am

    Apologies in advance – this isn’t about liberalism, our core values or even the constitution. It’s about structure. Boring and prosaic as ‘structure’ sounds it’s the framework on which delivery (and I don’t mean leaflets) innovation, communication and progression is based. That and a funding stream to support it. Structure itself should be fluid, adaptive, reflective and above all supportive – all critical components in empowering our Local Parties, members, supporters and activists in the fightback ahead.

    I should like to see a debate that addresses whether greater autonomy and flexibility should be afforded to the regions, not simply because devolved powers are of the moment but because it makes sense to deploy more fully the local knowledge and expertise available. I should like to see the discussion examine what autonomy & flexibility mean and where they might lead.

    Similarly I would like to have the discussion as to what comprises a Regional Executive in the 21st century and the structure necessary to make it fit for purpose.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 10th May '15 - 12:45am

    How about we have open lists for candidates in the future. It appears to work in the US.

  • Bridget, your frustration is understandable. the truth is, party membership isn’t that much fun, or even very rewarding for too many people. do local parties do skills or interests audits of members? do they even know what half of their members do, or how they would most like to help? what about those who are in politically sensitive jobs, but who could still help behind the scenes?
    A large proprtion of members are drifting back – the party should embrace them, and welcome them all individually.
    And I don’t count a Focus round as a welcome !

  • @Stan : am sorry to say, I really don’t agree.
    unless you have difficulty with ‘ordinary’ members taking an interest in how their party governs its own affairs (and there is a part of the party that does have such a difficulty, I fear) why come here and try to deride a debate about how members might best ensure that the party structures are fit for purpose ?
    you could launch a whole raft of Millian liberal policies tonight, but if the members aren’t engaged, how do you expect them to help the party to get the public to embrace them?
    and David-1, yes to some of what you say, but remember that the membership has been much reduced recently precisely because the party did turn a deaf ear, especially in the first flushes of the coalition. I first joined in 1983, and have never known the elected reps to be so estranged from the so-called rank and file. the howls over fees we met with bland and patronising emails from the centre, as just one example.
    still, from ashes phoenixes can rise …

  • Do we think that paying £6 or £12 to join the party puts off those who really wish to join? I don’t think so. There was talk of primaries and that could be explored. People could become associated members with the right to elect the PPC and the local Party Executive from the members and be invited to social events and local policy discussions. The rules regarding when someone can vote were changed because in the past some candidates recruited new members to get elected.

    Do we really believe that every member wants to vote for our Federal Committee when they don’t all vote in either Presidential or Leadership elections? Do we really believe that everyone can take the time off work or their other activities to attend a virtual conference? I don’t think so. We can increase the opportunities to become a Conference Representative and we can look at ensuring that Conferences are broadcast on the internet. Those who can’t attend or watch a virtual conference need to be represented and given the opportunity to remove their representatives.

    Do we really wish to force the English party to return to the pre-1994 days when they held their English Conference the day before the Federal one and so held their conference in Cardiff and Edinburgh?

    There is an issue with supporting weak local parties and getting new members involved. I would prefer to see smaller regions. With smaller regions could the English party support web sites for them and ensure that new members are communicated with. (The English party doesn’t have its own web site!)

    Having four year terms for the leader might help, as would giving the Federal Conference representatives and members of the Federal Executive the power to start a leadership election after say two years.

    Do we really believe that there are lots of members who wish to discuss policy? I used to think so, but I don’t any more. Could the smaller regional parties organise a social event/ policy discussion around their region? I don’t know but it might be a good first step.

    What I would like to see is no conference fees except a pooling of funds to help those on low incomes or benefits to attend.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 10th May '15 - 5:57am


    I can’t help but feel that you have answered your first point with the question you end it with. What rights would you give to those not paying a membership fee? Too many and you deter too many people from paying, too few and the offer isn’t attractive. And a political party needs money in order to operate – staff are required to support a membership system, ensure compliance and run a press operation, membership fees for our European and international umbrella groups must be paid. Reduce membership income too far and the willingness of Regional and State Parties to commit to expenditure on staff is reduced – it is dangerous to make long-term commitments based on insecure income streams.

    Yes, if a gateway can be designed to allow people to transition into full membership, great. But I am not aware of a major campaigning group anywhere which has attempted to operate without a membership fee structure successfully, or at all. Think very carefully before attempting such an experiment with the Party.

  • I thought there was already a leadership election every year. There is usually no contest.

