Will party reforms really lead to more democracy?

As anyone glancing down the Lib Dem Voice homepage will become rapidly aware, Vince has recently laid out his plans for the future of the Liberal Democrats, and party grandees and official social media accounts are pumping out a slickly coordinated and prepared promotional run of articles and ads. Whether this is remotely appropriate during a consultation on a draft paper, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader – but I wanted in any case to discuss the detail, so let’s cut the rhetoric and talk about the fine print that’s been conspicuously missing from recent articles. Do these proposals actually present a blueprint that will turn the Lib Dems into a much larger “movement for moderates”? And is that what we want to become?

It’s unclear either how the party will validate supporters effectively and efficiently, or how conflicts between member and supporter votes will be balanced if they arise in this two-speed system. The issue of tensions between Federal Policy Committee’s priorities motions and the proposed priority ballots for supporters has likewise been unaddressed, especially if HQ rather than FPC intend to write those ballot papers. A non-MP leader also raises the constitutional problem of how the parliamentary leader is then selected – if members are entirely cut out of selecting our parliamentary leader then we risk a worrying gulf opening between our policy-making members and our policy-delivering MPs. The right to choose our parliamentary leader is not one I think that Lib Dem members will be happy to give up lightly.

There’s a deeper structural problem with the supporter balloting system though, which is that it potentially significantly centralises, rather than opens up, the party. If, as the leadership presumably intend, the majority of those balloted are supporters, and we move to holding far more ballots both among supporters and members as the consultation paper suggests, then the question of how those people are communicated with arises. If the only people who can communicate with this new supporter base are HQ, then we end up with a cycle of our glorious leaders coming up with ideas, telling everyone how good they are, balloting a load of people who’ve only been told why the idea is good, and then surprisingly receiving back the answer that yes, the good idea is in fact good. This is how “democracy” works in a number of countries around the world, but not I suspect in any we’d wish to emulate.

Meaningful democracy requires a level playing field and a fair debate – party associated organisations and member groups are vital to policy formation at conference, for example. So how are the leadership going to ensure that their proposed wider movement provides an intellectual space for liberal ideas rather than just an echo chamber for the leadership of the day? Will member organisations get access and the ability to regularly communicate with Lib Dem supporters, so that we actually get? Will member campaigns be able to present an opposition case to any member ballots, on an equal footing to the proposition?

I have more questions on this topic than space in an article to write them down, and it’s not simply a case of the devil being in the detail – the issues posed above are absolutely questions of vision, of whether we want an informed, participatory future for our movement or a cut-down, centralised shell that can bypass members and use supporter ballots as a legitimising prop. Unless I get a satisfactory answer to that, I won’t be able to support Vince’s proposals – and I suspect I’m not alone. 

* James Baillie is a member and activist from Breckland and a former chair of the Lib Dems' Radical Association. He lives and works in Vienna, Austria, as a historian specialising in digital methods and on the history of the Caucasus region. He blogs about politics at thoughtsofprogress.wordpress.com.

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  • Christopher Curtis 14th Sep '18 - 9:26am

    I would welcome new, online, ways to communicate directly with members and I support the idea of broadening our engagement with “supporters” who share our values and are willing to sign up to a statement of them.
    I’m guessing that some of the impetus for these proposals has been the numbers of people who sign our petitions or otherwise show support for them online and it has to be right that those people are better engaged than simply signing up and getting emails forever encouraging them to sign more things and to become members. Getting those conversations going, instead of the party simply pressing transmit has to be a good thing.
    The issue of control is crucial. The “great and the good” have as much right as anyone else to have a view, organise to communicate that view (and to write lots of co-ordinated articles for LDV to support it), but if they are the only people with the power to do that, it’s not the party I want to belong to. If we move into a new online world of discussion and debate that shapes our policy, giving all the voices within the party and the public access to put their view, with some sort of evaluation and control to make sure that happens, but without giving a free, large, platform to propagandists and insurgents whose values we cannot ever share.
    We need a similar form of gatekeeping for the supporters scheme. There are people who call themselves liberal, and believe they are, but who promote hatred, division and conflict. There seems to be a lot of confusion in some quarters between libertarianism and liberalism. There are other people, on left and right, whose ideology would be fine with joining our supporters scheme to sow confusion and damage within the party and who have the organisation and funding to do real harm before anyone else realises what is going on.
    Lastly, it is deeply wrong to be taking “pre-registration” for a scheme which does not yet exist and which members are being consulted on. Apart from anything else, what do you do with all those people’s enthusiasm if the scheme is rejected. It looks and feels like part of a coordinated campaign to bounce us into a decision.

