The really important issue at Gateshead is a Constitutional Amendment

Discussion about the Gateshead Spring Conference has mainly focused on the potential row about the NHS Bill, but the Agenda also  contains a Constitutional Amendment  which could have a  huge  impact on our ability to work to with either the Tories or Labour after the next election. The Amendment is   called “Support for a Government which contains other Political Parties” and can be seen here.

This is an update of the “Triple Lock”  dating back to 1998  after Paddy was thought to be getting too close to  Blair’s Labour Party. (Mark Pack has a history of the Triple Lock here.)

There is much that is good in the Constitutional Amendment and a guarantee that any agreement has to be put to a Special Conference is welcome. But in an extraordinary move the motion takes away one of the key democratic elements  of the original Triple Lock, so that a 1/3rd  minority of Conference can block an agreement with another Party and (unlike the previous policy) there is no recourse to a ballot of Party members. In a Party which prides itself on its democracy it seems quite extraordinary that, against the wishes of the Party Leader, the MPs and a majority of Conference, a minority can block an agreement. We could be in the position that 1/3rd of members object to any agreement with Labour and 1/3rd with the Tories, thus making it impossible for us to form an arrangement with anyone.

There is a simple way round this – an amendment which reinstates the possibility of a vote of all Party Members if a majority (but not two-thirds) of Conference approve an arrangement and the MPs still wish to pursue it. Such an amendment has been submitted but needs as much support as possible to show the Conference Committee  the strength of feeling about it and encourage them to select it for debate.

Add new section 15.6

If after a vote at Conference i)  the proposal from the Commons Party is agreed but ii) the majority is less than 2/3rds then, if after further consideration, the Commons Party still wishes to support the arrangement with one or more  other parties then at their request the Federal Executive  shall arrange a ballot of all Party members pursuant to clause 6.11 or 8.6 of the Constitution, the consent of a majority of those voting shall be taken as giving support to the arrangement. 

If any Conference delegates would like to support this amendment (or would like to discuss it) please contact me with your membership number and Constituency on [email protected]. The deadline for amendments is 6 March.

* Simon McGrath is a Councillor in Wimbledon and a directly elected member of the Federal Board.

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  • Richard Dean 2nd Mar '12 - 10:58am

    I do not see any reasonable argument against this proposed amendment.

    Anything that could be said in support of the rights of the 1/3 minority could also be said in support of the rights of the 2/3 majority. So 50:50 is the fair way forward.

  • Grammar Police 2nd Mar '12 - 11:19am

    And it would be up to the Parliamentary party whether to push it to the full membership. So if conference passes it by 51% they may decide it’s not worth taking it to the full membership; but if conference passes it by 65% they may decide it’s worth doing so.

    If nothing else it would be good to have the debate about this – so please do forward your details to Simon if you want to support it.

  • I think it’s a reasonable amendment in theory. However in practice I don’t see how it would work:

    1) It would take a substantial time (probably of the order of 3 weeks from the special conference) to organise a ballot of members. That could in itself be politically problematic if there were problems related to concerns about national political stability. It would mean that it was about a month from GE to formal government being agreed. I accept this is the norm in other countries but would be very unexpected in the UK.

    2) If the party takes as significant a step going into coalition then in order for that to last it needs to be supported by a very wide strand of opinion within the party. To that extent the 2/3rds majority provides some protection for that.

    I’d say that a coalition agreement which didn’t have the backing of 2/3rds of a party conference would be doomed to failure as soon as you hit a difficult decision.

    There could for example be a situation where there was a group of members strongly oppposed to a coalition who had a strong geographical bias – hypothetical example it would not be a good thing for the party if we went into a coalition backed by a majority of the party but which was opposed by every local party in Scotland.

    3) The amendment isn’t clear on whether the proposal put to the members is the same as that put to conference or whether there is scope to amend it. There is something to be said for allowing the leadership to consider points made in the conference debate, amend the coalition proposals and put that to the membership. Again hypothetical example – a particular sticking point which was renogiatiated post-conference to the satisfaction of the objectors.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Mar '12 - 1:10pm

    WIth respect to Hywel’s (2), people would know that unpopular decisions can occur sometimes. They would be able to factor this in to the way they choose to vote. Governments and parties can survive even when they disagree.

  • How worried would we need to be about people joining (or being urged to join) the party especially for this ballot? You’d only need 10,000 supporters willing to briefly join (£6 each if under 26) in order to likely swing any vote. A bargain!

  • David Allen 2nd Mar '12 - 4:13pm

    “I’d say that a coalition agreement which didn’t have the backing of 2/3rds of a party conference would be doomed to failure as soon as you hit a difficult decision.”

