London shows the way in welcoming new members

The sensible way to treat a new member of a political party is to welcome them warmly. Yet often the rules of the Liberal Democrats treat new members as second class citizens, automatically lumping them all together into the ‘suspicious’ category to be deprived of voting rights in internal party contests with the all too frequent provision that you can’t vote unless you’ve been a member for a year.

No assessment of individual cases or evaluation of risks in different scenarios; instead for many of the contests everyone new is labelled second-rate and deprived of the vote in a way that if, say, Ukip suggested new citizens should be treated – banned from voting in elections for 12 months – party members would be outraged about.

The party has had problems with suspicious mass membership applications at the last moment before a very small number of selections in the past, and some selective, carefully targeted safeguards against that are wise (such as in the case of a very large growth in membership in one area).

But instead we have the crude blunderbuss of blanket bans – even if it’s a case of someone who was a member for decades, lapsed a couple of years back and now rejoins.

So three cheers for London Region, and especially the leadership shown by its chair Mike Tuffrey, for proposing a change in the rules for who gets to vote in the selection for the party’s London Mayor and Assembly candidates.

With the selection going ahead in the summer after the general election, the previous 12 month bar on voting would have meant new (and rejoining) members during the general election would have then immediately had the group profiling of ‘new = suspicious = strip of voting rights’ applied and not been allowed to vote.

Would have meant – because if this change goes ahead, instead the electorate will be all party members, regardless of whether they’ve been a member for 1 month or 1 decade. One member, one vote – for all members.

That’s great news and hopefully will encourage those responsible for other sets of rules through the party to look again at the other uses of the 12 months bar.

Indeed, the party should go even further and learn a lesson from the Canadian Conservatives. One of the key steps in their organisational recovery from the election nadir that reduced the party to two seats was not only letting lapsed members rejoin and vote in their then leadership election but also giving the leadership candidates the lists of lapsed members. That turned the leadership contest into a powerful and effective membership revival drive, with leadership campaigns putting effort into signing back up the lapsed members (and because they were lapsed members, there was the safeguard of knowing they were real rather than fake new sign-ups).

It should be the norm for the party: let lapsed members rejoin and vote in contests and let candidates have the lists of lapsed members so they turn contests into membership-boosting exercises.

There are a few logistical details to get right, both over data protection and sealing the list at a later date so ballots can be dispatched, but these are all quite do-able if there is the will to implement the principle – that as a party we should welcome new members and we should use high profile opportunities to grow our membership.

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