Splitting hairs? Jo Swinson is “Deputy leader of the (UK) parliamentary party” ?

Many congratulations to Jo Swinson on being elected as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat (UK) Parliamentary Party, sometimes referred to as the “Deputy Leader”.

Well, perhaps that sometimes should be “virtually always”.

The only reference I can find to creating a Deputy Leader in our constitution is here:

16.1 The Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons shall consist of all Members of that House in receipt of the Party’s whip. Its Leader shall be the Leader of the Party elected as provided in Article 17. It shall be entitled to make such regulations (not being inconsistent with this Constitution) as it thinks fit for the conduct of its own proceedings. In particular, these regulations shall make provision for a Chief Whip and, if thought fit, a Deputy Leader of such Parliamentary Party.

It’s clear that we have a Deputy Leader of the (UK) Parliamentary Party, when elected, who is referred to as “Deputy Leader” elsewhere in the document. (And please put me right below if I have missed something).

Yes, I’m quibbling. But, to me, if we are to have someone referred to as “Deputy Leader of the Party” here, there and everywhere (as in all the publicity and media releases last night following Jo’s election), then it is not rocket science to expect that that person is elected by the Party as a whole – all 100,000+ of them, rather than just by 110 of them in the (UK) parliamentary party.

But I realise that I am a fairly lone voice in the wilderness on this. It’s a bit like when I point out the difference between “percentage increase” and “percentage point increase”. People’s eyes glaze over and you can see that it is very clear that they think I am very strange indeed.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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19 Comments

  • Matt (Bristol) 21st Jun '17 - 11:10am

    Yes, and even more hair-splittingly, it’s the deputy leader in the Commons, not in parliament as a whole.

    But, in practice, given the primacy of the Commons, this gives her a significant role as spokesperson and figurehead for the national party.

    Witness how the SNP – who do not require their Leader to be present in the Commons – used Angus Robertson as their debates figurehead during the election campaign. Like Jo, he was elected by MPs, not by the national party.

    And I struggle to see how the role of elected national deputy leader can be created without significant complication – in practice, even if not in theory – with the existing role of President.

    Let’s imagine there really is a snap election next month. I would be quite happy to see the role of national Leader taken by Jo and Sal acting in tandem during the campaign.

  • Percentage v. percentage point, Paul? But it’s such a big difference, just like (what I presume was) a typo in your reference to the 110 members of the parliamentary party.

  • Chris Bertram 21st Jun '17 - 11:26am

    @Brian Evans: It’s 1100, surely? In binary, anyway.

  • Duncan Brack 21st Jun '17 - 1:09pm

    The constitutional position is that Jo is the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons, and her electorate was the 12 MPs, including herself (Article 16.1). This means that, for the period between Tim stepping down and the new leader being elected, she becomes Acting Leader of the party in the Commons (Article 16.2) and she and Sal, as President, jointly assume the responsibilities of the leader more broadly (Article 17.6). Conference voted for all this – and against the option of a Deputy Leader directly elected by the membership – last September.

  • Elaine Woodard 21st Jun '17 - 1:47pm

    re Duncan Brack – still don’t understand why conference voted this way though.
    And Paul, it’s not splitting hairs, she is the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons. She is not the party Deputy Leader.

  • Martin Land 21st Jun '17 - 2:32pm

    Who cares? As far as I am concerned Jo is Deputy Leader. If any pedant cares to organise a vote I’m confident the membership will agree.

  • Duncan – I believe that Tim will remain leader until the conclusion of the leadership election, so his leadership will only lapse when his successor takes office. Therefore there is no interregnum period where Sal, Jo or anyone else is Acting Leader.

  • Matt (Bristol) 21st Jun '17 - 4:29pm

    Rob, Tim’s resignation statement said he would cease to be leader from the summer recess of parliament.

  • Much as I may try, I’m not quite old enough to remember Lord Rosebery as Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Party – in the House of Lords no less – when Gladstone retired in 1894. He continued as Leader of the Opposition for a year or so (in the Lords). He was an unmitigated disaster…….. and wasn’t the last Liberal member of the House of Lords to make troublesome interventions which caused dissension in the party.

    The First Deputy Leader (of the Party in the House of Common, note) I did know was Donald Wade my MP in Huddersfield (appointed by Jo Grimond). A staunch Congregationalist in the Yorkshire radical tradition who put his faith into action by doing good works (quietly, discreetly and seeking no reward). A kind, good and generous man.

  • Duncan Brack 21st Jun '17 - 10:06pm

    I think Martin Land probably makes the best point. Whatever the formal position, the media and everyone else will treat Jo as Deputy Leader of the party. And if that gives her extra status and more exposure, and more experience in a party leadership position, that’s no bad thing at all.

  • Peter Martin 21st Jun '17 - 10:46pm

    @ Martin Land

    You write:

    “Who cares? As far as I am concerned Jo is Deputy Leader. If any pedant cares to organise a vote I’m confident the membership will agree.”

    You should care. It’s not pedantic to want the membership to elect both the leader and the deputy. You may be confident but that’s neither here nor there. It would be the votes that decide. Not your confidence.

    Either the PTB in the Lib Dems trust the membership or they don’t. Maybe they are thinking that they don’t after seeing how their Labour counterparts lost control of their leadership elections?

  • “.. still don’t understand why conference voted this way though.”

    Anyone who seeks to understand all of the votes of LibDem conferences is more optimistic than I am.

    Herding cats, herding cats.

  • I was also surprised that anyone – and not just Jo Swinson – should emerge as ‘Deputy Leader’ out of the blue and before the Leadership itself has been decided. Might not a defeated leadership contender have then contested the ‘Deputy Leader’ position, of which we have previously not been aware? The Leadership vacancy should be settled first.

    Paul King

  • Geoff English 22nd Jun '17 - 11:22am

    There are a number of constitutional oddities in all this. There is of course a leader of the the Liberal Democrats in the House if Lords, but the members of the House of Lords would have had a massive vote (98) in the election of the deputy leader of the House of Commons, with only 12 votes by the Commons members themselves? If that’s right, just as well Jo was elected unopposed.

  • Chris Burden 22nd Jun '17 - 1:56pm

    Oh, goodness. There *is* a time and place for this precise, legalistic, and, I might say, endearingly LibDem, disputation, but not here, now. IMO The country is heading towards crisis with impotent, incredible, incompetent, fanatical buffoons at the steering wheel, not mention a certain drift in our own party’s fortunes. Dear colleagues, please: Let. Us. Get. Real.
    The Deputy Leader of the (UK) Parliamentary party is a practical appointment to initiate/ guide/ facilitate/ enable work in Parliament, as well as being a national spokesperson. They *have* to get on with, be acceptable to, our Parliamentarians in order for them to take the fight to the aforementioned buffoons. If this appointment, for this purpose ,was filled by someone elected by the whole membership, there is a distinct possibility that they would not meet that essential part of the person specification.

  • David Pcocok 22nd Jun '17 - 2:15pm

    Completely with you Paul regarding % and % points. Simple difference and the mistake really is vast if confused.

    I am not entirely sure what the job of the Deputy leader exactly is but I am sure that having extra bodies at the top can only help whoever is the next leader and might make our next campaign a little smoother I trust.

    One thing Jo did do that really impressed me during the campaign was on question time so I hope to see Her take on the TV soon.

    Regarding who votes for Deputy leader…. Well I guess no strong feelings either way, the current system does not seem that flawed.

  • Philip Knowles 23rd Jun '17 - 8:48am

    To join you in hair splitting I fought tooth and nail with my colleagues about the 1% income tax rise we proposed which was actually 5%!

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