Sal Brinton writes: A chance to change the face of our politics by engaging with supporters

At Spring Conference at York we will be debating the role of supporters of the party. This follows the extensive consultation we had in the Autumn. You will remember that we had two consultation sessions at Brighton (you can find the consultation document here , after which the Federal Board arranged for a series of further consultation sessions around the country, as well as member webinars and an online survey. Many thanks to the thousands of you who asked questions and also responded to the survey.  At these sessions we promised that members would have the final say on the details of a registered supporter scheme, and we will vote on them on Saturday afternoon at Conference. You can find the Business Motion setting out the arrangements starting on Page 42, with constitutional amendments starting on Page 46, of the Conference Agenda.

Most of you told us that you liked the idea of registered supporters, and understood that the idea of attracting people who might not want to join the party straight away, but who were valuable campaigners, both online and in person, was something we should focus on. The Federal Board has been applying these principles to our Exit from Brexit campaign, and in a few short months 250,000 people have supported the campaign, many donating to the party. 

The proposals say that we should look at giving registered supporters some rights – not as many as members: members should always have an increased level of rights. These include allowing registered supporters the right to vote for a potential leader of the party (but not to nominate a candidate for Leader: that remains with members only). It also proposes allowing non-MPs to stand for Leader, broadening our base. These latter proposals require changes to the Constitution, so will be voted on separately requiring a 2/3 majority. 

So where have these proposals come from? We know that our sister parties The Liberal Party of Canada and En Marche in France changed the face of their politics by energising supporters who rapidly became members, activists and campaigners over a very short space of time resulting in brilliant campaigns. Both parties won victories at their elections with their larger teams. 

We Liberal Democrats had over 4 million voters at the last General Election and we are sustaining our membership of around 100,000. But there is a big gap between those numbers. A registered supporter scheme can draw people in larger numbers than directly to our membership to help transform what we are doing locally and nationally. 

Our business motion sets out the practical arrangements for supporters and members. We remain the one mainstream party whose members have a much greater say in running the party, whether making policy, setting party strategy, selecting your candidates locally and running the party through extensive elections to party committees, and that will not change.  When I travel round the country I hear many of you ask how we can mobilise those who vote for us to help win local and parliamentary elections. Our sister parties have found that a registered supporter scheme does just that. 

Miranda Roberts, our Chair of the Federal People Development Committee has written a more detailed guide to how the scheme will work which you can find here . I hope that this answers any questions that you may have. 

Not everyone agrees with the idea of supporters having a say in the leadership elections, and others have concerns about allowing non-MPs to stand for leader, but many do think it will help attract supporters. Given how many of you have said you do like the idea of the registered supporter scheme I hope you will let your voice be heard in the debate too: I believe that encouraging these new campaigners to get involved will help to transform our party and give us the fighting power we need to transform national politics. I look forward to hearing the debate in York!

* Baroness Sal Brinton is President of the Liberal Democrats. She is a working Lib Dem peer, and was the candidate for Watford at the 2010 and 2005 General Elections.

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  • Sal – can I remind you that the consultation paper on the registered supporters scheme promised a ballot of all members first, and that conference motions would only be prepared if approved in the ballot.

    That ballot has never been held.

    So this fundamental change to the party will be decided without taking into consideration the views of the overwhelming majority of members who don’t/can’t attend Conference.

  • Mick Taylor 27th Feb '19 - 7:42pm

    Happy with a registered supporters scheme. Will not support non MP as leader nor supporters voting for leader. Simples

  • Nom de Plume 27th Feb '19 - 8:37pm

    I am more comfortable with a non MP as leader:

    1. Why limit your options?
    2. Any leader would have to be elected.
    2.1 Any MP would have the important advantage of being able to represent the party in the Commons.
    2.2 From 2.1 it follows that any non MP candidate would have to be exceptional or the circumstances exceptional.
    2.3 Such an (unlikely) circumstance would be if there were no MPs or none stood for election. Perhaps leadership (and its pressures) does not appeal to every MP. Perhaps the potential candidate list should be extended to the House of Lords only.

  • Martin Land 27th Feb '19 - 8:42pm

    Not very keen, frankly. It really doesn’t seem too much to ask you to join a party you claim to support.

  • Mark Blackburn 27th Feb '19 - 8:51pm

    So a quarter of a million people have supported/donated to our Exit from Brexit campaign, without the need for a Registered Supporters Scheme? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, especially when there’s an awful lot else on the to-do list.