  • WRT to associate & non fee paying memberships, I don’t think that significant rights need to be granted (with the exception of concessionary full memberships). I think they should be consulted and listened to on both a national and local level. Invitations to meetings, invitations to make their opinions heard… “when I might vote LD”. Done properly the engagement will make it an easy transition from “this party listens to me, at home and also nationally” to “this is the party I want to join, support, be a part of, and win”.

    Not a simple thing of course, striking a balance between lip service and unhelpful & unwanted influence but that’s a question for people with more nouse than I.

  • George Potter 10th May '15 - 12:36pm

    @Mark Valladeres

    As far as I’m concerned relying on membership subs to fund the party is out of date and doomed to failure. We are not a mass social movement and we’re unlikely to be for some time – membership subs are useful but far less valuable than multiple small one off donations and standing order donations.

    Having a large list of supporters with their contact details who you can ask for multiple individual donations over time is far more valuable than a small list of members paying an annual amount.

    There’s also the whole issue that from a democratic point of view there’s no justification for requiring people to pay to be part of a movement that’s meant to be for the whole country.

    Yes, £6 or £12 a year isn’t much but it’s still a psychological obstacle to joining. It’s much easier to decide to sign up to something if all it requires is filling in a form instead of committing to pay an annual fee as well. And people on low or unsteady incomes are far more likely to respond to a donation request at a time when they can afford it, while ignoring them at other times, than they are to feel happy to commit to paying a consistent fee.

    As for what privileges associate members should have, I’d suggest being able to vote for the leader and being able to vote to choose your PPC. That seems like a logical starting point – a real incentive for signing up to become a registered supporter without getting all the privileges of full membership for free.

    Like I said, the Canadian Liberal party signed up 100,000 associate members to vote in their leadership election – that’s 100,000 contacts who can be asked for donations later or approached to volunteer. And getting those 100,000 associate members was far easier than it would have been to sign up 100,000 full members.

    We have to break away from the mindset of 19th century political organisation – it’s not working anymore and we need to be radical in making involvement with the party as easy as possible so that we can finally start to build a 21st century mass organisation.

  • George Potter 10th May '15 - 12:48pm


    There is a leadership election once a parliament – as long as we’re not in government. While I doubt this will be a problem for a while it is probably a flaw worth fixing. It’s probably the lowest priority one on the list though.

  • John Minard 10th May '15 - 1:34pm

    I’d like to see a new collaborative liberal orientated news and views website, with a password protected members area. A kind off Lib DemBlogs but visually closer to a news site (like Huffington Post) pulling in news from other liberal news sources, UK, EU and worldwide. Our party press releases should go there first!

    The members area could give access to research and campaigning material, internal party notices, party votes, as well as suggestions and rapid 2-way feedback; parliament /HQ to the street and vice versa.

    Time to get rid of things that don’t work and draw the strands together into a really big news, in your face, attractive site with wide appeal worthy of a worldwide movement in-tune with human progress and evolution.

  • I think George is coming up with decent practical improvements, some of them worthy of debating individually. I think he’s got a point about membership fees, there are better ways of making much more money. He’s describing a membership system based upon upselling (a technique invented by the porn industry as I understand it, and very successful for them) and this isn’t a terrible concept at all. The current members get converted to “top tier” and nothing changes for them, but new members can join at one of the other 2 tiers, with the hope you can upsell to them later. The membership fee isn’t a barrier for the sort of members the party currently has : white, middle-class, educated professionals, it’s a barrier for the sort of people the Lib Dems have been hopeless at attracting, the C1/C2 demographic.

    Like Ian B, I wish that any representative claiming to be a liberal was one. By that I mean they have a “live and let live” attitude, they’re not concerned about people smoking/drinking themselves to death, porn, nudist beaches, etc.

    @Mark : “Think very carefully before attempting such an experiment with the Party.”

    Why? What’s the risk that concerns you? What’s to lose?

  • 5000 new members is moving us in a positive direction. Posting and helping online recruitment helps. I believe many local parties are doing the same for those who have been contacted during the recent campaigns. And we will not forget to use the skills and experience of those who were not elected. All of us are helping to build membership online or via contacts.

    Much of this article is a good starting point for changing some structures – some of which should come rapidly – to include all members – former and new. Slow reactions with new members will cause them to drift away again. Local re-energising is called for to include all members.

    Our response to the media is also important. Already we are being written off as having the wrong vision [of the political right or centralists with no different policies] and might not rise again nationally but will do better locally once more.

    Start the return.

