Some thoughts on Vince’s party reforms

I have kept reasonably quiet about Vince’s reforms since his announcement on 7th September because I wanted to let others have their say.

My sense at Conference is that people were interested in what he had to say. Everyone had things they liked and things they didn’t. They were all going to respond to the consultation with varying degrees of pleasure and pain. This is how it is supposed to be.

I do want to slightly disagree with my fellow Federal Board members who have been talking to Politics Home about the process, though. They complained about being “bounced.”

Now, I don’t think that’s fair. Certainly, back in June, there was an attempt to slip in something about a Supporters’ Scheme into the motion of the Federal Levy and Subscriptions to be discussed at Conference. The Federal Board then said “Hang on a wee minute, here.” The Federal People Development Committee was given the job of looking at this in more detail. The Committee’s amazing chair, Miranda Roberts, one of the most competent and patient people I know, has written about that process here and here. The process of holding the leadership back had thus worked.

In between times, after articles had started to appear in the press over the Summer, Vince spoke to a special meeting of the Federal Board in July about what he was thinking about. At the end of August, Federal Board members were asked to contribute their views about his ideas. He hadn’t told us fully what they were, but given that his 7th September speech reflected most of the press coverage, well, you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist.

So, on the last day of my holiday, I had to drag myself out of bed at the crack of bloody dawn to write down my views for Vince. I actually forgive him, because I was able to take this amazingly atmospheric photo of the bay outside the holiday cottage as the sun rose.

By this point the only bit he hadn’t told us was what he was going to say about the future of his leadership. But then that didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out either.

I wrote him an essay of epic proportions which I might actually post on here one day.

The next week, before his speech, I and other Federal Board members had the chance to talk to Vince about his plans individually. He had actually read what I’d written and picked his holes in it. Spoilers – I still think I’m right, but at least he actually listened and engaged. Cleggy, God love him, would never have read what I’d written, and neither would Paddy, Charles or Ming. In fact, if Vince was bouncing us, it was pretty amateur compared to Paddy. I still bear the scars of moderating the Cix forums in the wake of his Joint Statement with Tony Blair.  Of course, Vince has been talking to people in other parties. If he comes up with something of Joint Statement proportions at some point, then I’m sure he’ll face the same ire.

I have no problem with a leader coming up with ideas. It’s kind of what they’re for. And I don’t think anyone has the justification to say that we have been bounced. When we thought things were happening too fast and without notice, we put our foot down, as we were and remain entitled to do.

Vince need not relax too much, though, because it gets a bit rougher for him from now on.

I am far from sold on all of his proposals.

I have come round to the idea of a supporters’ scheme being a good idea.It works for other organisations like Which?

I am nowhere near convinced, however,  (to put it politely) that these supporters should be given a vote for leader. I find dismissal of concerns about entryism naive at best. And don’t even ask me to support spending a fortune on either or both a members’ ballot or special conference in the middle of the business end of Brexit to approve this stuff. It can be put to a normally scheduled Conference in the usual fashion.

The idea that someone should be able to stand for the party not long after joining has its merits – as long as there’s a robust candidate approval system. Back in the early 2000s, I helped to move Scotland to adopting an approval system that was compatible with that in England and Wales. Prior to that it had been getting the approval of two men and a dog in a pub half an hour before the hustings and if that wasn’t possible, a pulse and a party membership card would have done. I think work needs to be done on ascertaining values, but I don’t see that as insurmountable.

The non MP standing for leader has its problems – we’d better have a good answer to the question “Do you expect to have no MPs?” And where it’s worked before, the successful leader, a certain Ms Sturgeon, has had a pretty high profile in her own job and where it hasn’t, a certain Ms Bennett struggled in every sense.

My biggest worry, though, is that we haven’t got the message right, and no supporters’ scheme in the world, even one which came with unlimited gin or cake or ice cream, would be enough to make up for that. We actually need to deploy a bit of a “f*** it” strategy and say what we think and not what we think other people want to hear. That way, at least we are authentic and people respect that. We need a bit of sunshine, optimism and hope.

If we get too equivocal about stuff, we don’t attract the people who were never going to vote for us and those who might consider us walk away because there is no substance there. Getting this right is the biggest single factor in our resurgence as far as I am concerned.

I’ve heard some people say that we need to change and that things changed for Labour when they changed their constitution. They kind of had to. They’d sat out the 1980s as they’d been tearing themselves apart and they had to prove to the public that they were nice and shiny and new and not rabid lefties any more.

We don’t have quite the same amount of baggage, and certainly none that is fixable by process. We need to do what Jo said in what was a very mature and future-facing speech on Sunday and acknowledge where we screwed up in coalition and show that we have the ideas to make government fulfil its side of the social contract.

