The many problems with Vince’s proposed changes to the Liberal Democrats
Sometimes a veteran politician can find a way to make a statement into a big story, getting himself featured highly in all the news of the day as he talks about the importance of moderation in politics. Unfortunately for Vince Cable, today it was the turn of Tony Blair to get all the attention which meant Vince’s well-trailed, heavily briefed and pre-leaked speech on the future of the Liberal Democrats is currently not featuring high up in any of the news today.
And that indicates the depth of the hole the party is currently in. Even the party’s leader announcing that he wants to make major changes to the way the party is run with the aim of turning it into a ‘movement for moderates’ (sometime in the last twenty-four hours a modicum of sense prevailed somewhere and ‘Momentum for moderates’ was dropped) earned barely a shrug outside Liberal Democrat circles. The leader of one of Britain’s biggest political parties, one that was in Government just a few years ago, is proposing to allow non-members a vote for the party leader and to have a leader who’s not an MP…and no one really cares.
I’ve said it before, and I won’t fill this post with me saying it again, but the problems the Liberal Democrats face right now aren’t ones that can be fixed by process stories. Today was about making a big noise around how the Liberal Democrats are going to do politics, all of which is completely irrelevant when people have no idea what it is you’re actually wanting to do. It’s all well and good making a big fuss about a registered supporters’ scheme, but it’s not going to make any difference when no one has a clear idea of what they’re signing up to be a registered supporter of. It’s like a football club announcing that its response to relegation is to expand the size of its stadium rather than doing anything about what’s happening on the pitch.
But anyway, after a long period of briefing, leaking, trial balloons and mood music, we finally have some actual concrete proposals from Vince (Leading Change: proposals to open up the party) about what he wants to do, so let’s take a look at them, shall we?
Firstly, it starts with a fallacy to set the scene. Most voters describe themselves as ‘centrist’, therefore most voters would vote for a centrist party. All they need to do is to recognise that there’s a party of moderation and liberalism and they’ll all vote for it. What this fails to recognise is that most people’s political self-description has very little, if any, correlation with their actual opinions. People don’t go through a detailed examination of their opinions and then carefully place themselves on a left-right scale, they instead tend to think of themselves as normal and average and therefore somewhere around the middle. (The main problem all political activists make is assuming that everyone thinks about politics as much as them, when most people barely think about it at all)
Related to that, the party’s pitch to be this new centrist force reads more like an estate agent’s description of an attractive property in a central location than a political call to arms:
Next, we get the assertion that the party might recover its position gradually (‘several more heaves’) but to do it quickly requires change. And just as it’s declared that Something Must Be Done, along comes the three Somethings That Must Be Done :
- Creating a registered supporters’ scheme, including the right of supporters to vote for the party leader.
- Removing the minimum duration of party membership before someone can stand as a candidate.
- Removing the requirement that the party leader be an MP.
(There’s also a fourth, but they’re trying not to draw attention to that as we’ll see later) So, let’s look at these three in turn.
Creating a registered supporters scheme
Let’s be positive to start with — having an organised system for identifying and registering supporters is a good idea. There are lots of people out there sympathetic to the party who might help out in some way (or might just be regular voters) who’d like to be more connected but don’t want to be a member, and it would be good to have a way of keeping track of them. There are issues to be resolved about sharing information, whether that be GDPR or just getting local campaigners who keep lists of their supporters and deliverers under lock and key because they don’t like sharing, but the idea of a scheme like that is good.
The huge problem here isn’t creating a way to identify supporters (and giving them a chance to identify themselves) it’s making the huge leap from ‘we should have a supporters’ scheme’ to ‘anybody who fancies it should have a vote for the party leader’. Adding in the latter changes it from being a supporters scheme operating as a halfway house towards party membership to a scheme about wanting to vote for the party leader without becoming a member.
There’s a series of very flimsy safeguards proposed, but it’s essentially allowing anyone with an internet connection and a couple of free minutes to vote for the party leader. ‘But they’ll have to sign up to a statement of principles!’ you say, which is true, but in the same way that ‘centrist’ can mean many different things to different people, so too can ‘liberal’ — just look at the number of people on the right who claim that they’re the real liberals and we’re the Illiberal Undemocrats.
The related claim that we’re safe against entryism because we’re a sensible, centrist and moderate that only sensible, centrist and moderate people would want to sign up to support is interesting in both its naivety and its similarity to those who claimed that Ed Miliband’s changes to the Labour leadership election rules (including introducing a registered supporters scheme) would bolster the moderate, Blairite wing of the party and finish off the left.
Following this, we get another bad comparison, where we’re told about how the Canadian Liberals introduced a similar supporters scheme and it was very successful, so therefore ours would be too. The problem with that comparison is that while they both have Liberal in the name, the two parties are very different structurally and operate in different systems. Canada’s Liberals are the natural party of government there, having run the country for two-thirds of the last century while also being the only party to exist in every province. They’re not a third party, whose only government role in the past century has been in coalitions, trying to squeeze between two bigger rivals. Just because they’re a liberal party doesn’t make them a good point of comparison.
So, a supporters scheme would be a good idea, an ‘anyone can vote for the party leader’ one isn’t.
Changing rules about standing for office
The proposals here aren’t too bad, asking the state parties to reduce the time limit someone has to have been a member before they can stand for election as a candidate. There’s a good case to be made that in the present fluid era of politics, people who could make good election candidates for the Liberal Democrats shouldn’t find themselves blocked from being one because they haven’t been a member for long enough.
The only problem I have with this proposal is that it places all the onus on the state parties to reduce the time limit after membership and doesn’t consider the hurdle of getting to be an approved candidate regardless of that. Even with a shortened or removed time limit, prospective parliamentary candidates still have to spend cash and be able to travel to an assessment event to be able to stand for election. If we want more flexibility in our candidates — and to encourage diversity, especially amongst those with little spare money or time for the approval process — then we need to have more ways to be an approved candidate that give people the opportunity to put themselves forward without having had to jump through a series of hoops first.
