My response to the ‘Leading Change: Proposals to open up the Liberal Democrats’ consultation

After weeks of rumours, whispers and leaks to the press (which I wrote about here and here), Vince Cable finally announced his proposals for changes to the party last Friday. I wrote about them at the time, and since then have expanded on my thoughts to respond to the party’s formal consultation on the proposals. I’ve copied my response to the consultation below, which I hope might be useful to any of you thinking of responding to the consultation yourselves. (As Andrew Hickey explains, you might have to click through a few links to actually get to the consultation, though)

The consultation’s questions are in bold, my responses are in plain type.

1. Do you agree that the party should introduce a registered supporters’ scheme?

Firstly, asking ‘do you agree’ makes this a leading question, so I wish to make clear from the beginning that while there are some good arguments for having a supporters scheme, it does not necessarily mean that I support the version of a supporters’ scheme you propose. I would hope that whoever processes the feedback from this consultation takes note of that distinction in this response and others and does not end up portraying support for the idea of a scheme as support for this specific proposal.

A registered supporters scheme would be a useful thing to have, if it’s run in the right way. It could be something that enables people to indicate they support us and then be contacted by their local party to help them find out more and do more, or a way for parties to record those who help without becoming members. Using the tools we have through Connect, we should be able to flag up different types of supporter according to how they were signed up and what they’re willing to do or the party.

However, the proposal being made is merely just to give anyone who fancies it and has an email address the chance to influence the party without having any commitment or responsibility to it. It’s focused entirely on national organisation with no consideration of how it might affect local parties, and appears to be operating on a wing and prayer with regard to financing. People are being offered the chance to sign up for free with an assumption that some of them will donate enough money to cover that. What research has been carried out to show this might be the case? (And specifically relating to UK politics, not Canadian)

Finally, it is disingenuous to claim the Canadian experience of this is ‘instructive’. How can you make this claim when the Canadian Liberal Party is in an entirely different structural and electoral position to the Liberal Democrats? They have been a dominant party in Canada for over a century, not a third party, and their scheme was brought in after the party had a poor electoral performance — but one the Liberal Democrats have rarely exceeded! The circumstances in Canada are so wildly different from ours here that there’s no sensible comparison to be made.

2. Do you support this paper’s proposals to give registered supporters a vote in future leadership elections, providing nomination rights are left with party members?

Absolutely not. There may be a case for extending them to some supporters with a different scheme, but the scheme as proposed is little more than a flashing sign to any online troublemakers that they can come and disrupt our internal processes for shits and giggles. It opens up the prospect of a mass of ‘supporters’ electing someone that actual members may strongly reject. Coupled with the suggestion of widening the leadership field to non-MPs, this runs the risk of people with little to offer the party, but much to offer their own ego, being elected as leader because they accidentally motivate people once. I worry that we’ll end up with a number of weak and unsuitable candidates being allowed to stand to ‘widen the debate’, and I do not have faith in our MPs as gatekeepers of the process preventing this from happening. Too many of our MPs have lent their support to questionable causes after lobbying, and I fear this would happen in a leadership campaign, most likely with them assuring us that ‘it’s nothing like when Labour let Jeremy Corbyn stand’.

3. Do you think the safeguards proposed in this section are sufficient to protect the party against abuse of the registered supporter scheme?

No. They are utterly naïve and like the idea that the scheme doesn’t need to consider funding implications apparently based on wishes rather than any solid research or thinking about the problems that might come about. You might just stop some of the more egregious abuses possible, but anyone with a copy of the electoral register (which includes many of our opponents!) and a source of email addresses could easily register multiple fake ‘supporters’ and have a multitude of votes in whatever processes they’re allowed into. Who’s going to do all the checking to see if these supporters are valid when it’s hard enough for the party to keep track of current members let alone a flood of new ‘supporters’?

The idea that agreeing with a declaration might limit people is laughable. I suggest you look at what people say about us and the number of people (particularly on the libertarian right and even alt-right) who claim that they’re the real liberals (while we’re ‘Illiberal Undemocrats’) They would relish the opportunity to declare themselves liberals (because they’re ‘real liberals’, ‘classical liberals’ or some other formulation) in the aim of converting the party to their dogma through mass entryism. The idea that because we’re nice and fluffy and centrist we won’t be subject to people trying entryism is so naïve I’m actually surprised that supposed seasoned and experienced politicians trotted it out. You’re effectively offering a well-organised internet campaign the opportunity to take control of a political party with MPs, and someone will take up the challenge.