  • This is exactly the kind of thoughtful contribution we need in this debate. These are perfectly reasonable questions and they deserve thoughtful responses. As I’ve said elsewhere on LDV, I’m not instinctively against these proposals but they do require a lot of thought and discussion. We need to know where we are going, otherwise we may end up somewhere else!

  • An excellent piece. Nice to read a thoughtful contribution to the debate, rather than more cheerleading.

  • “it is deeply wrong to be taking “pre-registration” for a scheme which does not yet exist and which members are being consulted on. Apart from anything else, what do you do with all those people’s enthusiasm if the scheme is rejected. It looks and feels like part of a coordinated campaign to bounce us into a decision.”

    I agree very much with this.

  • Sue Sutherland 14th Sep '18 - 12:58pm

    The good thing to come out of this debate is the greater movement for democracy within the party. How this can be achieved needs the kind of debate that doesn’t seem to happen at the moment but could a start be made at the session of the Federal Peoples’ Development Committee on Vince’s proposals?

  • Neil Sandison 14th Sep '18 - 1:29pm

    So do what do we want as paid up party members want from this party reform .The equal right to select who we wish to see on the slate of potential candidates for the party leadership and presidency .The right to call a vote of no confidence if the leader is failing the party in the country .The right to select topical motions prior to conference by secret postal or electronic ballot .We should at least extract a number of genuine concessions for seeing our membership devalued to create a supports club.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '18 - 2:52pm

    We should be considering whether any help we can give to the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland would help them. https://allianceparty.org/
    Local government in Northern Ireland may seem parochial, but the cause of democracy, the cause of devolution and the issue of peace which was promoted by the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday are all worthy of support.
    On 13/9/2018 there was a televised meeting in the Stormont building between representatives of the five largest political parties. Alliance put up their leader Naomi Long. She had revelations about the way NI government had worked during the DUP-Sinn Fein coalition. Alliance had Ministers (such as David Ford their former leader) but were not provided with information about what was happening.
    Despite this experience she offered the DUP spokesman a coalition, but Arlene Foster was not present. He said the DUP is willing to negotiate, but made no promise that he would meet Alliance’s very reasonable conditions.
    The Assembly elected in January 2017 has not met, which is a disgrace. Decisions need to be taken and their number is increasing. The Secretary of State is perceived as incompetent, or at the very least inexperienced. A Conservative predecessor of hers (Douglas Hurd, now a peer) said on arrival that he would “listen and learn”. Pressed for more detail he said he would “listen and learn”. Others should copy.
    This programme was broadcast be the BBC in Northern Ireland, which is available on FREESAT.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '18 - 2:55pm

    There was also questioning about Ian Paisley MP (son of the late Ian Paisley MP, MEP).
    Because of a scandal there may be a bye-election for the Westminster seat.

  • Speaking as someone who registered an interest in becoming a supporter as a result of hearing Vince Cable earlier this week, the amount of antipathy from members towards the proposed supporters scheme initially took me by surprise.

    But on reflection, as I read more, I could see where the objections were coming from, – but I still think it’s a very exciting proposition. Perhaps it just needs to be thrown out for everyone to discuss fully rather than almost imposed from the top down though.

    Personally, I’m going to use the next couple of weeks to do a lot of reading about the party and it’s values, hopefully find out about the debates at conference and generally reflect on where/how I would fit in and make a decision about whether I want to join as a member.

    This isn’t something I would do lightly and the proposal for the supporters scheme gives me the space to make that decision – like being a novice before deciding to take the plunge!

  • Laurence Cox 14th Sep '18 - 4:34pm

    Here is an interesting article in The Conversation about why the proposed Party reforms are not necessarily the right answer:


    Interestingly, it shows that people surveyed (Figure 2) are most interested in being involved in campaigning and political discussion without having to be linked with a political party, while they see policy-making and selection of leaders as something for party members, or even the party leadership.