Opening up the leadership
And now we come to the other big idea of Vince’s proposal — ending the rule that the leader of the party should be an MP. Again, we’re told that this would be a good thing, without much in the way of justification and yet again, someone is trying to pull a fast one when it comes to making comparisons:
The parliamentary party in the Commons would need to elect a parliamentary group leader, in the same way as the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Irish parties have Commons group leaders while their party leaders are outside the Westminster Parliament. The relationship between this individual and the leader would be important, but these examples show how it can work well.
Now, this is the sort of question my first year undergraduate students can work out the answer to, so I hope you all can too: what’s the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the parties mentioned as examples here? There are several answers, but the one I’m looking for is ‘the Liberal Democrats compete across most of the UK, while they’re all parties who compete in one country with its own devolved legislature and government.’ Nicola Sturgeon is an MSP, not an MP, because the SNP’s focus is on Holyrood rather than Westminster, and it’s similar for the other parties listed there — their leaders are members of the legislature that’s most important to them.
If you want to look at parties with Parliamentary representation but leaders who aren’t MPs, you could draw comparisons with the Greens (who elected non-MP leaders this week) and UKIP, but obviously that sort of comparison isn’t one Vince is wanting to make because those are niche parties, not ones whose leaders are seriously claiming that they’re going to be Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition, which is what you’d expect (or at least hope) the Liberal Democrat leader to be.
And who would this extra-Parliamentary leader actually be? We’re told that
There is a wide range of talent with proven leadership ability — in the professions, the armed forces, the voluntary sector and business — who share our values but who have not pursued a parliamentary career. Our current parliamentary system is severely damaged, if not broken, and a forward-looking party has to look outside as well as inside.
But the only name linked with it — Gina Miller — has said she’s not interested, so we have no idea of the sort of person this might apply to. Italso makes an assumption that ‘leadership’ is a universal quality that can be applied in all fields regardless of circumstances. In this it shares a lot with the Blairite centrist view that all problems could be solved by good technocratic management, but it also looks very similar to the sort of mantra Trump’s supporters like: ‘he’s a successful businessman, and he’s going to run the White House like a business.’ Political leadership is a distinct skill in itself, and there are plenty of examples of people who’ve been a success in one field finding that success doesn’t mean anything when you move into politics.
Further, it opens up a whole new can of worms of how a non-Parliamentary leader interacts with the party in Parliament. On a small scale, anyone who’s seen the interactions between a local council group and local Parliamentary candidate in any party can tell you that having it’s going to be a very difficult relationship to manage, and most of those aren’t under the sort of press scrutiny we would be if we tried this. The moment the party leader and the parliamentary leader look like they’re slightly out of sync on an issue, they’ll both be questioned intensely on who’s really in charge, and rather than some bold new dynamic movement, you just have a split party, unable to agree with itself. And what if that leader has been swept in on the back of supporter votes, defeating one of the MPs who was backed by the members?
There might be a case for looking at what would happen if the party had no MPs or if no MP was willing to be leader, but stating to the public ‘none of our MPs are good enough to be leader’ isn’t as strong an argument as Vince seems to think it is. If we want to bolster a non-MP role, then why not properly support the Party President and ban MPs from standing for it?
Referendums always solve problems with a minimum of fuss
The consultation talks about there being three proposals for the party, but there’s actually a fourth one in there, though this one gets buried away near the end in section 6 after all the consultation questions have been asked.
In the spirit of becoming a member-powered movement, every member should be able to express a view. To that end, Vince will ask the Federal Board to conduct a ballot of all party members in the autumn, asking them whether they support or oppose a final package of proposed reforms, reflecting the consultation results. This could become a model for the party taking big decisions on policy or its own constitution.
After talking about taking these proposals to a special conference to get them approved, it seems that idea has been dropped and replaced by this. While you can’t actually change the party constitution via a ballot, it does provide a mechanism for you to claim that the majority of the party support you (you might even talk about how these changes are ‘the will of the people’ and anyone opposing them is anti-democracy or something similar) and then to try and push them through conference on the back of that.
I would have thought that if there’s one thing we should have learned from the last couple of years it’s that deciding big questions on the back of yes/no plebiscites isn’t actually the best way to make big decisions and leads to lots of rancour before, during and after the vote. This is especially true if we have no idea how the vote will be carried out and how any arguments will be put to members — will there be someone neutral to oversee it (like the arbitrator Vince called for in a second referendum, perhaps) or will it be more in the ‘do you agree with the leader or do you want the party to fail?’ type of question?
But look what’s at the end there: “This could become a model for the party taking big decisions on policy or its own constitution.” What’s being proposed here, hidden at the back of the consultation and not included within it, is a proposal to fundamentally change how the party makes decisions on policy and how it’s run. ‘Big decisions’ will be decided by the leader and their advisers, then put out to the members in a ‘do you agree with this great manifesto?’ vote, and Conference will be relegated to discussing interesting policy wheezes and clapping along to speeches. It’s a massive power grab by the party leadership, and they’re trying to sneak it through undercover of all the other changes.
Overall, there’s an occasional good idea in these proposals that should be considered, but taken as a whole along with the sneaky member ballot initiative it feels like nothing more than an attempt to fundamentally change the nature of the party. In the name of turning it into a ‘movement’, the possibility of the party putting forward radical liberal policies will be drastically removed in favour of a sensible centrist mush. It feels like someone is pitching the party towards Britain’s wannabe Macrons as ‘you don’t have to create your own vacuous centrist movement, just let us lobotomise ourselves and we’ll be it for you.’