    That makes two of us. A leader who calls for support for a coalition agreement, like Clegg, is effectively saying “back me or sack me”. On that basis, Clegg won well over 2/3 of the vote on coalition, despite all the concerns and problems. If over a third of the party do not support a leader in forming a coalition, he/she would be asking for trouble, if allowed to go ahead with it.

  • Simon McGrath 2nd Mar '12 - 8:45pm

    @Adam – not at all worried about this as they would not be allowed to vote.

    @martin – why nopt propose such an amendment. ?

  • Yellow Bird 2nd Mar '12 - 10:42pm

    Martin Tod you are a very sensible man and I am going to do you the honour of assuming you were joking when you wrote that. There is certainly a huge role for party policy-making while in government but if government decisions have to go through party conference we will be simply a laughing stock and it would be totally impractical. Even if desirable, you cannot have government run by a party conference. That is not to say there is not a hugely valuable contribution that party policy can make (and currently clearly is making) make to what Lib Dems in government do.

    Hywel is also right about the original amendment. It sounds appealing until you think about it a little. You cannot possibly say to another party seeking to form a government, that “we’ll get back to you in a month” – at least not if you want anyone ever to vote Lib Dem again.

    It is also certainly right that if a leader can’t get a conference two-thirds majority for going into a coalition to start with, then it is not the slightest hope of it working. Look at the difficulty we’re having with a coalition approved by a conference majority of, as Cleggie said at the time, “North Korean proportions”.

  • Simon (“not at all worried about this as they would not be allowed to vote”): Can you point me to how they’d be excluded? I don’t see anything in your amendment, clause 6.11, 8.6, or anywhere else that would prevent this. They each state “all members”. The regulations for leadership and presidential elections require membership on “the closing date for nominations” but that wouldn’t apply in this case.

  • Andrew Wiseman 3rd Mar '12 - 10:09am

    Simon, the number of signatures for a conference amendment makes little difference . We get amendments (and motions) submitted from small local parties and large local parties, from 10 reps and 100 reps – each one is considered on its merits.

    Chair, FCC

  • Simon McGrath 3rd Mar '12 - 10:33am


    thanks for the clarification. But isn’t an issue that a lot of delegates are cocnenred about more likely to get debated than one very few do?

  • @ Simon – Organising a special conference is different from organising a ballot mailing. Both are fairly straighttforward to make provisional plans for – AIUI there were tentative inquiries with a few conference venues prior to 2010 to see who had avaialability. I would have thought in these circumstances we would have the artwork prepared and everything with a mailing house ready to print depending on what happened at conference which would reduce lead time. Three weeks may be conservative – but a ballot mailing requires you to leave a reasonable time for people to respond – I don’t see how that can sensibly be less than two weeks from the mailing being sent out. That means two weeks of media speculation about whether the government will fall or not.

    There wasn’t that in 2010 as it was pretty clear from the early stages that there was widespread support for the coalition agreement.

    On the mandate point 50%+1 is a sufficient mandate for a course of action. However whether it is wise to proceed on such a mandate is a different point.

    @Adam – I think your point can be addressed by restricting membership to people who were members at a particular cut off date (say the date of the GE?)

  • This idea of “a guarantee that any agreement has to be put to a Special Conference is welcome” is, in my opinion, not the right way forward as was manifested by the Special Conference in Birmingham on the Coalition which was merely a “gathering of the elite of the Party – i.e. the Voting Reps ONLY – from the Local Parties! The rest of the wider Membership was completely disenfranchised because either our views were not sought by our Voting Reps or any opinions expressed by “ordinary Members” were not taken into consideration because we were not part of the elite group present.

    “There is a simple way round this – an amendment which reinstates the possibility of a vote of all Party Members” – [end the phrase here] – would be the right thing to do if we are to be a truly Democratic Party.

    In matters as important is these, the whole of the Membership should be involved and asked to vote – it is too important to be the sole preserve of a minority number of Party Members which the Voting Reps are. There is a ratio of one Voting Rep to 8 or 10 Local Party Members in each Constituency [I use these figures for the sake of the argument, they may be incorrect]. My point is that the number of Voting Reps is not representative of the whole Membership, especially when they do not ask the rest of us what our opinions and views are.

    Any Constitutional change really must take this into account. There are far too many small little cliques making all the major decisions in our Party and that has to stop.

    Let us be truly democratic and involve the whole Membership in major decisions of this nature – put these issues out to a whole Party vote.

  • I’ve suggested to Simon that this needs some provision in about balanced information to accompany any ballot.

  • This constitutional amendment does not need an amendment about a members ballot because the existing provision for a members ballot in clause 6.11 of the constitution would still be applicable to any motion put down under the new article 15.

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