When someone wins an election, whether to be party leader or to be Prime Minister, they not only get a new job, they also get a honeymoon-mandate combination. The very act of victory gives an opportunity to get through something that would otherwise trigger too much opposition or procedural sandbagging to get through – provided, that is, they flagged it up during their victorious contest and so can claim a mandate.
Hence it was a mistake during the last Liberal Democrat leadership contest for Nick Clegg not to flag up his desire to change the party’s policy on holding a European referendum. As a result, when he later tried to change it, many of the party’s peers dug in their heels and said ‘no’. Had he used his election to secure a mandate, the willingness of a group of unelected Liberal Democrats to block such a change would have been rather different. Many would still have grumbled, but also acknowledged that someone who has just won an all-member ballot perhaps shouldn’t be blocked by a collection of the unelected.
Which is why it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what issues which otherwise could run into the procedural sand that Tim Farron and Norman Lamb are seeking mandates for during this leadership contest.
Of course, this needs to be balanced against picking unnecessary fights for the sake of it, but what’s really foolish is to pick a fight after having passed up the opportunity to make it much more winnable.
So far, both Lamb and (especially) Farron have been talking extensively about their plans to improve the party’s diversity, and the potentially controversial steps that would require decision on from an alphabet soup of committees and sub-committees deep into the party’s indirectly elected and opaque procedural heart.
That is just the scenario in which it’s right and proper for someone to use the mandate from an all-member election to inject urgency and transparency into some of those more recondite parts of the party’s bureaucracy.
Moreover, whoever the new leader is they – along with Party President Sal Brinton and indeed anyone else interested in party reform – will be gifted a largely unmentioned opportunity.
It’s down to the way in which the English Party’s constitution is about to be broken, forcing a set of constitutional reforms. So far, only Martin Tod seems to have spotted this, but it’s quite simple.
The federal conference this autumn in Bournemouth is due to pass the measures to abolish the system of federal conference reps, replacing it with a system of one-member one-vote (OMOV) for conference and the party’s federal committees.
However, the English Party’s constitution is written on the premise that federal conference reps exist as it builds its own pyramid of indirect elections on a base of English conference reps who must be elected in ways that depend on the rules for federal conference reps. Abolish the latter and the rules for the former no longer make sense, collapsing the English pyramid into a messy heap of malfunctioning constitutional requirements.
Which is why the English Party will have to be putting forward soon a set of reforms to change the way it works – opening the door to much wider reform if required, but even if the door is firmly held only part-way open, it still forces debates, votes and changes.
In other circumstances, it would be tempting to say the party has more pressing needs to worry about than constitutional change to improve the English Party. But the combination of its importance (because it’s at the heart of some of the party’s headline grabbing problems in the last Parliament) and the fact that something has to happen means the issue can and should be addressed soon rather than left in the ‘one for the next Parliament’ long grass.
Which is why both Farron and Lamb would be wise to set out explicitly a commitment to reform the English Party – giving them a mandate to ensure the door being opened up as the pyramid collapses – a metaphor as messy as the problem it applies to – is firmly kicked fully open.
Keep up with news on the Lib Dem leadership race
- Sign up for Liberal Democrat Newswire here, and
- Sign up for the Facebook event for the contest (where Norman Lamb and Tim Farron are regularly answering questions from members).