Party reform: why I wouldn’t set out from here

As Mary Regnier-Wilson has pointed out in a comment on David Murray’s article, the Liberal Democrats Party is meant to support proportional representation; yet the Scottish and Welsh state party representatives on every committee are there to represent only a small proportion of the party’s total membership while the English state reps are meant to represent the rest, which is not proportional at all. The practical effect is that the members in Scotland and Wales have built-in massive over-representation on federal committees.

It is a bit like the US electoral college which gives more say over the White House per voter to voters in sparsely populated states like Wyoming than in populous states.

The geographical distribution of the membership reflects the reality that most people in Britain live in cities; and densely-populated London is the biggest in Europe by a long way. The English state party has divided itself into regions (they were originally not mentioned in the federal constitution, and now are only mentioned once, briefly, by amendment), which is a tacit admission that for the party’s purposes it is too big. London region’s membership is by far the biggest with East of England and the North West’s some way behind, followed by other regions. Nearly all England’s regional memberships dwarf those of Scotland or Wales.

The English state party has handed its policymaking powers to the Federal party, which is a tacit admission that the English state party and the Federal party are almost co-extensive. (The arrangement is not working properly: the English Council recently passed an emergency motion calling on the Federal Conference Committee to accept amendments to the federalism motion at the Autumn conference where appropriate to England’s and its regions’ constitutional arrangements within a federal UK. It is extremely unsatisfactory that the English Council felt that to be necessary.)

Despite refraining from making policy, the English state party has financial clout from membership fee income. Yet most members join via the party website, and they probably have no idea they are joining the English state party. They think they are joining a national party. We also have members whose membership doesn’t fit into any of the state parties: the overseas members.

The desire of our members in Scotland and Wales for separateness and autonomy is understandable because in our history the kingdom of England has always overshadowed Scotland and Wales in an unbalanced power relationship, and it still does. At the same time, as David Craddock indicated in another comment on the above link, the English regions’ needs matter, and not enough of them have received due consideration or a fair share of resources of late. The centralising tendency must be reversed.

The party as a whole’s current internal arrangements don’t make sense. It calls its bunch of constitutions federal, but they contain, set in stone, “state parties” arrangements that don’t work as a federal arrangement. And it isn’t fair that they don’t represent the membership proportionately.

So I’d much rather not set out from here. But here we are.

Reforms must not be superficial tinkering. To be the best we can be, we need outside help to review the whole collection of party constitutions and reach a fresh settlement that works and practises our values.

* Jo Hayes is a party activist, Chair of the East of England Regional Party and a member of the party's Federal Board.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters.


  • Never having had to bother with such matters before I note that all parts of the Federal Party expose themselves to scrutiny at the Federal Conference which is good. However, the English Party and its committees do not report directly to Federal Conference ? I assume Scottish and Welsh Party’s do to their respective conferences. Is there therefore an asymmetry here ? Is there a place where the English Party subjects itself to the same scrutiny as its fellow ‘national’ parties? I genuinely don’t know. Does anyone ?

  • Ignore gross punctuation errors above.

  • John Pugh: the English Party does not report to Federal Conference. It doesn’t have a conference of its own. The English Council Executive reports to the English Council, which to quote Article 5.2 of its constitution is the “sovereign body” and consists of the chairs of the regional parties and 150 council representatives elected annually from the regions and from the Young Liberals. The 150 places are allocated among the regions and Young Liberals in proportion to their memberships. This means that the English Party does not observe the principle of One Member One Vote or OMOV. Such scrutiny as it gets is at meetings of the English Council. It doesn’t make policy on England. If it took back policymaking for England from the Federal Party, on the OMOV principle it would need to hold an English conference for the members.

