Should the Lib Dem president be neutral in leadership elections?

That’s the question Jonathan Calder asked on his Liberal England blog, following Simon Hughes’s endorsement of Nick Clegg on Lib Dem Voice this week. His piece sparked a lively comments thread, and has even prompted a story in today’s Pandora column in The Independent:

Simon Hughes has found himself on the receiving end of bitter cat-calls from Liberal Democrats after wading in with his views about the current leadership contest. This week Hughes posted some comments on the political website Lib Dem Voice, in which he came out strongly in support for the candidacy of Nick Clegg. …

Hughes’s comments have provoked fury among party officials who say that, as the party’s president, he really shouldn’t be seen to be taking sides so publicly. So far, other so-called Lib Dem grandees, including the acting leader Vince Cable and former leaders Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell, have been maintaining dignified silences about their preferred choices. Although no one from Hughes’s office would comment about the uproar, supporters for both Clegg and his opponent Chris Huhne are said to be furious with the comments.

One of the likely candidates to replace Hughes as president when he stands down next year, Baroness Scott, says she would have kept her trap shut. “It is entirely a matter for the president but, personally, I wouldn’t have done it,” she tells me. “The job of the president is to act as a mouthpiece for the members. If, for example, there was a problem with the election, the president would not be seen as independent.”

For the record, Simon’s piece was submitted by Nick Clegg’s campaign team for LDV’s regular ‘Leadership Platform’ slot; so it would be a little surprising if his supporters actually were furious.

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23 Comments

  • Hywel Morgan 14th Dec '07 - 1:24pm

    “though the LDYS ballot paper also contained the option of Re-Open Nominations…”

    Who backed such a disgraceful campaign? 🙂

    However on the substantive point I don’t see why Simon should be the only (non-staff) party member not allowed to express a view. I was critical of a gag being imposed on the Euro candidates and the same principle would apply here.

    Simon’s endorsement – given that as President he’s failed on one of his key manifesto pledges and presided over the defenestration of two leaders might not be such an asset of course….

    The President could of course choose to remain silent – Diana Maddock did this in the 1999 campaign.

    It would be particularly silly when the President can actually stand for leader him//herself 🙂

  • Gob shut, impartial, mistake, cost Nick votes…my word some Hune supporters have gone in to spin “overdrive”
    Get a grip people other than staff(much like cival servannts) anyone else who is a part of the party should be able to commeny or have an public say on what they like.
    Gaging people is just stupid, if like Charlie & Ming people want to say nothing in public then so be it but to lambast Simon for backing Nick in public, come on!
    I;m sure if he came out for Chris many on this site would have kept their own gobs shut.
    Unless you want a president who no more then a “royal” with no thoughts of their own I suggest people let it go.
    The election is all but over and lets wait and see. I really don’t think Simon has helped or otherwise in Nicks favour. If anyone voted along because of what Simon did they need to take themselves to one side and have a word!!

  • Why should Paddy Ashdown and David Steel have kept quite surely we can’t exspect former leaders to take a life time vow of silence just because Ming and Charles have done this time?

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Dec '07 - 5:05pm

    The traditional role of the President in party organisations is as “Guardian of the constitution”. In this role, the President may need to intervene and make a decision on disputes. For this reason, I think the President does have a duty to stay neutral in party elections – it was a mistake for Simon to declare.

  • Geoffrey Payne 14th Dec '07 - 5:09pm

    I am a Huhne supporter and I support Simon Hughes in having the right to publicly express his leadership preference.
    After all, he previously stood for leader himself, so does being impartial mean that you cannot stand? I think that would be absurd.
    I do not like rules to prevent people in the party from expressing an opinion, I think that being in a political party is all about expressing your opinion. Personally I do not even like the concept of collective responsibility where politicians have to behave like sheep, but I accept that we have no choice but to agree to that.
    I find it ironic that there is no shortage of Liberals who argue that they dislike the state telling people what they can say, but not (in this case) the party.
    Simon’s membership goals may well have been hubristic at the time, but are we going to criticise Clegg and Huhne for their great ambitions for the party that they have now? How many new members is Ros Scott or Lembit Opik going to suggest we recruit? In any case, Simon could not have known that after his election we were going elect as leader someone who would totally fail to capture the imagination of the electorate (apologies for being harsh, but that is how the electorate responded).
    Whatever the membership targets for the party nationally, it is not Simon’s personal responsibility to recruit every one. Local parties have to do that.
    I would propose that the next president should phone up local party chairs and ask them what plans they have for their local party, including membership drives, and how a local party and the national party can help each other acheive their objectives. That way we can have realistic membership targets rather than numbers plucked from the air (OK, that is a criticism of Simon). Problem is that this would be a full time job, not something an MP could realistically do.