But it doesn’t really matter what I think because this isn’t about me. It’s about all of us having our say. So if you haven’t responded to the consultation, do so here. A wee note to our digital gurus at LDHQ – the terminally stupid among us (ie me) couldn’t find this on the website. I had to go firtling through emails to find a link. This may well have been what you intended, but thought you should know.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Russel McPhate 21st Sep '18 - 9:14am

    Generally, i am happy with all of the proposals except that supporters should get to vote for the leader. That is a choice that should go to those who are fully committed, paid up members as otherwise – as has been pointed out elsewhere – what is the point of membership if registered supporters can do everything members can do.

    However, I do think it would be to our advantage for registered supporters to contribute to the nomination process. Political activists of all parties tend to be somewhat divorced from the electorate and tend to choose people who will be popular with them rather than the voters. The two things are not always the same. Having a wider constituency at the nominations stage might put forward some good candidates who might not have been at the forefront of activists minds but who would then have the opportunity to win them over.

    Also, I am rapidly coming round to the idea that the leader should not have to be an MP. As long as we have FPP for Westminster we will be under-represented there. The vagaries of the system always mean that an MP leader my be at risk. Our best potential leaders may not make it through an election. Why not widen this out? The most persuasive argument I have seen so far is that no-one would listen to them but we hardly ever see Vince in the media as it is and our Parliamentary coverage is virtually non-existent so I can’t see that we have much to lose.

  • Liberal Neil 21st Sep '18 - 9:39am

    I’m less charitable than you about it being a bounce, but that’s not the main thing.

    I strongly believe that some form of supporters scheme could be very successful, but we need to be very clear about what we are trying to achieve through it. At present there doesn’t seem to be much clarity about that. If we are not clear what the purpose is, then we won’t be able to answer questions about what form it should take.

    My other big concern is that the large chunk of our limited time and effort that has gone into this would have been more productively spent getting a sharper message out there and on more and better campaigning.

  • My biggest concern with the current discussion on Vince’s proposals is that those putting them forward clearly believe that they will short cut the process of a Lib Dem recovery from 2015 and 2017.
    They claim, wrongly, that similar proposals were successful in Canada, totally overlooking the Canadian Liberals’ 3 year long conversation with the electorate that preceded them. YES, that’s right. The Canadian Liberals spent 3 years engaging with the people, on the doorsteps, to find out why they were no longer voting for them and what issues they wanted the party to address. Then, and only then did they start to involve new people in fighting for the new programme for government that emerged from the consultations.
    Where is that engagement with the people here? Where is the programme for government that we can seek to engage people as members and supporters in fighting for?
    We can establish a supporters scheme and spend eons debating the merits of this or that aspect of it. I suggest it will do nothing to advance our cause without a political programme that tackles the issues that convinced so may of our fellow citizens that politicians and the establishment in general cared for the rich and privileged and not for them and was the proximate cause that made so many of them vote for Brexit.

  • It very much counts as a bounce because the way it was raised with the full beam of publicity means that any watering down of the proposals become defeats for the leadership – and that becomes leverage to force through an imperfect proposal.

    As a member I don’t want my fees being used to allow supporters to take part in postal ballots. Spend money to create the abilityy for members to actively participate in conference remotely. That would be more empowering and more likely to be transformative.

  • Neil Sandison 21st Sep '18 - 10:30am

    Good article Caron . Agree with your analysis .Mick Taylor comments on Canadian Libersls surveying over a 3 year period is valid .Taking on supporters and new members in the short term is not the same as strenghening our core vote perhaps we need to link this to a “Listening Liberal Democrats” exercise where we engage with those who do not register but may well vote for us in elections .

  • I don’t think the argument about priorities, that we need to get the message right, is cogent. You need to look at priorities when there is conflict; which there isn’t between getting the message right and having a supporters’ scheme: both can be done.

    In fact the supporters scheme links in with your “f*** it” strategy. “Supporters” are going to sign up for something exciting, which “f*** it” usually is. The supporters signing up then emboldens us to do more “f*** it”, which attracts more supporters and we have a spiral of asterisks.

    Voting for the leader and supporter primaries for election candidates has clear advantages. Supporters taking part become invested. I don’t think we should underestimate the appeal of voting for “your” leader’s party, or “your” candidate. The members nominating candidates and everyone, including supporters, deciding between them seems to me a good way to do it. The possible effects of entryism are reduced. After all, the entryists will be voting on someone we want.

    A greater issue would be how the members get rid of the wrong leader if the members made a mistake nominating them. Say there is an older, avuncular, figure; we think “he’s just like Vince, we’ll nominate him”. A little later it transpires that he’s less like Vince and more like Jeremy. How do we get rid of him?

