Party Reforms – My Unanswered Questions

Back in September, I wrote on the subject of the proposed party reforms here on Lib Dem voice. In my article, I raised a number of questions over how balloting of these new supporters would work and what was being put in place to create a robust internal democracy based on full and comprehensive debate, accessible from across the liberal movement. Well, I’m here to tell you how many of my questions have been answered in the intervening months. The answer is, precisely, none of them.

Others have written better than myself on the possibility of entryism and the lack of consistent, detailed safeguarding proposals – I wish to focus here, as I did then, on the issue of member democracy and engagement with the supporters scheme across the party. I believed then, and still believe now (no supporter of the scheme has even tried to convince me otherwise) that engaging supporters with decision making power whilst only exposing them to a single source of information within the party risks creating a centralised system in which vague initiatives could be put to the “supporter base” for indicative votes and the results of such polls used to “gently persuade” conference to back a particular specific motion. If that sounds a familiar worry, dear reader, you’re not alone in the disconcerting sense of déjà vu. 

Access to information on what people are really voting for is a crucial issue in any democracy, and our internal democracy must be no exception. In my previous article I asked whether the party’s internal member organisations would have any way of engaging with supporters to help bring them into internal debates and ensure that supporters could form meaningful opinions on the major internal issues of the day – to the best of my knowledge, it’s still not clear beyond a vague promise in the motion to “provide guidance” how and whether our core Specified Associated Organisations would be able to interact with them, let alone many of the policy activism groups which are wholly unmentioned despite often providing the lifeblood of member engagement in policymaking. The potential spectre of HQ going to the supporters saying “we’ve got a fantastic idea, don’t you think it’s good” and the supporters saying “yes”, with nobody having the right to give an alternative viewpoint, would not create a useful polling exercise let alone a useful democratic one.

I’m disappointed by the lack of engagement from those pushing this scheme with these issues I raised months ago, and I worry it betrays a fundamental problem of mindset surrounding this area. The campaign in favour of these proposals says “we know you’re worried: trust the people in charge and do it anyway”. That’s not how we work as Liberal Democrats. As a party member, I feel that it’s my duty as well as my right to do due diligence regarding the party’s structures and how it makes decisions. On that basis, I can’t back a system where these weaknesses haven’t been properly engaged on let alone satisfactorily resolved. We’ve all seen the problems in recent years of having disengaged, under-informed, skewed votes on important issues – let’s not find we’ve ended up making that a major feature of our own party’s systems. Instead, this weekend we should give these somewhat superficial measures a pass, and refocus necessary calls for reform on looking more seriously at how we build an engaged, informed democratic force fit for 21st century liberal politics.

* James Baillie is a member and activist from Breckland and a former chair of the Lib Dems' Radical Association. He lives and works in Vienna, Austria, as a historian specialising in digital methods and on the history of the Caucasus region. He blogs about politics at

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  • Hear, hear!

  • I trust that you plan to make these points in the Conference debate tomorrow afternoon, James?

  • James Baillie 15th Mar '19 - 12:56pm

    Sean – sadly I won’t be there. I can only really get to one conference per year and it tends to be Autumn. I’m currently out of the UK most of the time doing my PhD, and on a grad student budget which makes extensive travel difficult. I’d very much encourage anyone who is speaking to pull anything useful out of the above though!

  • Well said. It’s been kept very quiet exactly why *these* plans for “opening up” the party, and how exactly they’re expected to achieve their goals.

  • David Evershed 15th Mar '19 - 2:59pm

    We are bombarded with propaganda from all sides to support the supporter scheme – including on Lib Dem Voice.

    In my view this bombardment amounts to harrassment and an attempt to bounce the party members into something they do not agree with.

  • Tony Greaves 15th Mar '19 - 8:35pm

    Richard still sent me a note saying how pleased he was when I got in the Lords! Perhaps she thought I could not be neutralised. Oh well, 19 years later…

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