  • @Mark: Except the system that we currently have is broken – broken in ways that make life harder for local parties, reduce the amount of volunteer effort we get and hold us back.

    For example, it’s great that we’ve got over 250,000 national campaign supporters – but not all of the data from them goes to local parties, so local parties don’t get to reap the full benefits of being able to get such people active locally. (Some data does flow through, and from that we know that many of these people are willing to be active locally – which is a great reason to change the way we do things so that we can get more of those benefits.).

    Another example is that if one of those supporters moves between local parties, then local parties don’t get the sort of alerts about a new person moving in that they do with new members. Again, that makes life harder and means we’re weaker.

    Or take what some great local parties do to run de facto local supporter schemes themselves at the moment – save that we’re then not very good at sharing the best practice about what works and what doesn’t work.

    There are plenty more examples I can give. The basic picture is very simple: there are lots of signs that plenty of people are keen to help us but for a variety of reasons don’t want to join. Likewise there are plenty of ways in which we don’t make the best use of these opportunities.

    Introducing a integrated, well-designed supporters scheme that is designed to benefit all parts of the party would be a way to fix things that are broken in myriad ways. And helping us be bigger, involving more people and campaigning more absolutely should be right at the top as one of our big priorities.

  • 1. Nick Baird is right – what happened to the promised ballot?
    2. I have no objection to the general principle of a registered supporters’ scheme – but I very much doubt whether it will, in itself, do that much to transform the party’s political fortunes.
    3. I will need a lot of convincing before I consider voting to allow (a) registered supporters to participate in party leadership elections or (b) non MPs to stand for election as leader.
    4. I note the reasons given in support of the proposal to allow members of other parties to become registered supporters (although not to vote for party leader) – but, regardless of these arguments, how reasonable is it to expect such people to “sign up” to Lib Dem values, e.g. if they only vote tactically for us?

  • I totally disagree with the present ideas about the scheme. My belief is that the members should run the party – in fact they are the party. It is not a question of their having ‘increased rights’.
    The way in which the scheme has been sold is as affront to democracy. Compared to the time before the coalition the party has appeared to lose its way. What should have happened was a thorough analysis of a way forward. The question should be what the members see as the problem and what members think should be done about it.
    What has happened is that someone has had an idea, and proceeded to sell it, using the machinery of the party.
    However they are unable to find any justification for the scheme, so they plough on anyway.
    The reality is that if we persuade any of our supporters to register as supporters I assume they will be sent the sort of emails that I receive which tell me nothing but do ask me for money. I live in a ward where many people involve themselves in helping the party, but do not wish to be members. In fact most would have serious doubts about thinking of themselves as part of the party they see on the television. I dread to think what many would think if they saw the regular emails – emails that preach but do not recognise that this is a members’ organisation.
    What is clearly needed is to involve members in a discussion on the future of the party. How this should be done is a challenge. It is a challenge we need to take on. The country needs these ideas. We need to introduce new ideas for democracy in twenty first century. The spread of internet access needs to be used to enable members to be a part of the decision making process.
    This scheme does not take us forward. I oppose all that is happening as being a symptom of our problems rather a cure.

  • I have no objection in principle to a registered supporters’ scheme.
    I have a lot of objections to letting registered supporters vote for leader, or anything else, without going through the ballot of all members which has not happened. It’s almost like SOMEBODY wants to push this through without letting members have their say. I wonder why that could be?

    * side eye TIG *

  • OnceALibDem 28th Feb '19 - 1:48am

    “others have concerns about allowing non-MPs to stand for leader, but many do think it will help attract supporters”

    There are lots of things that you can find some, even many people to think will be the case.

    A sensible party will make decisions based on some actual evidence. And the proposers of such ideas would usually put some forward.

    What is clear though is that Vince has first hand experience of the talent available within the Parliamentary Party. And he thinks the party needs to look outside the Parliamentary party for future leaders.

  • @Mark Pack – while I don’t disagree with what you say, I think that the top priority needs to be changing the culture within the party so that more of our actual members get actively involved.

    In my (OK, fairly limited) experience, new members join full of enthusiasm because they are motivated to try to change something. They then get handed a pile of Focus leaflets to deliver and asked for money. They struggle to understand and then get involved the hard politics of policy and campaigning, because those processes are very opaque and the party doesn’t know how to involve or welcome lots of people with small amounts of time to give (even though they care passionately enough to take the rare step of joining a political party).

