Opinion: time to end the special treatment for sitting MPs

Like many other Lib Dem local parties my own is currently working its way through selecting candidates for next May’s local elections.

In at least one ward a sitting councillor will be facing a challenge and a contested (re)selection meeting. I think that few people would argue that that was a bad idea, that the person who had been the representative should have to show that they still have the confidence of their local membership.

On a wider scale we are seeing selections for the list members for the Greater London Authority. Two sitting members are standing down but the one person restanding is having to put herself in front of the membership and seek their continued support.

A similar process applies for the re-selection of MSPs on both the lists and for the constituencies.

At some point in the next 18 months or so our MEPs will, if they want to restand, have to do the same. Just as they did before the 2004 and 2009 elections.

When our elected Mayors come up for re-election they also will have to go before their membership to show they still have their support.

Of course in many of these cases, particularly at a more local level, such re-selections are done unopposed. However the principle, that re-selections are open contests still remains.

However there is one group of Liberal Democrat elected representatives who don’t have to face an open reselection contest: Westminster MPs.

Under clause 11.7 of the Federal Constitution if a sitting MP wishes to be reselected they have to either:

  1. win a majority vote of the members present at a local party general meeting (conducted by secret ballot)
  2. or

  3. If that resolution is defeated then the MP can request a ballot of all members of the local party.

If a sitting MP wasn’t re-selected at that stage there would then be an open selection at which (I assume though it isn’t explicitly stated) the MP would be able to put themselves forward in the normal way.

As far as I’m aware option (2) has never been used and there doesn’t seem to be any guidance on how such a ballot would be conducted. Conducting an all-member ballot without the opportunity to put information before the membership as to why the MP should be deselected would not be a way of achieving an informed result for example.

(Sitting Welsh assembly members have a similar provision apart from there is no stage (b), the matter proceeds straight to an open selection)

I can’t see any particular reason why MPs, apparently alone amongst our elected representatives, should have such protection against contested re-selections. Certainly they have busy and demanding roles, but so do MEPs, elected Mayors, and leaders of large City authorities. When we were in Government in Scotland, Scottish Ministers went through open re-selections.

That should be the basic principle, open reselections with the membership having their say.

That is not to say that there shouldn’t be some minor differences. In my view a couple of sensible tweaks would take account of the fact that selections with a sitting member are much less likely to attract opposing applicants:

  1. Where there are no other applications the matter should be able to proceed straight to a vote at a General Meeting without re-opening nominations
  2. Sitting MPs should be automatically shortlisted (this is the position in Scotland for MSPs)

I want to work up some proposals for a constitutional amendment that will rectify this anomaly (see a very early draft below) – any thoughts on the wording to make them practically workable would be welcome.

11.7 The rules shall provide that, if a sitting MP indicates a wish to stand at the next General Election an open selection shall be conducted under the rules of this section with the following amendments:
(a) A sitting MP who wishes to be reselected will be included in the shortlist.
(b) If the sitting MP is the only applicant then the selection can proceed with a shortlist of one. In such circumstances there shall be a ballot of the membership as to whether the sitting member should be reselected.

The Chair of the Local Party may (but not within the first two years of a Parliament unless there is a serious possibility of an early election) require the MP to indicate within one month whether or not the MP wishes to stand at the next General Election.

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10 Comments

  • Hywel – MSPs followed a similar procedure to MPs until very recently – the change was only made in September 2009, so MSPs reselected before then didn’t have to go through the fight.

    However, one MSP did – one with a particularly vulnerable seat. The result was that the second placed party were able to put about rumours suggesting that the local party didn’t have confidence in the MSP, that he didn’t have the support of councillors, etc – none of which was actually true (the person contesting the seat actually didn’t live in the constituency and wasn’t previously known to members.)

    The resulting damage is still there and it’s difficult to shift. Indeed, there are a number of people who voted for this change in Scotland who are now prepared to reverse it because of the problems caused – I was one of three people who highlighted the likelihood of this happening at the conference where it was discussed, and who voted against it.