As an interesting note: back in 2010, the ‘we got Rage Against The Machine to number one, we can get the Lib Dems into office’ Facebook group got over 100,000 members in days. Someone doing that nowadays — at a time when Facebook has a much greater penetration of the UK population — would have recruited enough potential supporters to outnumber the existing membership. I don’t think you understand the forces you’re messing with here, and the risk you’re putting the party at.

4. Do you have any further thoughts on implementing a registered supporter scheme, and the rights which might be offered to supporters?

I think I’ve outlined my reservations with the scheme clearly in the first three questions, and I would just reiterate that you really need to think long and hard about this scheme before you formally propose and implement it because it has lots of dangerous flaws.

In terms of rights, I return to points I made back when the party was rushing to implement ‘one member, one vote’ in that it’s all well and good to declare ‘more votes mean more democracy’ but democracy is a process, not an event. Existing members barely use their right to vote in most internal processes because they don’t have enough knowledge to participate or make a reasoned choice between alternatives. The party should be looking at how it can educate, inform and involve existing members more before creating a new class of people that will simply amplify the existing problems of our internal democracy.

5. Should the party remove the existing time barriers for standing for election, as outlined in this section?

I think there are arguments to be made for this, but it needs to be subject to proper checks to ensure that any candidate for the party is committed to liberalism and our values, and not just using us as a convenient port in a storm. I would suggest that anyone seeking to benefit from a relaxation of the rules in this way would have to undergo a detailed approval procedure that would require extensive challenge to their credentials and beliefs by a wide variety of members.

6. Do you have any further thoughts on the present barriers to standing for election?

I think the more important barrier to consider is the problem of how candidates get approved and the amount expected of them — personally and financially — to become a candidate. We need to ask if the approval process we have is merely one devoted to generating identikit candidates while excluding those from different backgrounds who’d be put off from applying to go through such a formal process if they can even afford it in the first place. The question should not be ‘how can we make it easier for professional politicians who switch parties to us to be candidates?’ but more ‘how can we make sure that all members get the opportunity to consider if they want to be candidates and act on that?’

7. Should the party remove the present restriction on who may stand for the party leadership, by permitting any party member with sufficient support in the nominations process to stand?

In normal circumstances, no. For better or worse, the cornerstone of Britain’s political system is that it is a Parliamentary one, and so the main focus of national politics is on what happens in Parliament and specifically the House of Commons. Tradition has established that the leader of any party with ambitions to be a national party of government is a member of Parliament. The exceptions to this practice — including those noted in the report — are parties with no, or very small, representation in Parliament, or those parties for whom Westminster is not the main focus of their politics. So, it’s natural — and in the light of devolution, entirely expected — that the leaders of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Irish parties are not members of Parliament because they are instead members of the legislature most important to those parties. Indeed, it would be odd if the leader of the SNP wasn’t the First Minister or leader of the opposition in Scotland.

So, for us to bring in a leader who wasn’t an MP would be an admission that we were now a party that wasn’t serious about power any more and were content to be a pressure group instead. It would be saying that none of our MPs were up to the job and we instead had to draft someone else in.

We should also acknowledge that political leadership requires a very specific set of skills, and just because someone is a leader in one field does not mean their expertise can effortlessly be translated over to another. (Note how Trump’s supposed business acumen has not translated to the White House or how other businessmen turned politician have failed to find similar levels of success in their new field) Becoming a party leader requires political experience and understanding, and it needs our leader to be at the heart of power. So when the consultation paper talks about how we could bring in leaders from other fields, how many of them would have the skill set needed for political leadership? Especially in the Liberal Democrats, where most people who have engaged in a leadership role at any level have described the process as being like herding cats?

Even if we were to elect a non-MP as leader, how much time would they have to spend in Westminster anyway because they would need to be talking to the media on a regular basis? We would also face the problem that with a Parliamentary leader having to be elected anyway, the media would be continually asking us who was really in charge, especially if there was any sense of disagreement between the two.

The party should consider the rules for electing a leader if we ever reach a position in which we have no MPs or only a small number, none of which wish to be leader, but aside from those circumstances, opening it up to non-MPs would be to open the party to ridicule and irrelevance.

8. If the present restriction is removed, should the same nomination process apply both to MPs and to non-MPs wo put themselves forward?

