Should the Lib Dems elect our (shadow) cabinet members?

The election of Ed Miliband as Labour leader — despite losing the vote among Labour party members and MPs/MEPs — presented an easy target for the Lib Dems, a party which has always believed in one-member-one-vote, and where the views of our MPs carry equal weight as any other party member.

However, there is another election about to take place within the Labour party: for the 19 places available in their shadow cabinet. All MPs are eligible to stand, and the electorate comprises their colleagues; a separate ballot will decide who will be the Labour chief whip. So far it’s estimated some 40 Labour MPs will contest the election, and at least six of those elected will be women.

In this area, Labour is, quite simply, more democratic than the Lib Dems. Our party’s shadow cabinet (and now cabinet and ministerial appointments) has never been decided by the votes of Lib Dem MPs. Historically, of course — in the pre-’97 days when the party had so few MPs portfolios were regularly doubled up — this wasn’t an issue.

But now? Well, now I’m not so sure. For example, would the list of Lib Dem MPs who weren’t picked by Nick (and who weren’t vetoed by the Tories) to serve in government look different if the party had shadow cabinet elections? Would there now be at least one female Lib Dem cabinet minister?

There are of course arguments to be made for not tying the hands of the leader — the more so when having to pick his way through a deal with a rival party — but, still, when attacking Labour for their sham of an electoral college, we should remember our party democracy is not always perfect either.

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


  • Richard Davis 28th Sep '10 - 4:41pm

    I completely agree, when in opposition we should elect our shadow cabinet, it is a much more democratic system (and embarrassing to see Labour get there first). However, when in power Labour did not elect their cabinet (to the best of my knowledge – please correct me if I’m wrong) and it may be a lot harder to do in a coalition. Although not necessarily impossible, the coalition agreement could, for example, choose the number of positions in the cabinet for both parties based on the vote share and then the party to elect representatives for those positions and the leaders choose the roles for the members.

  • Ben Johnson 28th Sep '10 - 4:44pm

    An interesting idea. However, I think that having a genuinely fair election for the leader and then allowing him/her to make this decision is a much better way of involving the membership.

    If we followed the Labour plan it would make little difference now, as elections are only for the SHADOW cabinet, not when in government. Simon Hughes and Tim Farron were both in the (appointed) libdem shadow cabinet and yet didn’t make it into government.

  • I don’t think that this is a good idea – I don’t think it is ideal for Labour, and I certainly don’t think that it would be ideal for the LibDems.

    Firstly, I don’t think that the LIbDems should compete along the lines of ‘more democracy is always better’. I know this sounds intuitively right, but I think that here, as in many other things, quality trumps quantity. With a few dozen MPs – how well would it work? I don’t think that fifty people selecting about 20,or even just 15, among them is a good setting for better democracy (even if you might call it ‘more’ democratic).

    Secondly, I think a party needs good management, and once the party had (democratically!!) decided on who the leader is, it’s better if the leader can pick a team that suits him or her. Yes, this means that at the moment, there are probably more ‘orange bookers’ in the top jobs than is representative for the party – but then, this helps with making the coalition workable at the moment. I’d prefer a team that actually manages to work together to insisting on an ideological principle (‘more democracy’).

    Thirdly, as a party which will, in the near future, depend on coalitions for getting into power, the LibDems should be even more concerned with flexibility in its top team.

    All in all, I think that this idea is taking idealism a little too far. I prefer pragmatism, and I think that this procedure isn’t doing Labour any favours.

  • @Maria

    Well the Cabinet doesn’t have to be elected,… only the ‘shadow cabinet’ in opposition.

    Why do you think ‘democracy’ leads to lesser quality?

    Pesonally I think increased democracy for things like this has always led to better quality.

    The problem with unelected cabinets is that they self-perpetuate people who share the same views. That is to say that it is hard to get lifted to the cabinet when you don’t agree with mos tof their opinions. Then of course the leader is drawn from the cabinet… so you have the views of many MP’s and party memebrs simply ignored.

    The leader is not always right, and not always a better ‘chooser’. I think democracy increases quality, it doesn’t diminish it.