    So let’s throw open Lib Dem Pints and campaigning to non-members who broadly agree with our principles, while keeping selection for members alone.

  • James Baillie 14th Sep '18 - 5:45pm

    Thanks to everyone for the kind comments – let’s hope the powers that be are listening!

  • Ruth P – thankyou for your thoughtful contribution. And also, welcome to the LibDem family! I don’t want any supporters or potential supporters like yourself to interpret the comments on this thread as being hostile or unwelcoming. Far from it. I’ve been a member of this party for over 30 years and of course I want to see it grow, and I’m open to radical suggestions about that. I just want it done in the right way, with proper consultation.

  • Martin Land 14th Sep '18 - 7:11pm

    @ Laurence Cox. We used to do that. It was called Community Politics.

  • Bill le Breton 14th Sep '18 - 8:07pm

    Ruth P – welcome. If I may suggest a couple of things to read it would be Conrad Russell’s ‘An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism’ – I have looked it up on a well known site and copies start at £12 so may I also suggest getting a copy from the Library. published in 1999, but timeless. Our best thinker, sadly no longer with us, for three or four generations.

    But you should also have a look here http://www.rosenstiel.co.uk/aldc/commpol.htm
    for a free electronic copy of The Theory and Practice of Community Politics. Warning. By community the authors do not define community as a geographical community, but any community from you place of work to even this website! As the artwork is of its time. Very exciting but rather alien to our own times.

    It would be useful to know more about you. We have had thousands joins us since 2015 and now we shall have many responding to this invitation to ‘pre-register’. I just hope you are not here because you think Liberalism is the politics of the Centre.

    As Conrad wrote about when he was considering joining in the 1950s, ” It was possible to find out party policy on individual issues by *very* careful reading of the newspapers , but the party’s basic values and principles were very hard to discover.”

    He thought that because the questions asked of our party are set in the old left-right polarity, a polarity into which we stubbornly refuse to fit, questions about basic values ‘ were oblique to what Liberals really want(ed) to say’. That is why his answers are essential reading.

    Good luck.

  • With regard to the central issue of party democracy, my take on this is that a few years ago it was decided by the hierarchy that if we were to be serious contenders for power and challenge the two larger parties then we had to become more centralised, tops down and leader focused, no more of the old liberal ways and definitely no more of the awkward squad disrupting the policy machine.
    Glad to say that from various posts on various subjects, it seems the awkward squad is alive and well (and at conference today, I hope !).

  • Thank-you for your welcome and reading suggestions TonyH and Bill. I don’t take any of the concerns of party members over the supporters scheme personally and I’m fascinated by all the discussions and the strength of feeling on all sorts of subjects that I’ve been reading on posts like this and on social media. I really like the idea of being in a party where all sorts of topics are open to lively debate rather than fixed ideas.

    I’m self-employed and run my own business with my partner. I have usually voted Green in the past and find it hard to relate to right/left style politics. I’ve become a bit disillusioned with the Green Party as they seem to be leaning heavily to the left these days and there was a bullying tendency during the last election for Greens to vote Labour.

    So I started to look elsewhere and discovered that the philosophy behind the Liberal Democrats actually suits me very well.

  • john littler 17th Sep '18 - 1:03pm

    If Britain had PR voting it could have any numbers of liberal or centrist parties, but it doesn’t. Little Denmark has 3 parties with Liberal or their translation, in the name. Netherlands has a right wing Liberal Party and a left Wing Liberal Party (D66 ) in power.

    Given the electoral system and recent history, the LibDems ought to encourage any swelling of their ranks with moderate Tory or Labour MP’s, even if it means a new movement or party with a new name.

    If and when power can be achieved, it would need to prioritise electoral reform as the number 3 issue after brexit and ending the overlong and economy crushing austerity.

    Then supported by PR voting, parties will be able to split and still be supported sufficiently and the UK will be able to have 2-3. liberal and centrist parties as it wishes.
    I would advocate something more like D66 with a more radical edge to it.

    But that is then and not where we are now, which is with a catastrophic and incompetent brexit, overlong austerity, economic and wages stagnation and despite being in special measures following 2007-8, we are apparently on the cusp of a new financial crisis and world recession starting in 2019-20

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