  • richard underhill. 24th Aug '20 - 3:08pm

    Jo Hayes | Mon 24th August 2020 – 12:25 pm
    “As Mary Regnier-Wilson has pointed out in a comment on David Murray’s article, the Liberal Democrats Party is meant to support proportional representation;”
    NO WE DO NOT!! WE support STV, as we obvious when there was a thinly supported referendum on the electoral system. The wrong question and the wrong answer.
    This is David Steel’s moderation and flexibility, calling for a “fair election system” after he had done a serious party political broadcast in support of the Single Transferable Vote, in which he emphasised that, for a Liberal, Policy was Policy.
    The brilliant John Cleese did another, at the end sitting at the feet of Doctor Owen.
    John Cleese later came to Liberal Democrat federal conference and gave us a speech about psychiatry, on which he had written a book, jointly with his psychiatrist, a heavy tome.
    In the process he covered all Lib Dem policy, including regional local government in England, which Charles Kennedy covered at a fringe meeting in Glasgow, mainly about helping Tony Blair in his Sedgefield constituency, in the northeast of England. Since then the Tories have done something different, without a link to the House of Lords. If we wish to improve on what the Tories have done we would need to abolish their legislation.

  • I agree entirely with the general thrust of this article but at the risk of being pedantic can I just point out that the American Electoral College allocates votes on the basis of populations size, eg Wyoming has 3 votes, California 55, New York 20 etc,
    It follows that what we need is something akin to the USA electoral college in allocating representation in our federal arrangements.

  • richard underhill. 24th Aug '20 - 3:22pm

    Jo Hayes | Mon 24th August 2020 – 12:25 pm
    “It is a bit like the US electoral college which gives more say over the White House per voter to voters in sparsely populated states like Wyoming than in populous states.”
    I have asked Americans who came to Liberal International meetings about that. They had thought about it, but do not support a change. The density of population in the USA is very variable, large towns and cities would be increasingly empowered, whereas “Fly Over America” would lose influence with damaging effects on their interests. An alternative would be more proportionality in primary elections.

  • @ Jo Hayes Be careful, Jo. You’re giving ammunition to the SNP – and probably upsetting the dear Editor of LDV.

    I’d argue that Scotland might not have the membership numbers of the soft and moneyed South East (legacy of the swing to the right during the Clegg years), but it makes up in quality what it may lack in quantity punching well above its weight. It provides nearly 40% of the Westminster parliamentary party and has provided five out of the last nine Liberal/Lib Dem Party Leaders.

    Oh, and do please take care (aren’t you a lawyer ?) when talking about ‘the Kingdom of England’. That ended way back in 1707…… and……. haven’t we got a Queen at the moment ?

    If you visit Scotland there mayeven be a chorus of ‘We’ll send you home to think again”.

  • David Craddock 24th Aug '20 - 4:16pm

    A really good clear artical by Jo Hayes. I’m not at all unhappy with the influence that Wales and Scotland has within the party – good luck to them! I’d just like the regions of England to have a similar voice and influence within the party. For a party that purports to be the champion of localism, enterprise and communities our organisation is very centralised and one could say un-democratic. I appreciate that organisational change isn’t everything, but if ever there was a good time to make changes and become a more democratic and representative of our regional membership – now is it. I am worried that the current proposed changes are piecemeal and wont provide the benefits we need in response to the Thornhill Review. The Lib Dem structure is far to complex for such a small organisation and enternal support would help us to take a more holistic approach and maybe address party ‘sacred cows’.

  • Simon McGrath 24th Aug '20 - 6:40pm

    surely the analogy is much closer to seats in the Senate where Vermont ( pop 600k) has the same number of Senators as California (pop 30m) ?
    As with the Senate there are arguments for what otherwise looks like blatant unfariness

  • Noting that the problem in the US isn’t the electoral college, which does relate to population as others have said, but the Senate, where every state gets two senators and DC no representation at all, and the House, which is unbelievably gerrymandered…

    The real problem in our party is all the cross-nomination between committees and between one part of the party and another, which is directly responsible for the cliques and yes-people that wrecked our General Election campaign as identified by the Thornhill Report.

    The solution isn’t to worry about Scotland or Wales but to remove all of the nominated posts and open the committees simply to direct election.

  • Chris Cory: in the USA each state gets a minimum of three electoral votes, regardless of population. It’s this which gives low-population states a disproportionate number of electoral college electors per head of population. For example, an electoral vote represents nearly four times as many people in California as in Wyoming. I;ve read that the original reason for this was so that states which enfranchised slaves and/or gave women the vote would not get an advantage over other states. Whether that’s correct or not, over time the electoral college has given increasing advantage to sparsely populated states as Americans move to the cities. If the electoral college did, as you suggest, truly reflect each state’s population, Hillary Clinton would have been President, as she got nearly 3m more votes than Donald Trump. As it happened, populations in sparsely populated states voted heavily for Trump.