  • Richard Underhill 10th May '15 - 2:34pm

    At the Special Assembly the Leader said
    “The new party will be a Liberal Party, or I would be voting against merger” He then voted for it. This is not nostalgia, trying to be a Centre Party may have been a mistake.

    On trust, on the doorstep, go straight in with the Income Tax reductions, on which we have over-delivered. Not enough people were doing that, possibly because we do very little about training our canvassers.

    Canvassing by telephone is more difficult because the non-verbal cues are absent. It can be done. Where the party has paid for call centres to do this, are we satisfied with what we got?

  • George Potter 10th May '15 - 4:34pm

    Another thing to remember is that people feel much less loyalty to political parties anymore – which forms a psychological barrier to joining a party as a member. It feels like a big commitment.

    By contrast, signing up for free as an associate member at a time when you do support the party means that you can leave at the drop of the hat when and if your political preferences change.

    So a Labour-Lib Dem waverer in the shires might balk at becoming a full member because they still feel an affinity to Labour but might well be happy to become an associate member so that they can vote to choose the Lib Dem PPC for their area. Which in turn means their local Lib Dems have a chance to try and convert them to being a firm Lib Dem supporter when otherwise the person might well have remained completely uninvolved in politics.

    Normal people don’t think the same way us political obsessives and activists do. We need to be better at finding a way to involve them in politics in a way which they feel comfortable with.

  • The privileges of associate members have to be limited and should not include voting in the leadership election because the leader must clearly represent the members who have signed up to our preamble. Some local parties have tried to get non-members involved in social events and I wonder how many go on to pay to join.

    State and regional parties get most of their income from membership fees and so abolishing it would cut off this income source. Membership is a state function. Most members have no idea what these bodies do and so are less likely to donate to them. This will lead to the centralisation of the finance.

  • George, well done on putting together such a thought provoking series of ideas. This form of discussion is what we need. General thoughts come to mind; folks, a minimum membership fee of £12 pa has not put off the large number of new SNP members, look at their webpage! So I think our problems lie elsewhere.
    I have only ever managed to 1 Federal conf. – the first ‘Glasgow’ one,( no flexible holidays) and I have to say I was disappointed by the limited scope for proper UK Federal discussion, most of it was ‘English’, giving me the feeling of only being a tacked on bit, I’ll not be surprised to hear similar from Wales. I know it sounds petty, but may I suggest that this is the very feeling that fuels the surge in ‘Nats’! if we are THE Federal party, then surely we must look like it,
    thereforeUK does not = England, The North does not include Newcastle, ….it’s Aberdeen, or Thurso! if I talk of The south west, I’m pretty sure few folks are thinking of Stranraer! although these are the very forgotten parts of our countries we need to know about and support(declining rural populations!) So there’s a rich seam of debate.
    One-member-one vote….? I thought we had that anyway….Should be universal- fix it!!
    (Funding again) I think we should not so quickly throw away the idea that we do not rely on large individual benefactors or union block for finance, this does chime well when explained on the doorstep.
    Need to go mummy says my bath water is getting cold and there isn’t another coal delivery this year!!

  • George, while I don’t agree with all your suggestions, I think we do need a conditional convention. Autumn conference would be a good time. The first motion on Saturday should be to dissolve the existing constituion, and then we go on from there….

  • George Potter 10th May '15 - 8:42pm

    @Michael BG

    I’m not talking about abolishing membership – just creating a new, lower tier of it.

    And I hate to break it to you but our existing members don’t sign up to the preamble – you just fill in a form and send your money off. And there’s nothing to stop associate members from having to state they agree with the preamble if that’s deemed best.

    But the party leader is the leader not just of the party but of the millions who vote Liberal Democrat. If our supporters want to then they should be able to vote for the leader (which will help make sure more normal people have a say in our leadership elections). It’s also the highest profile election which we have which makes it more likely people will join to be a part of it.

    Limit associates from other elections by all means but at the very least they should be able to vote for the leader.

    And again, just because regional parties are dependent on membership income at the moment, there’s no reason we can’t adopt a better system of funding so that they get a share of national and local donation income and the like.

  • George Potter 10th May '15 - 8:45pm


    Thanks very much – I liked your suggestions too 🙂

    But I don’t think that ditching the entire constitution is a good idea – there certainly should be a thorough re-examining of several sections of it though. How to do that in a democratic manner other than by people like me submitting random amendments is tricky though.

  • After the 1992 general election the whole constitution was revised. Somewhere I have the 1988 constitution and the 1994 constitution. I think a working party was set up as we do for policies. There must be some people who were involved then still in the party.