    There has to be the ability of the local party executive – who, theoretically at least, are elected by members – to remove the candidate or force him / her to go through a reselection. But where there’s little or no discontent in the local party, to force a selection contest simply distracts the MP/MSP from constituency work for a period of time, uses up valuable funds which would be better allocated to retaining the seat, and can cause both local embarrassment and divisions in the local party.

    The theory behind this is fine, but in practice the problems are too great. Yes, we might have wished that there was a mechanism to get rid of, say, a former jungle contestant before the last election – but would it really have benefitted the party to have ditched one of our highest profile MPs? You only have to look at Labour during the Militant years to see what a minor faction is capable of doing in a reselection battle – or look at the problems in East Lothian prior to the 2010 election.

  • “There has to be the ability of the local party executive โ€“ who, theoretically at least, are elected by members โ€“ to remove the candidate or force him / her to go through a reselection”

    That seems slightly more dubious as it puts the power into a smaller group of people

    “But where thereโ€™s little or no discontent in the local party, to force a selection contest simply distracts the MP/MSP from constituency work for a period of time, uses up valuable funds which would be better allocated to retaining the seat, and can cause both local embarrassment and divisions in the local party.”

    Why does none of that apply to MEPs, a sitting councillor who is leader of a large city or and elected Mayor?

    “Yes, we might have wished that there was a mechanism to get rid of, say, a former jungle contestant before the last election โ€“ but would it really have benefitted the party to have ditched one of our highest profile MPs?”

    Arguably a contested reselection might have focussed this hypothetical members attention a bit better ๐Ÿ™‚

    Niklas – not sure about the cost point. You would need to write to members informing them of a selection meeting in any case. Your probably right as that makes it consistent with other selections

  • Darren Reynolds 7th Dec '10 - 1:54pm

    Some thoughts:

    1) I think there is some difficulty with the definition of “a serious possibility of an early election”. Arguably that is the case now, though the opposite is perhaps equally arguable.

    2) If there is to be a change of candidate, electoral purposes are best served if this happens early. Two years may be too far in.

    3) I’m not sure asking the MP should be a function of the chair; it should be a function of the executive.

    4) I’m not sure whether the MP’s intentions are relevant anyway until the selection process begins. When the executive sets up the selection process, if the MP wants to be considered, he or she merely has to say so to secure automatic inclusion on the shortlist.

    I do think you are right on the matter of principle, for more than the obvious reason!

  • Liberal Neil 7th Dec '10 - 7:21pm

    @Alex – I doubt it. People recruited by an MP are, if anything, more likely to support them, I would have thought.

    Overall I agree with Hywel.

  • The trouble is the time table for selections. Although formally made shortly before the election in reality we have PPCs and existing MPs in place years or at least before an election. So when would the re-selection actually happen?

    I will admit this is less of a problem with fixed term parliaments as we should know the date of the next election and we can make allowances for any special elections due to an unexpected disillusionment of parliament.

  • I still think that although it’s a good idea in principle, in practice it can be difficult and expensive – and, unless the Federal party agrees to foot the bill, not cost effective for a local party. Sometimes we have to think about what the other parties will do too – can you imagine what we would do if one of our opponent parties forced an MP in a marginal seat through a selection contest?

    If it was to be done – and I still don’t think it should – it should be within a year of the initial election, so that there is plenty time to build a campaign before the next. You also need to consider by-election victors – do they need to go through the process, or do we assume that they are automatically selected for the next election?

  • Richard Gadsden 20th Dec '10 - 4:24pm

    I think we need to review “but not within the first two years of a Parliament unless there is a serious possibility of an early election”

    I’d prefer something along the lines of “but not within the first two years of a Parliament, except where the Federal Executive has indicated that they believe there to be a serious possibility of an early General Election being called”

    That doesn’t leave it in the hands of the Local Party Chair to determine whether there is a serious possibility of an early General Election.

    With the new Fixed-Term Parliaments, it may not be a necessary clause anyway.

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