  • Nonconformistradical 24th Aug '20 - 7:16pm

    I understood the 2 senators per state in the US Senate was decided when the country’s population was much smaller and more evenly distributed than it is now and the idea was that rural states shouldn’t be overwhelmed by urban ones. That no longer works since urban populations have increased much faster than rural ones, giving rural states undue influence in situations where the bulk of the population is in urban areas and the majority of that urban population disagrees with the rural states over some matter of concern.

  • Malcolm Todd 24th Aug '20 - 8:31pm

    Jo Hayes 24th Aug ’20 – 7:13pm

    “If the electoral college did, as you suggest, truly reflect each state’s population, Hillary Clinton would have been President, as she got nearly 3m more votes than Donald Trump. As it happened, populations in sparsely populated states voted heavily for Trump.”

    Popular myth. Completely wrong. The “small state” advantage subsists entirely in the extra 2 electors per state (since the other 435 electors, disregarding D.C., are indeed distributed according to population). Trump won 30 states and 304 electoral votes. Clinton won 20 states, D.C. and 227 votes. Without the “+2” Trump would have therefore won by 244-185 (maybe slightly less if D.C. were given the 2 or 3 votes its population deserves instead of just 1).
    So Trump didn’t win because smaller states voted for him (they didn’t, particularly). He won because of the winner-takes-all system and winning more states by small majorities (or to put it another way, he did better in the marginals, whilst having fewer safe seats). Details here:
    The distinction isn’t academic or merely pedantic – it’s important to understand the real reasons why the electoral college system is a shockingly bad system; the “small state advantage” thing is essentially a red herring.

  • Tobias Sedlmeier 24th Aug '20 - 10:19pm

    There are three alternative paradigms for internal representation within political parties:

    (i) Representation by membership – or OMOV. This means that if a political party has a concentration of members in some parts of the country the membership in those parts will continue to drive policy.

    (ii) Representation by elected representatives. Internal decision-making is driven by elected representatives so those areas where the party gets people elected, and those elected, drive policy. This is different from (i) but tends to have the same bias.

    (iii) Representation by general population. Different areas get representation based on, roughly, their population, regardless of the level of membership in those areas. This can give a lot of clout to a relatively small number of members in areas where the party has lower than average membership.

    There is no right answer among (i), (ii) and (iii). In my view, internal elections in a political party best reflect a balance among them.

    I would say that the LibDems used to be a devolutionist/subsidiarianist/localist-oriented party that, over the past 15 years has become a centralising/monocultural party. That reflects the tendency of European liberal/centrist parties generally., e.g. Ciduanos in Spain and VVD in The Netherlands. I’m not sure what the reasons for that are. I suspect that increasing professionalisation of party workers and elected representations has played a role.

  • We may be trying too hard to reconcile the structure of the UK as we would like to see it with the ‘reality on the ground’ of a mixture of national, local, and metropolitan authorities that actually exist and we have representatives on.

    The English regions in the Party probably reflected member population distributions at the time constitutions were written rather than anything meaningful. For instance “Devon and Cornwall” (where I live) is not a real region or a socially-distinct population group. (Many in Cornwall consider themselves to be distinct whereas Devon historically belonged to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex).

    With an increasingly fluid population, regional identities are hard to define; an issue which lies at the heart of the English regional problem. Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were an awful lot easier.

  • Andrew Toye’s argument that regions are hard to define cannot be used as an excuse never to do anything. UK constitutional reform or not we either to continue to have a centralised English state with no sensible tier of government between Westminster and local councils or we define a set of regions. Oh, and not some chaotic halfway house where some areas have powerful regional bodies but other don’t, just creating a thousand English versions of the West Lothian Question.

    Yes, some parts of England have strong and clearly defined identities others less so. Is that a barrier to defining regions whose purpose should equally for administrative practicalities as for satisfying identities where they exist, and not *solely* for one of those two purposes in the extreme? No, and the result will always be a compromise of some nature. And yet as a party we shy away from any expression of reformist vision because we can’t overcome this outrageous dithering.