    If we don’t fix that first, the value added by lots of even less committed registered supporters will be limited.

    We could start by opening up Conference to the thousands of us who for various reasons can’t attend in person. In this day and age, surely members should be able to follow debates and then vote online on policy motions?

  • Helen Dudden 28th Feb '19 - 9:01am

    Politics is broken, that’s about all you can say.
    I’m surprised how long anti Semitic comments have been allowed to go on. That’s both in the UK and the EU. Knife crime at an all time high, most certainly I stay away from London.
    MPs should have to follow a behaviour code, stricter than it is. The Jewish Community contributed to our war effort, they fought with for us.
    I’m part French, and follow religious beliefs, that would make life difficult if I travelled to several countries in the EU.
    Deeply ashamed by the comments of some MPs, my complaints personally have been sent.
    Time to wake up and smell the coffee.
    When I had problems with law in the EU, I went back to my MP, nothing there. I remember the efforts of Graham Watson, Graham listened but little he could do.
    I do still remember his continued support of Gibraltar.
    You would think the amount of highly paid MPs in London could support a deal with the EU. You would think the Anti Semitic comments could be prevented. You would think there would be concerns on knife crime.

  • David Becket 28th Feb '19 - 9:11am

    This is not the most important issue facing our party and country, and we should be spending time at York on a debate that will generate positive publicity. At 6-9% in the polls and the country heading for disaster this is no time for naval gazing. We deserve better.

  • chris moore 28th Feb '19 - 9:34am

    Sal, you say, “It also proposes allowing non-MPs to stand for Leader, broadening our base.”

    Allowing non-MPs to stand for leader in no way broadens our “base”. That makes no sense at all.

    Registered supporters’ scheme: Ok, but I don’t expect much from it. A small advance, nothng more.

  • I’m afraid we still have a party totally dominated by its leadership, and this proposal is sadly yet another example of our leaders kicking their can along the road. Nationally we are at little over 10% in the opinion polls at best, and despite being consistently and absolutely right on the national disaster that is Brexit, we get next to no publicity in the media. That is our fundamental problem.

    However, now a small group of MPs turn up on our patch, and we find that they get all the publicity and we are once again ignored. As a result, we now find ourselves at best level pegging and possibly seriously behind a bunch of sincere but largely failed anti Brexiteers of all political persuasions who are not even a political party.

    The problem our party faces is that for more than a decade our leading lights have done little more than lead us into this mess, and once in it we find they prefer to stay in it to the bitter end rather than admit they got things drastically wrong and accept the fact that they, and the rest of us, all need to change and change urgently.

    Instead we have a series of mock initiatives. Ostensibly to get the party moving forwards, but which in fact simply kick our own can further up the road. In recent conferences we have had a party strategy agreed – that does nothing more than we will behave like a political party, including such gems as build up our vote (no mention of how, just build it); campaign and target (as we have done for decades); win elections (wow); work with others; generate momentum; communicate; oh yes, and use computers. Then we had discussions on tuition fees, including a very detailed paper on a so called graduate tax, which would apply to all graduates. …. Except older ones – thanks but no thanks Vince.

    And now we have a Supporters Scheme, another quick fix for the problem our leaders won’t mention – their failure to address the consequences of coalition. A supporters scheme that we will doubtless see is supported by all the usual faces, but a supporters scheme that again puts off even starting to face up to our problems to another day.

  • Helen Dudden 28th Feb '19 - 12:13pm

    It should be important that our country is safer. This idea of political ideals before service to country, lacks something.
    I’ve just heard extra spending on Anti Semitic issues. With comments flowing from one party, that is supposed to be part of our voice in parliament.
    What is more important? Your ranking, or the problems we are facing?

  • John Barrett 28th Feb '19 - 1:12pm

    I agree with the comments from Tom Harney which say “I totally disagree with the present ideas about the scheme. My belief is that the members should run the party – in fact they are the party. It is not a question of their having ‘increased rights’. The way in which the scheme has been sold is as affront to democracy.”

    Any organised local party or campaigner will encourage and use members and supporters in the best way possible and in a way that suits both groups.

    When I was an agent and organiser and later elected as a councillor, then an MP here in Edinburgh West we had as many supporters as members and often there was a wide variety of reasons for that support from those who did not want to become members – and every supporter was asked if they would join up, at least once.

