What’s going on in the Liberal Democrats?

There’s one thing we know for sure — at least one person who likes being described as a senior party figure has a good relationship with a journalist at Business Insider, who keep getting lots of leaks about Vince Cable’s future and top secret plans to radically change the way the party works.

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The latest story is that ‘senior party figures’ have been told to be free on September 7th in order to be present at a big speech from Vince. (Disclaimer: I have received no such request, thus confirming I’m probably not a senior party figure) This speech, should it actually happen, will supposedly have two linked elements: Vince announcing his plans to resign as leader, and then detailing plans to change the rules about party membership and who gets to stand and vote for the leader who’ll replace him.

This news piggybacks on a number of other leaks about these nebulous plans for the future of the party, in which people will be invited to become ‘supporters’ instead of members, in return for which they’ll get to vote on the leadership and possibly other parts of party business too. Some have also stated that the rules for who can be leader will change to allow any member of the party to stand, not just MPs. They also tend to go on to suggest that these ideas will be somehow discussed at the party conference next month, despite them not featuring in the Conference agenda and members having been given no information about them.

What is clear is that certain members of the party do believe that creating some kind of registered supporters scheme would be the magic cure that solves many of the party ills. Mark Pack has been touting it for months, and last week many members received a survey by email asking for our opinions on it (and also, in a great example of bad survey design, asking people who had joined a political party what they might think of this scheme and its benefits if they were the sort of person who didn’t join political parties). We’re promised that there’ll be a consultation on this at conference, but my general cynicism and the tone of the survey make me think this will be more a ‘how wonderful do you think this is?’ consultation rather than a ‘do you think we should do something like this?’ one.

Added together with the continual leaking (which is now mentioning having a special conference to agree these changes to the rules, given that they won’t be on the agenda in Brighton) it does make me feel that someone is attempting to bounce the party into making wholesale and radical changes in the way it works without any real discussion or scrutiny of these new plans.

What makes all this more interesting is that when I’ve raised this on Twitter, people who are genuinely senior in the party’s internal workings (and who I trust) have told me that nothing of the sort is being planned — and yet still the leaks come, so someone is planning something, even if they’ve not got everyone on board yet. Is there some sort of war for the future of the party going on behind the scenes?

As for the plans themselves, I’m not convinced that they’re the magic solution — often accompanied by some transformation or subsuming of the party into a new centrist movement — to the current flatlining poll figures. A lot is made of schemes like this being behind the success of Justin Trudeau in Canada and Emmanuel Macron in France, but that ignores a huge amount of context around their victories. Trudeau was the prodigal son returning — his father had been a very popular Prime Minister and the party he took leadership of is the natural party of government in Canada, with a long history and massive infrastructure in every province. Meanwhile Macron broke through in a Presidential system with a tradition of movements built around charismatic individuals where the main parties of left and right had both recently failed in office and were mired in infighting and corruption. Both countries had also not been led by Tony Blair, allowing them to borrow a lot from the playbook he’d used to become Prime Minister (including changing the way his party worked and rebranding it as ‘the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole’).

I think there are two issues going on here that need to be properly discussed in the open, not by people skulking around and trying to nudge the future of the party in a particular direction by selective leaking. First, just what is going on behind the scenes in the party? Who is making these leaks, and what are they actually wanting to propose for the future of the party? Second, do we actually need a transformation in the way the party works — some clearly want one, but that’s not the same thing — and can we actually have a debate over different models of running the party? At the moment it feels that we’re going to be presented with a fait accompli of a system that had success in a completely different context, and told it’s the only way.

We’re supposed to be an open and democratic party run by the members, but at the moment none of us are involved in important discussions about the future of the party, and that has to change.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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