  • Nonconformistradical: I believe you’re correct, and the senators are precisely why the electoral college is skewed in favour of small states, as the US federal constitution Article 2 gives each state a number of electors equal to the sum of the number of senators and representatives in the House to which the state is entitled. With two senators per state regardless of population size, plus representatives based on the last population census, states with the smallest populations get a minimum of three electors which works out at low ratio of population to each elector. This benefits rural states where people tend to favour the GOP against ones with big cities where people tend to favour the Democrats.
    Malcolm Todd: winner takes all which you describe is certainly not the only problem with the electoral college. Winner takes all is also not dependent on the US constitution, but on individual state laws. It magnifies the effect of winning states by narrow margins, as in 2000 when Bush lost the popular vote but won by winning Florida by a tiny margin. If the ratio in Wyoming of about 183k people per elector were applied to the whole US federation of about 331m people, the electoral college would have about 1800 electors, not 583. California alone would have over 200 electors which would all have gone to Clinton instead of the 55 it actually has. If you have the patience, do this calculation for all the other states in 2016.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Aug '20 - 9:50am

    “Winner takes all is also not dependent on the US constitution, but on individual state laws. It magnifies the effect of winning states by narrow margins, as in 2000 when Bush lost the popular vote but won by winning Florida by a tiny margin.”

    And with the help of hanging chads…..

  • Coming back to our own situation in the Party……….

    Jo’s article and some of the UK relevant comments do reinforce the need for wideranging Party reform. One area that I think needs reform is the shape of our regions in England. The present boundaries reflect European Parliament constitutencies. We would probably be better off with fewer regions but with more power and certainly with much bigger budgets. But at the same time a thoroughgoing review of what the Party needs may suggest that we don’t need any structures between local parties and the “centre”.

    But I am assuming that we need regional organisations and I’m quite prepare to have that assumption challenged. Let’s all be willing to put aside our assumptions and openly and honestly look at our whole way of organising ourselves. For that to be done effectively and reasonably quickly ( months rather than years) we do, as Jo suggests, need outside help.

  • richard underhill. 25th Aug '20 - 10:11am

    Jo Hayes | Mon 24th August 2020 – 12:25 pm
    Today is the 90th birthday of Sean Connery, an SNP donor, but the parliament in Edinburgh does not have an upper house. Brocolli has said that “James Bond is male” and in the books by Ian Fleming he was English and drove a Bentley while following a lorry which had large rolls of paper on it. One fell off and seriously damaged the Bentley. In Goldfinger he helped at M’s club by cheating at cards, substituting a prepared pack, as dealer, while appearing to be under the influence of Benzedrine and alcohol.
    Contract bridge expert Culbertson had designed the hands to show that if you are dealt AKQJ of spades, AKQJ of hearts, AK of diamonds and KJ9 of clubs you can still lose. The deaLer bids first and says seven clubs (Grand Slam, no losers) two passes so Goldfinger boasts and doubles. The dealer redoubles and, irrespective of the lead, executes a cross-ruff in which the dealer’s partner has all the trumps which the dealer does not have. Goldfinger gets angry at losing his substantial side bet, grabs his partner’s cards and looks for one which would defeat the redoubled grand slam.
    Unlucky. Humiliated.

    Not dramatic enough for the film? (although Culbertson was an American). Instead there is an attack on Fort Knox in which some Mafia hoodlums refuse to help and fall down some stairs (off camera) and female pilots galore (on camera).
    Bond grabs their judo leader and is thrown onto a bed of straw (not nowadays politically correct).

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 25th Aug '20 - 11:11am

    Can I just clarify I don’t have a problem with state representation.

    The Scottish and Welsh parties should have representation at a Federal level. They have their own parliaments and their own issues and their autonomy within the party should absolutely be respected.

    My issue is more that the systems we have atm, including the relative lack of effectiveness of regional parties and committees is not useful in England.

    The reasoning for regional parties was based on them being a electoral campaign unit for European elections I believe. Without those elections there is fundamentally no linkage between different areas in most regions.

    There are two different issues of organisation being conflated in our structures. At a governance and policy level our structure should I believe reflect the (admittedly less than perfect) constitutional system in the U.K. So a federal party for policy at Westminster, and separate state parties for policy in Wales and Scotland.