  • Chris Rennard 21st Sep '18 - 11:26am

    I agree very much with Caron’s points here and expressed similar reservations on my Facebook page which were widely shared by others.

    Having a registered supporters scheme is a ‘no brainier’, but extending leadership voting rights to them at the same time as providing for a Leader who has not yet shown the ability to become an MP is quite problematic. MPs will always need a parliamentary leader at Westminster in any event, so the possibility of having two leaders may not find favour amongst those of us who remember the problems of the ‘Alliance’ with two leaders. The costs of financing a leader who is not an MP, and the costs of a special conference or members’ ballot have to be considered.

    There are also significant differences between our situation and that of our friends in Canada. Trudeau benefitted from leading one of the two main parties and having much more of an external message, than one about constitutional changes in his party. It is the message to the country about ‘demanding better’ than Brexit, better than a health and social care system that faces serious decline in the decades ahead, and a better response to rising levels of crime in many areas that we must be seen to address.

  • While I don’t mind Vince making suggestions, putting up a pre-registration form for supporters on the website was bouncing the party. I also think that as the Federal People Development Committee was working on the issue, it didn’t need Vince’s heavy boots all over it. I also disagree with the idea of a member “consultative ballot” before the constitution is changed. Constitutions should be changed at a meeting by those who are concerned enough to turn up and not via a “consultative ballot” so that the leadership can say, “we must agree this, the members have already voted for it in a ballot”.

    In the PoliticsHome article it is correctly pointed out that “We haven’t even been geared up to engage our existing members properly over the past two years – so why we think we would be able to do it for supporters who haven’t handed over any money I don’t know.” Has any work been done on how to achieve two-way engagement with members and these new supporters and how much it will cost?

  • @Liberal Neil and @Chris Rennard make some very good and valid points as one would expect even if I don’t wholly agree with them.

    To lead the Lib Dems is, it is said to heard cats – frustrating for both the leader and the “cats” but necessary. A registered supporters scheme is a “no-brainer”.

    I am frankly less against the idea of a non-MP leader than I was initially.

    Can I also suggest another reform – and I appreciate that the finance dept at HQ may baulk at this – but that is to reduce the minimum membership fee to a £1.

  • Laurence Cox 21st Sep '18 - 2:16pm

    Thanks for your posting; I agree pretty much with what you say and with the BTL comments, which induced me to go online and respond to the survey. The one case where I think that registered supporters could stand as representatives of the Party is in local council elections as paperless candidates. We often have problems finding enough candidates, particularly in local parties with small memberships.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Sep '18 - 3:03pm

    A fair and sensible article from Caron. A great credit to Vince that he read her submission. A sorry indictment of previous leaders all of whom I liked, that none of them, Caron thinks, would have .

    I am keen on all the reforms, except supporters having a vote for leader.

    We see where that got the Labour party! Yet think of the following,

    If Andy Burnham had won, he came second so with no Corbyn he probably would have, as leader of the Labour party he is someone exactly the same age and from the same area of the country, as Tim Farron. Both are passionate pro Europeans. Andy Burnham even has a Dutch origin wife. The obvious presence of a younger and likeable leader would have even maybe swayed the referrendum, he would have gone deep into the North and left behind areas to make the case.

    We would not have Brexit perhaps, nor the antisemitism crisis, for sure, would not have had the general election, would have some alliance between two good friends and their parties, and a radical moderate Labour and Liberal Democrat government.

    Lets not have supporters vote fr the leader but back Sir Vince on every other bit!!!

  • David Evershed 21st Sep '18 - 3:48pm

    Given the number of new members joining the Lib Dems since 2015, there are few if any barriers to Lib Dem supporters becoming members.

    So there is no reason to create a new category of second class members called supporters.

  • Galen Milne 21st Sep '18 - 8:44pm

    Yes I agree with Caron.

  • Since I joined the Liberal Party in 1959 I have always noticed how members love to argue about their constitution. The present discussion is not the answer to our problems – it is our problem. People in the country are looking for leadership. They are not getting it. This is particularly true of our membership of the European Union. OK we want a referendum – a really brilliant idea after the mess made of the last one!
    The question is how we build enthusiasm for the European project. All I hear is statistics about the possible effects on trade and so on.
    I hear that we are in favour of better services in the country – but no analysis of how our finances were mismanaged and continue to be mismanaged. We have become a tax haven and most people haven’t noticed.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 22nd Sep '18 - 8:24am

    An excellent piece, Caron, and highly constructive comments thread. Tom Harney is right. Far too much focus is on intricacies of process and far to little on the leadership and vision that British voters are craving. There is also no need to say outright that we ‘screwed up’ in coalition. We didn’t. We navigated Britain through an era where Tory extremism would have flourished and caused catastrophe for millions had we not been there. Of course, mistakes were made. And of course there is the tuition fees debacle. Rather than keep beating ourselves up, we should tell a better story of our successes. If Labour is on the cusp of winning power after the Iraq war, what nonsense to continue to tear ourselves apart over the coalition.