    Many supporters were happy to donate to local campaigns only and as they had not been subjected to all the fundraising emails from the central party asking for money, this gave a welcome boost to local campaign funds.

    Some people were supporters because they were friends and family, others liked to help a worthwhile cause, others came from afar where Lib-Dems could never win, some supported us for tactical reasons and many others wanted to help for a wide variety of other reasons, but had decided that they did not want to join a political party.

    I suspect that the proposed scheme will do little or nothing to help our present position or strength, as many who would not join the party would probably not sign up to the supporters scheme for the same reasons they would not join our party, and who could blame them.

    If that is the case, the time and effort spent discussing this proposed scheme could be spent on far more worthwhile issues and those supporters could still be valued and encouraged, as many have been for decades.

    The claim by Sal that, “A registered supporter scheme can draw people in larger numbers than directly to our membership to help transform what we are doing locally and nationally.” is wishful thinking and will only be true if the proposed scheme gets more from the supporters than existing supporters presently contribute.

    Like many others, I am not holding my breath on this one.  

  • Peter Hayes 28th Feb '19 - 2:17pm

    I have been a member for many years and a supporter even longer. It was only when I moved to a constituency which was a Con/LibDem marginal that I joined as I felt I could now make a difference locally. It was only when I was made redundant that I discovered the LibDems had a flexible scale of membership fees. So maybe we should consider a low cost supporters scheme to draw potential full members in. Not too happy with not MP leader, maybe a member of the Lords, while it exists, in the depth of dispair!

  • David Becket 28th Feb '19 - 2:36pm

    @ David Evans

    Very very well said. If only our leaders were listening.

  • As per Sal and Mark Pack, ONLY the membership can put up candidates for leader. The candidate for leader then has to appeal to both members and supporters.
    And… said leader then has to be able to appeal to that ‘third class’ Voters. 😃

    As for evidence, Canada has a Liberal PM, France has Macron, we have TIG, a non party, but with a supporters scheme, beating us in the polls and raising money. Shall we forever seek perfection, or achieve power?

  • Actually as it happens @David Raw, Sal Brinton is arguably wrong in saying that En Marche is a sister party as it happens, as it is not a member of ALDE or Liberal International – different parties in France are.

    (I believe there is one MEP who is now a member of En Marche who is a member of the ALDE group in the European Parliament – a slightly different thing. He was elected for a different centrist party – the last European Parliament elections were obv. before En Marche was set up).

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Feb '19 - 4:26pm

    A really good thing, to broaden our horizons in life and activities. Thus in our political attitude and in effect. A supporter scheme is ok, as it does reach beyond the business as per very usual. Such as is our lack of a vast number of mps, I like the non mp possible leader idea, have since I advanced it years ago, as in the USA in their presidential races.

    This party needs to listen to such as Helen Dudden.

    It does not speak from or too the heart only that way on Brexit or refugees.

    I am of the view that our mps are too strong on fringe issues or minority pursuits.

    We nee to speak for people and common humanity and common sense.

  • I note this is another article putting the case why we should agreeing something that has come from the centre and the party hierarchy. What would be much more interesting would be how the Liberal Party in Canada and En Marche in France run their supporter schemes, how many staff support it and what sort of communication does the centre have with their supporters and what benefit these supporters bring. And how much it costs?

    I remember discussions about what the minimum membership fee should be and being told that it should cover the cost of ‘administering’ the membership. So if it costs £12 a year to ‘administer’ one member how much will it cost to ‘administer’ one supporter?

    Like others I have nothing wrong in principle with a supporter’s scheme, but as members are treated so badly, I have no confidence that supporters would be treated any better. We are sent propaganda, requests for money and requests for help but little that values our opinions.

    If when we got emails from HQ we were encouraged to reply this would be a start. If when we emailed Sal our president or Vince our leader we got a personalised reply which valued us emailing them this would an improvement.

  • Sean Hyland 28th Feb '19 - 7:12pm

    Wasn’t there a facility on the party website for people to sign up to indicate interest if the scheme went ahead? Have any figures been mentioned from this as it might give an indication of public interest.

    As a Lib Dem voters i would perhaps be seen as a possible sign up to the scheme but don’t see myself doing so.

  • John Barrett 28th Feb '19 - 8:51pm

    David Evans – How true, especially the phrases “And now we have a Supporters Scheme, another quick fix for the problem our leaders won’t mention – their failure to address the consequences of coalition.” and “Instead we have a series of mock initiatives.”