    At an organisational level, our function is to win elections. So we should organise ourselves to do so. Out of the EU there are no campaigning decisions that need to be made at a regional level anymore. The largest election campaigns we will run are based on PCC and mayoral elections, so we should possibly look to devolve those governance structures down to those (mainly) county areas and get rid of the artificial regional structure that do not serve us or help us to organise campaigns.

  • Gwyn Williams 25th Aug '20 - 11:56am

    The creation of the Federal Constitution in 1989 had more to do with how we wanted the governance of Great Britain to develop rather than an efficient centrally controlled political party. There were no Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd or London Assembly at that time. We envisaged further devolution to the English regions. The failed referendum in the North East put an end to that ambition. The policy of devolution on demand has been as far as we have gone for 20 years.
    The article suggests that the problem is the over representation of Scotland and Wales in the Federal Party. I suggest that it is the under representation of the English regions. However this is a matter to be decided not by the Party centrally but by our members in say Cornwall or the North East in the first instance. Other regional structures should be allowed to develop as the members in those regions believe they should.

  • David Craddock makes an important point about our party organisation: “The Lib Dem party structure is too complex for such a small organisation..” He refers to sacred cows and one of those is the English Party, which needs to be removed as an unnecessary extra layer. Gwyn Williams rightly raises more local concerns, as people often feel their regional committees do not help their local parties enough and Mary Regnier-Wilson rightly questions whether the regional structure is appropriate in its present form for campaigning purposes. However, I am convinced that an improved regional structure in place of the English party is the way forward. It must be simpler than the current structure and closer to the members.
    One factor not pointed out so far is the time some people spend on committees and trying to relate one committee to another. What a waste of limited resource!
    Jo’s point about needing outside help may well be correct, as so many activists are not confident that those on the steering group set up by the Federal Board will be radical enough; they are too set in their ways as has been shown in recent years where good suggestions such as those of David Murray’s have not even been considered.

  • Peter Hirst 25th Aug '20 - 1:34pm

    Gosh, it’s so obvious when stated. We are a democratic party that implies that numbers matter regarding representation. Each English region deserves representation on federal committees. And of course membership should go to the federal party, not the English one for English members. The former of course will increase the already high number of members on these committees. One option would be to reduce the number of directly elected members and cap total numbers at say 20.

  • If Mary were a purist in saying the party should reflect the structure of the UK in real life then we wouldn’t be a federal party at all. We would have a national party which by grace would allow Scots and Welsh Lib Dems to make policy for themselves but such status would equally be abolished at the whim of the national party. This is more or less the nature of the UK not just in terms of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments but indeed also the structures of local govt within the UK. Because the UK isn’t a federal country.

    Whilst it may be true that there is (as yet) little relevance for the regional parties, I’m firmly with Gwyn in believing our party structure should – as much as is practicable – reflect the structures of governance we would wish for the UK.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 26th Aug '20 - 12:19pm

    “our party structure should – as much as is practicable – reflect the structures of governance we would wish for the UK.”

    Whereas I believe our party structure should enable us to deliver the structures of governance we would wish for the UK.

    We can’t change the world until we learn to fight effectively in the world we have. This is not (or at least I wish it were not) a cosy utopia for us to enjoy. We need to decide what our strategic goals are and structure ourselves in a way that achieves them.

  • The question is: whilst the regional structure might not serve us campaigning for PCCs, mayors and what-have-you, given that all of those electoral issues are subregional, in what way does the regional structure actually hamper anything? We have structures within Cambridgeshire, don’t we, although there is no party constitutional structure at a county level but only at a local and regional level? If the government changes devolution deals every five or ten years, how can we possibly aim to have party structures that match these changes. There was a time when we could have had a Cambs/Suffolk/Norfolk region but instead we had a Cambs & Pboro combined authority, only a few years ago.

  • Sorry, Malcolm Todd: I was wrong about who would have won in 2016 if US electoral colleges were proportionate. I’ve done a rough calculation using the approx ratio in Wyoming of 183k per elector and the state populations as per the census estimate on 1 July 2019. Trump would still have won. However, unsurprisingly, the most populous states, California (est. 39.5m) and Texas (est. nearly 29m) assume massive importance. Richard Underhill: in March 2020 a Pew Research Center poll found that 58% of Americans favour electing the President by popular vote i.e. doing away with the electoral college.

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