If we are mad enough to take this step, then any non-MP standing for the leadership should be extensively tested before they are able to stand for the role, and we should be particularly careful in ensuring that they are a committed member of the party, not someone attempting to take control of it from outside.

9. In your view, would an open party leadership would necessitate providing party resources (salary, staff, office) to the successful candidate?

Unless you wanted to restrict the post to only those who are independently wealthy, then obviously yes.

10. Do you have any further thoughts on allowing any party member to run for the leadership?

As I said in answer to question 7, it’s a bad idea and one I would oppose if it were to be proposed to the membership. What the party should be considering instead is how best to use the already existing position of Party President and how that could be opened up more to give the wider membership a voice and a position at the heart of the party without compromising the role of the leader. One proposal that should be considered is banning MPs from standing for being President and giving that role the salary and support proposed for a non-Parliamentary leader to enable them to be a proper voice for members, independent of the leadership. A proposal like that would open up the party to the membership much more than other ideas that have been proposed.

11. What excites you about proposals to open up the Party and build a liberal movement?

Building a liberal movement would excite me, but these aren’t proposals to achieve that. The reference to the Canadian Liberals indicates to me that we appear to think that borrowing a process from them will be enough, but misses out that their success in 2015 was because they had a liberal and progressive vision that appealed to the electorate. The process changes only served to bolster that wider vision, and we should be focusing our attention on developing a bold liberal vision for Britain rather than obsessing over how the party works.

12. What concerns you about the proposals?

All the issues I have outlined above, but also the mention in section 6 of having a ballot of members to vote on these proposals and that this ‘could become a model for the party’. Not only is this a radical change to the way the party works, it’s being presented without any consultation as a fait accompli. We’ve seen the effect half-baked referendums have had on our national politics, so why do we want to subject our party to the same process? As I understand it, there’s no procedure in the party constitution for a ballot such as this, and to me it feels like an attempt by the leadership to circumvent the proper process of change. As members, we’ve already had several emails from senior party figures telling us how great these ideas are, and I’m sure there are more to come, so how could you ensure that any ballot will be conducted fairly with those who object to the proposals given an equal chance to communicate with the membership and provide for a proper debate? It feels like we’re going to be rushed into a vote that’s constructed to favour the leadership view, which will then be waved around as ‘the will of the people’ when it becomes time for conference to vote on the proposals.

Further to that, the idea that this ‘could become a model for the party’ is concerning both in the vision it has for the party and that it is being pushed forward as part of this consultation but without any attention being drawn to it. Indeed, in the document it has been put after all the consultation questions are asked and then slipped in casually at the end, which feels like an attempt to sneak in a major change to the way we work.

Is this linked to the other changes and the new idea of how the party should be? A leader elected by ‘supporters’ rather than members who can then ignore any attempt to limit their authority by conference (especially if it wants to pass any actually liberal policies) by putting forward plebiscites with questions like ‘do you agree with the leader’s great idea or do you want the party to fail?’

I would like a specific statement from Vince and the leadership about this issue and to explain why they are taking this approach to trying to get their changes through. I’d also like to know how much this ballot will cost and where the money for it is coming from.

13. Are there any other proposals you think the party could implement which would open up the party?

As I mentioned earlier, properly supporting the Party President and allowing any member to stand for it by giving it financial backing and not requiring the post holder to be independently wealthy. It would also be good to stop MPs (and possibly peers too) standing for the role to allow it to be a proper role for the membership.

Reworking how the party makes policy, starting with abolishing the Federal Policy Committee, the process of which encourages centrist, compromised mush rather than bold and radical policies. We should instead implement a system where groups of members can come together to draw up policy and get support to create bold and radical policy, with conference having proper debates rather than dull events where everyone gets along with each other and tells conference how good the policy is. We could actually stand for something and give people an argument for liberalism rather than mushy compromise. That would then encourage people to join us and support us as we make the argument for things we believe in instead of obsessing over process stories.

Give members more information about what’s going on in the party through official channels, letting people see all that MPs do and know what the leadership is discussing. This would enable members to feed in earlier in the process not just get to take part in consultations on ideas that are already complete.

Move committee meetings away from London and give more power to the regions to develop things. Put members in charge and give them the chance to work their way up through the party without immediately defaulting to thinking ex-Spads are the best people to run everything.

Finally, we need to apologise and move on from the mistakes we made in coalition and stop pretending everything about it was wonderful. We’ll get more people involved in the party if we can show we learn from our mistakes, not pretend they never happened and shout down everyone who tries to point them out.