  • Christine Headley 11th May '15 - 12:22am

    @Michael BG I was the administrator of the constitutional review, on a six month contract in 1992-93. Charles Kennedy chaired it, as President, with vice-chairs Willie Goodhart for the ex-SDP and Gordon Lishman for the ex-Liberals. . It had a large committee and Charles, accompanied by different members each time, went to each region for evidence. We must have been somewhere different each Saturday for two months. Everyone got together to prepare a draft, which was then circulated to constituencies and party bodies, who responded massively – I had to photocopy each one for each committee member – and met up for another weekend to finish it off. It then came to Spring Conference in May 1993, in Nottingham. It was a massive commitment all round for Charles and the rest of the committee.
    It would be straightforward to decide that part of the existing constitution doesn’t work any more and rewrite it – even the Preamble if you must – but going back to the beginning and starting again is not feasible.

  • @ Christine Headley
    When I compare each version I don’t get the idea that the 1993-94 constitution is completely different from the 1987-88 version. However the process you describe does make the process more inclusive than just having a consultation session at one conference and voting on the amendments at the next. I assume you must have been talking about the Federal constitution. The English constitution had lots of changes between the two versions but I don’t have copies of 1993-94 versions of the Scottish or the Welsh constitutions.

  • @David -1 “As far as the leadership goes, I now believe that if Nick Clegg had had to face a leadership election every year since 2007, he would have won every time. ”

    Good grief david-1 wouldn’t that have been shocking! Party members exercising their legitimate vote. Much better if you decide for them, eh?

  • George Potter 10th May ’15 – 12:36pm
    ” membership subs are useful but far less valuable than multiple small one off donations and standing order donations.”

    In this exchange with Mark V you go on to talk about the psychological barrier of a £12 annual membership payment.
    Could I suggest that there is an opposite psychological impact of owning a share in something?

    Working with people to take power over their own lives requires an equality of respect. Buying a membership makes even the poorest person an equal share-holder in the party, deserving of respect.
    It puts them on an equal standing with every other member. It is an essentially democratic status.

    It has long been party policy to promote worker share-holders in industry and commerce (although I admit you would ot have noticed this policy much in the last few years of Orange Bookery.). The same principle should apply to ownership of the party.

    The party should not be put into the pockets of rich donors. In all parties in the UK too many people have used this route to donate their way to the House of Lords. That’s an essentially undemocratic, anti-democratic state of affairs.

    My daughter tells me that a trip to the bar when out with a few student friends usually comes to considerably more than £12 and many of her less than wealthy friends sometimes make such a trip several times in an evening.
    £1 a month to have the privilege to be a proud owner – member of a party in whose values and aims you believe does not seem too much of a psychological barrier to me. It is money well spent. 🙂

  • Simon McGrath 11th May '15 - 8:46am

    @John Tilley
    “It has long been party policy to promote worker share-holders in industry and commerce (although I admit you would not have noticed this policy much in the last few years of Orange Bookery”
    Interesting you say that. When I moved an amendment to a motion on Workplace Demo racy at Conference in 2012 saying that workers should be allowed to buy shares in their employers if they wanted to it was defeated on the grounds it would lead to ‘industrial anarchy’ – led by that Paladin of the left , Gordon Lishman.

    Also worth noting that under the Coalition the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 was passed strengthening and updating the legislation supporting Coops.

  • Simon McGrath

    Do you have to reduce everything to a left v. right battle?

    If you agree with me about the value of the individual ordinary members “owning” the party by being “shareholders”, why not just say so?

  • George Potter 11th May '15 - 8:59am

    @John Tilley

    If you’re under 25 and unemployed you’re living on £54 a week. If you’re over 25 and unemployed you’re living on £74 a week.

    Whilst in principle the idea of owning a stake in something is nice I think you a) underestimate the significance of even an extra £6 a year spending commitment when you’re scraping for every penny and b) make the mistake of thinking that having a share in our movement is something which should be bought in the first place.

    We should be open to everyone, on at least the basic level, free of charge. Voting in a party election gives you much more of a stake in the party than just paying a fee – just like having a stake in a democracy means having the right to vote rather than just the right to pay taxes.

  • George Potter 11th May '15 - 9:01am

    And yes, a trip to the bar does often cost more than £12 – which is why those on low incomes often can’t afford to go to bars.

  • George
    Living on a small income is not the exclusive experience of those under 25 who are unemployed.

    I am guessing that you are fully aware that some people in my age group (over 60) depend on food banks and handouts in 2015.