  • I’m not sure it would be a good idea – surely a cabinet should be primarily selected on the basis of ability at the post at hand. Admittedly the current system doesn’t exactly promote that but I don’t see how directly electing a cabinet would improve the situation.

  • Patrick Smith 28th Sep '10 - 6:12pm

    I would be loathe to taking one single lesson in democracy from Labour, as their new Leader was elected by a late 1.3% of swing TU votes from UNISON,UNITE and the Boilermakers members etc..

    The vast majority of TU members were clearly not left alone to make their own judgement on choice of Labour Leadership candidate on their ballot papers but rather were bombarded by a vortex of tele canvassing and sent photo ballot envelopes of `you know who’ .Does that equate with transparent democracy?

    I agree with those who believe that there is democratic integrity in one member one vote for direct mailing and open `hustings’ for a new Party Leader aka Lib.Dems.

    I support the stautus quo where our elected L/D Leader the freedom to decide on his own bat the `Coalition Government’ cabinet .However, an annual review on performance of those chosen and delivery of Liberal Democrat policy might be helpful.

  • John Richardson 28th Sep '10 - 6:38pm

    IMO, there are plenty of democratic checks on the leader and he should be free to choose his own team.

  • Stephen – Under equal weightings Ed Miliband would still have won the election. In fact it would have been a much more convincing victory as he got 175519 votes in the final round compared to David’s 147220.


  • paul barker 28th Sep '10 - 7:35pm

    The point about Labours system of a vote, among MPs only, to elect their Shadow Cabinet; is that was given to compensate The PLP for losing the right to choose the Leader. Our system already takes into account our MPs “stakeholder rights” in the for any candidate for Leader to be an MP & have a core of MPs backing them. Is there a case for extending that to include the new House of Lords when we start electing them ?

  • Patrick Smith 28th Sep '10 - 9:07pm

    In reply to `Ed’ above and your point about equal weightings,I ask if the ratio of actual votes counted in the final round can be equated with how many individuals voted? How many different individual voters does 175,519 votes represent in this Election?

    Was the Labour Leadership breakdown of actual votes counted for each candidate with weighting to individual voters registered with the Electoral Reform Society?

    If this is the case, we can then adduce how many votes compared to how many individual votes were cast, in each category for each candidate i.e.PLP,Party Members and Affiliates/TU Members?

  • It does rather rely on there being enough Lib Dem MPs elected next time for there to be a contest for places.

  • As the appointment of the Cabinet is in the gift of the Prime Minister alone then it seems pretty ridiculous to not mirror this when in opposition and allow the Leader to select his own shadow cabinet as the Leader has to be able to work with his shadow cabinet so forcing people on him by an election is not a good idea IMHO

  • Er…if we were going to elect the Shadow Cabinet, shouldn’t it be the membership at large not just the MPs?

  • Roy's Claret Army 29th Sep '10 - 12:44pm

    Not as many people had more than one vote as you may think. Many Labour members are in unions not affliliated to the Labour Party like NUS, NUT, UCU, Civil Service Unions and the Local Government part of Unison.

  • Patrick Smith 29th Sep '10 - 4:55pm

    Roys Claret Army tells us that there were fewer multiple votes in the Labour Leader Election than some people would think.I am asking what are the actual figures to substantiate this,so that we can test this assertion?

    As a founder Liberal Democrat Member I sense there is now a new palpable sense of `Fairness’ in the air since the demise of the Labour Vote on May 5th 2010 by a margin of 91 Seats with only 8 Labour MPs now held in the South outside London.

    Let us not forget that Labour recorded there second lowest national vote at 29.8% since 1918 but it still yielded them 258 Seats.under FPTP.The L/D national vote was 24% and only equated to 57 MPs .Electoroal Reform is long overdue since first mooted in 1919.

    More openness and to clean up politics was what people were asking for with a marked different Leadership style and culture that is now a benchmark in this `Coalition Government’ in the light of the `MP Expenses’ scandal.

    I believe there is more public trust in the `Coalition Government’ to do better than Labour demonstrated by their authoritarian approach over 13 years.

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