    This sums up why people like me no longer wish to attend Party Conferences.

  • David Evershed 1st Mar '19 - 1:03am

    There are no barriers to people becoming members of the party.

    There is no reason for a separate supporters group which would just make life more complicated for local and national officers to administer.

  • OnceALibDem 1st Mar '19 - 11:13am

    “As for evidence, Canada has a Liberal PM, France has Macron,”

    Neither seems to be going completely well….

  • There are people who should vote against a supporters’ scheme and that is those who are in large local parties where they have signed up all their poster sites and helpers as members.

    For everyone else, they clearly have people in their local parties who are more than just Lib Dem voters but are not members. To have a systematic register of these people that wish it is clearly beneficial to the party – locally and nationally.

    Clearly there is some “barrier” to people becoming members. I suspect one of the biggest is a reluctance to ask people to become members. But there is also myths around political parties, people think they have to “sell their soul” to it etc. And any financial barrier if a barrier. There are many campaign groups that I support that I haven’t become a member of (indeed the Lib Dems are the only one) but would become a registered supporter of.

    Clearly also since we drew up our constitution, we have had the internet arrive! And it makes a lot of sense in an internet age.

    There may be issues about how we engage our members that @Michael BG raises but we also elect members of our federal board to administer our party and if they are not doing it properly then we should throw them out at the next party elections.

    The “marginal” cost of administering one extra member (or supporter) may be negligible but that is different from the average cost and clearly a base of members gives us income. Personally I would like to see a minimum membership fee of £1.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Mar '19 - 10:30am

    Compare the Conservative Party. Lord Halifax did not become leader in 1940, his peerage may have been an important factor, although there were other important factors.
    PM Harold MacMillan was succeeded by an hereditary peer, much mocked by the Labour leader Harold Wilson. Legislation enabled an entrance to the Commons in a bye-election.
    PM Margaret Thatcher eventually became a life peer, after arranging new hereditary peerages for the Speaker, who was unmarried and childless and for the Deputy PM, who had daughters.
    She also arranged an hereditary knighthood for her husband, who was reportedly worthy of a sainthood, and who has since died causing the knighthood to transfer to their son. He had a twin, non-identical, female.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Mar '19 - 5:24pm

    Because the leader needed to be an MP, the position of the President was intended for an elected heavyweight who was not an MP and could therefore provide balance to the (first) leader. The first presidential election happened simultaneously with the first leadership election and produced a president who was a former MP and a parliamentary candidate. He has become a peer – no criticism is implied.
    The desire for “balance” created pressure for the popular Charles Kennedy to stand for the presidency despite being an MP. At that stage the presidency began to look like a staging post for the leadership, but the workload of an MP inevitably reduces the time available for any other duties.
    Paddy Ashdown had stood as a Liberal in Yeovil before being elected for the Liberal-SDP Alliance, but over a period of time the two political strands started to gradually cohere so that “balance” became less important. Paddy had demonstrated ample physical courage, such as not wearing a flak jacket in Sarajevo. Charles demonstrated political courage as leader by opposing the Labour-Tory consensus on George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The former Tory leader is still an MP. Tony Blair has not taken a peerage. Charles was right. Lib Dem MPs were unanimous about the legal situation. The number of LIb Dem MPs increased to a level not since reached, not even in 2010.
    Another MP became president before becoming leader. I supported his brief re-election campaign for the presidency. As leader he exhibited strongly held principal principles, for instance about asylum and people drowning in the Med or reaching severely overcrowded camps on land. A Lib Dem leader is not a commander, as the press and media are reluctant to accept, but the party should have done more to follow his lead and support him. this was not a case of the president trying to “balance” the leader.
    Whoever is elected as the next leader can look forward to an increased constituency majority as the electorate recognises his/her importance and should demonstrate courage.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Mar '19 - 5:44pm

    Lib Dems in the UK can look to Canada for inspiration. Winning a general election from third place is a cause for congratulation, but the federal system limits the role of central government. Winning bye-elections such as Eastbourne and Ribble Valley enthused the party because of the consequences for the tory government. Winning Richmond was good, but losing it in 2017 was a pity.
    In the Liberal International Canadian Liberals have tended to excessive modesty, saying “nobody listens to us”, but we should understand that they are “sleeping with an elephant”. It would be hard to imagine the largest member state of NAFTA exhibiting similar modesty under its current president.

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