  • “President may need to intervene and make a decision on disputes”

    We have a Federal Appeals panel for that with it’s own chair.

  • Iain @ 7 how is that over he top? telling you lot to shut it and let it go, read between the lines my friend.

  • OK Guys

    The fact that we are having this debate demonstrates that there is not an issue. If Simon has broken any written rule why has he not been had up for it? If he has broken an “unwritten rule” what is that all about? I am sorry to sound like a flippin broken record, but get a life! Are we or are we not a liberal party??? Do we or do we not cherish freedom of speech? So all credit to those who would always be well behaved cardboard cutouts, not daring to sneeze incase they upset someone somewhere, but give me a radical who will take risks any day. It is oh so easy to take the easy road of least resistance, never to upset a soul………but that old maxim comes to mind, to make an omlette you have to crack a few eggs.

  • Of course he should be impartial.

  • Simon came out in favour of Nick weeks ago, so why the sudden uproar now?! I personally think it’s a good thing that Simon has put his head above the parapit on the leadership. He’s a tremendously influential figure with the grassroots in the party and one of the few of our MPs who really inspires. He’s a liberal to his core and i am very happy to be advised on the way forward for the party from someone who cares so passionately about liberalism and the Lib Dems.

  • But a president is a president. He/she is the guardian of the party’s soul and should not take sides in contests such as this.

  • Elizabeth Patterson 15th Dec '07 - 5:27pm

    Agree with 9.
    Simon Hughes has a particular and PRESENT role as president and supervisor of the process, so should have been impartial.
    Paddy and David Steel and Shirley Williams unfortunately broke cover, and it really diminished them as elder statesmen to show their partiality. But I thought Vince and Charles did the proper
    thing and remained silent.
    Still, having listened to Dennis Skinner on the radio 4 Week in Politics, whoever wins might have a poisoned chalice in the Commons beargarden.
    Elizabeth

  • Geoffrey Payne 15th Dec '07 - 7:02pm

    I read the intro for this column again, and I really think everything is getting out of proportion.
    How come Clegg supporters are also supposed to be “furious” when thanks to Simon, Nick produced the most effective campaign video so far, in Simon’s constituency where he actually recruited new BME students into the party? We saw the video on LDV, why did no one complain about that then?
    If the president is supposed to be impartial, why did no one propose a constitutional amendment saying so after Simon went one further and stood as a candidate the previous time?
    Why are we so anxious about what senior members of the party think anyway? The idea that we want them to “shut up” seems somewhat illiberal to me.
    I find it bazarre that for most of the time people post comments on here about how they want to be free to do what they like, but all of a sudden the etiquette of “collective responsibility”, which is only supposed to apply to shadow cabinet members of the Parliamentary party in Parliament now seems to apply to all sorts of people, even to people like Linda Jack who is not even an MEP yet.
    I think politics would be much more interesting if more politicians of all parties were free to say what they think. Do we really want to go the way of New Labour with their identikit Blairite candidates that always have to be “on message” 24/7?

  • Martin Land 15th Dec '07 - 9:53pm

    14. Linda, ignoring your one woman assault on the English Language, you make some important points. I think Simon was wrong to intervene in this manner, however, can we doubt his right to do so? I’m told from time to time by some of my councillors that as an employee I should or should not have.. Invariably this is because I have said something they disagree with. But, I’m a card carrying member of the party and I reserve the right to speak, with due attention, on any matter when I see fit.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Dec '07 - 10:10am

    The point is that Simon’s specific role as President probably ought to preclude him. As Jonathan Calder noted in starting this discussion, it’s not a role that is properly defined, but the general idea seems to be that having a symbolic leader as well as an actual leader means the symbolic leader has a position as a final arbitrator and master of ceremonies which means not getting involved in active support of one side over another in any party debate.

    I also think it is not good for the acting leader of immediate past leader to openly support a leadership candidate – doing so means the contest immediately becomes “party establishment v. rebels” and means it can’t be approached with an open mind.

    I don’t think restriction should go much further than that, probably not leaders before the resigning one, or other holders of party office. So the criticism of Simon for making an endorsement is not a call for a general ban on any senior members from doing so.

    Also, as to why now make the criticism than previously, it is a mark of our respect for Simon and our wish for this NOT to be made an issue in the current campaign that those of us who have felt uncomfortable about it have left it until now to say.

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