    £1 a month, or 3 pence a day, to be a member of The Liberal Democrats is money well spent. It is cheaper than owning a computer and being on- line, yet I recall you recently suggesting that the democracy of the party should be conducted on-line. I am not scoring a cheap point here, just pointing to the inconsistency in your separate positions.

    There is a far greater exclusion of poor people who cannot go “on-line” than being unable to afford £12 a year for something that you value, especially now that so much in the way of government services and commercial activity is carried out on-line.

    I am constantly being told by energy providers, banks etc that I could save £20 a year by having my bills, statements etc on-line rather on paper through the post — it does not seem to occur to them that a significant minority of the poor are sudsidising the rich because they do not have the cash to make this possible. Like pre-payment metres for electricity Ths approach punishes the poor whilst giving yet another perk to the rich.

    I repeat I am not being antagonistic here, just pointing to some realities of life on a low income which apply to the young and unemployed just as much as the elderly. A myth has grown up over the last few years that the elderly are all laughing their way to the bank with fabulous pensions beyond the dreams of Croesus.

    Makes you wonder why the average age of the queue at the food bank seems to be well over 25.

  • @John Tilley “Do you have to reduce everything to a left v. right battle?

    If you agree with me about the value of the individual ordinary members “owning” the party by being “shareholders”, why not just say so?”

    Perhaps it because you started it by including the “Orange bookery” barb in your original post

    @George Potter I agree with John Tilley (!!) on this. A nominal membership fee is essential in creating ownership of that membership. It’s a commitment to the party and it’s values. I’m happy to have affiliates but their rights should not be the same as full membership.

  • George Potter 11th May '15 - 10:16am

    I don’t think I’ve ever suggested that we should abolish membership fees or give associate members the same rights as full members.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th May '15 - 12:22pm

    George Potter

    I don’t think I’ve ever suggested that we should abolish membership fees or give associate members the same rights as full members.

    But what is the point of having two categories of membership?

    While I appreciate the point that for some people £12 is not a nominal amount of money, for most people that really is not the issue. I don’t think there are that many people thinking “Hmm, I’d like to join the Liberal Democrats, but I’m not sure I want to pay £12 to do so”.

    I think the issue is that people are reluctant to join because they have this idea that all political parties work on a Leninist model. So, if you join, they suppose, you must give up your own thoughts and opinions and become obedient slaves to The Party Line as passed down by The Leader. That leaves people who are sympathetic to the aims of the party and who want to see it do well to be reluctant about taking the step of actually joining.

    So, an “associate membership category would really be for people who might as well be full members but misunderstand what that means. Well, I think it better that we make more clear that being a member does not mean you sign your life away, in fact it does not mean any obligations at all. Wouldn’t that be better than feeding the misunderstanding about what membership means?

    I do think, however, that we need a statement of aims and objectives, it should be of a very general form so as to allow a wide variety of different positions among members, but it should also be such as to be able to exclude people who clearly are not in line with what our party is set up to do. I am opposed to the idea of primary elections, because in effect that destroys the right of a group of people to get together for a specific purpose since it says they are not allowed to stop those who are against that purpose taking it over and destroying it.

    End the spectre of damaging leadership challenges and leaders who don’t just know when to go by making leadership elections a routine event which happens at least once a parliament with the sitting leader always being allowed to run in them.

    I like this one. As a democratic party, our leader is our servant, we put him or her there to do a job for us. We should be at liberty to choose someone else for whatever reason, it should be no big thing. We need to shift the emphasis of what the party is about away from it being seen as a fan club for The Leader towards it being seen as a network of people who share views about political issues and wish to work together to help advance those issues. Making the election of a leader a regular and mundane thing would help with this. As would not having almost every communication coming from the party’s national organisation, every party political broadcast, and so on, done in a way that makes it all about The Leader, with The Leader featuring prominently in it and the words in it mostly out into the mouth of The Leader.

  • @ George Potter
    “I’m not talking about abolishing membership”
    I think you did in original article.
    “Either abolish membership fees or create an associate membership”

    Please can you post that you have changed your mind and now complete reject the idea that the membership fee should be abolished?

    If you are unemployed and on either £57.90 or £73.10 a week the membership fee is £6 or 11.5 pence a week.

  • George Potter 11th May '15 - 10:56pm

    The piece was intended to raise some ideas for debate – for clarity I don’t think that abolishing membership fees would be a good idea personally but I think that it should be an option that we consider all the same. I also think that we should consider establishing an associate membership and personally I’d be all in favour of that.

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