  • @Humphrey Hawksley
    The coalition happened. It is the main reason millions still do not Trust or Vote for us, even though they are desperate to find an alternative to Labour and the Tories. I do agree with you to some extent so how about this for a solution.

    Can our leaders please come up with a standard set of responses (or statement) for activist to use when faced with questions about the coalition and student fees?

    @ Caron
    ‘two men and a dog in a pub’
    Would ‘three men in a pub’ be acceptable? 🙂

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Sep '18 - 7:05pm

    The thing is to convert the supporters’ scheme into a campaigning strategy and a winning one at that. We must sell it to the media as part of a gradually increasing and unstoppable drive for a Liberal Democrat government. A tough sell perhaps but we must think big and with the other Parties so terrible, anything is possible.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Sep '18 - 8:23pm

    The problem is that the press are authoritarian organisations trying to channel opinions into authoritarian organisations such as Tory and Labour political parties. Whatever the leader at the time says in a speech at the end of conference is assumed to be policy to be implemented. Paddy Ashdown must have known this. The Economist noticed, and approved.
    Please note what Downing Street staffers are saying about a People’s Vote, please note what the leader of a large trade union has said about what can be on the ballot if the Labour conference prefers a People’s Vote, “some (Labour) MPs actually WANT to be deselected.”
    Although Theresa May has said that EU27 citizens can stay in the UK, how long will it take the bureaucracy to legitimise them to the point at which they can vote on their own future? Tories should not claim to be democratic until they have got past that point. (Irish, Maltese and Cypriots excepted.)

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Sep '18 - 8:28pm

    Lord Rennard has some good points, but the SDP initially had four leaders, becoming five with the Alliance, causing journalists to say “who is in charge?” thereby missing the point about a more democratic party, one member one vote, etcetera.

  • Matt (bristol) 24th Sep '18 - 12:38am

    I am still wary about the whole thing, in a similar way to Caron.

    I would be in favour of registered supporters paying a (very) small fee, and having a vote for leader, with certain caveats, including a cap of the number of permitted voting supporters so that the supporters eligible to vote in an election could never outnumber the members eligible to vote in an election.

    I’d like to see the power of the membership in leadership elections enhanced by allowing write-in nomination of MPs by members, to prevent MPs in a small parliamentary party actively facilitating ‘coronations’ by not nominating and not standing.

    I’d also like to see the possibility of the leader being a non-MP, even if just as a contingency clause (eg if we have under, say, 3 MPs) because if we don’t do this and things do go badly for us – which we have to recognise they might – we’re going to have to change rules in a hurry in future.

    I have been mulling over the question of why the rush, and my mind has thrown out the possible answer that a party that held a legitimately-consented database of a significant number of members of other parties, that could be data-mined and used as a basis for canvassing, might have more negotiating power in the establishment of a working arrangement between two or more small, ‘centre’ or ‘moderate’ parties in the event of the breakup of the current system. Certainly more power than a party that brought only 12 MPs to the table… ?

  • Gemma Roulston 24th Sep '18 - 9:57pm

    I don’t like the idea of a supporter scheme. Why should I pay 3 subscriptions for myself and my children, whilst on benefits, and yet have the same rights as someone who doesn’t pay a subscription? If I can pay it, surely a teacher, or nurse or journalist can afford to pay?
    Also, the Party has bounced us, as someone has pointed out by having the supporter scheme on the website? If I sign up, am I a supporter as well?
    We need to have policies that attract people, we are not doing too badly at that since 2015. We need to apologise for our mess ups in Coalition. We need to own our mistakes, and not just celebrate our successes.
    The subscription isn’t that much if you pay the minimum.
    I haven’t had the survey from the FDPC, I wonder why?
    This has really made me think. Why bother with a membership, when I can do the same as a supporter.
    How could you double check that I wasn’t a member of another party, if I joined as a supporter? It’s easier with people well known, but those of us who are less well known?
    Surely a PPC should show some commitment to the party, have training know our policies etc? If they go straight from a new member to a PPC very quickly, then where’s the proof that they are committed to the party?
    As others have said we need policies, and more than one, which will attract people to commit time money etc
    Surely the leader needs to be an MP, at least they may get more airtime? Ms
    Bennett struggled because the Greens aren’t as big as us, and she didn’t represent anywhere. Nicola Sturgeon is successful because of her position as First Minister of Scotland, so she gets airtime etc.

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