The Liberal Democrat party’s rules, procedures and habits for list selections matter. They always have, but after the 2015 general election they matter all the more because over the next few years those who get elected to the London Assembly, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and European Parliament via those PR lists will have far more political power compared with the party’s MPs than was the case when the MPs including Cabinet members and the Deputy Prime Minister. All the more so given that there is a one-party majority in the Commons and there won’t be a one-party majority in all four of those institutions.
The same is true of course for victors in the first-past-the-post contest for seats in the first three of those institutions (British MEPs are elected solely via PR lists). However, the lists are more important not only because that is where most of our electoral success is likely to come from in these contests, but also because list selections are the easier route by which to take action to improve our party’s diversity. Witness the fact that rules to mandate diversity in the party’s list selections, whilst anything that may alter the outcome of members’ votes in constituency selections is still highly controversial.
Moreover, the London list selection was done by a one-member, one-vote (OMOV) system, and OMOV is now coming in for the party’s main national (federal) committees – elections for which rules will need revising to work in the new world of OMOV.
As a result, the outcome of the recent London Assembly list selections should be of close interest to members across the country as we work out how to reform our structures through this Parliament, starting most immediately with the party’s Governance Review.
What, then, are the lessons?
1. Rules to ensure diversity work and are acceptable to members
I was closely involved in the introduction of gender balance rules for the very first set of GLA list selections prior to 2000. At the time we put a lot of effort into ensuring member support for the proposals because that was still a new, controversial idea, first tried out in a different form for the 1999 European Parliament selections.
Recent legal changes required the rules to act a little differently this time. With the outgoing Lib Dem GLA group being 50% female, there were no female balance rules this time, but there were ethnic diversity rules and these resulted in a different set of names in the most winnable slots than would otherwise have been the case.
The skies have not fallen in, the world has not ended and no-one has walked out. Nor have the practical difficulties over defining ‘BAME’ for the purpose of such rules proved insurmountable. Instead, the party now has a serious chance of electing its first ever non-white member of the London Assembly, a prospect which is important.
It is certainly much easier to have rules such as ‘at least one of the top three candidates must be from a BAME background’ than to have any analogous rule when only one person is being selected in a first past the post single candidate seat.
But the signs from London are two-fold: that a similar extension from gender to include BAME diversity in selections for the European Parliament is quite doable, and also that – given our poor record on gender diversity in local elections, many of which are multi-ward elections with multiple candidates up for election at the same time – it is wise to start thinking about how to extend such effective mechanisms more widely.
2. Turnout in party selections is rarely good and sometimes embarrassingly bad
In one seat with a retiring Liberal Democrat MP in the last Parliament, the winner in the selection polled just 16 first preferences. And this was not because votes were split across a field larger than the number of times new members were asked to raise their hands at the Bournemouth conference. They won comfortably on the first round with a mere 16 votes as only 28 were cast.
The immediate desire to avoid publishing such an embarrassingly low figure is understandable (and one to which I plead guilty too). But it is part of a wider problem.
We don’t pay much attention to turnout levels in party selections, we rarely put in much effort to raising it (and sometimes run internal elections in ways that massively depress turnout) and almost never worry very much about it. The turnout disaster that was the last federal committee elections? It’s already been mostly forgotten and doesn’t merit even a mention in the Governance Review consultation document.
Turnout in the London list selection was, at a notch under 40%, decent. Decent rather than stellar, despite the fact that there was a very real contest. An incumbent was in effect deselected (going from second on the list last time to an almost certainly unwinnable fifth this time) and with the party having a very real chance of gaining a seat next May, there was also at least one ‘open’ winnable slot too. Yet turnout came in at the level that is typical for postal ballots across all sorts of organisations rather than at a high level.
The solution? The party should publish the percentage turnout figure in every selection and internal contest, however good or bad the figure looks, and the Federal Executive should collate all the figures from across the party, publishing them twice a year as annexes to their reports to federal conference.
Surfacing the data in one convenient, public place wouldn’t guarantee action. But it will make it more likely, and it will provide those who want action with a ready supply of evidence wherever they wish to take the battle to be serious about involving members more.
3. Endorsements are a good thing
The English Party is a staunch hold-out of the old ways of doing things, banning the use of endorsements in Westminster selections. However, around the rest of the party the bans on endorsements have been repeatedly rolled back in the last few years. It is one of the issues I have often been campaigning on – and those of us fighting these battles usually win.
There are three reasons why endorsements are a good thing. First, banning endorsements means banning someone’s freedom of speech. That should be a very rarely taken measure, deployed only in the most extreme of cases – because that’s why being a liberal means. Arguments against endorsements rarely raise much above the level of ‘I don’t like what someone would say if they were given freedom of speech’. That’s no reason to take away their freedom of speech.
Second, in a world of social media retweets, likes and favourites, banning endorsements becomes very messy to enforce. If ex-MP A retweets a newspaper story about Tim Farron which also makes a positive reference to candidate Z, is that an endorsement? You rapidly descend into rules that are both voluminous and unenforceable – or that are short, vague and open the vagaries of interpretation in contests where the bar against disqualifying a winner for breaking the rules is so high that you can cheat and win with a fair degree of impunity.
Third – and here is where London comes in – allowing endorsements works. It doesn’t just work, it works well.
It is true that permitting freedom of speech gives a little more power to the most popular and high profile in the Liberal Democrats, as they can speak up in favour of people they like. But what is also true is that such power consistently has been used perfectly reasonably – and indeed is often used by people deliberately to aid newer candidates and more diverse candidates. Hence the predominance of higher profile endorsement in London for first time list candidates and for non-white male candidates. That is good.
4. Letting new members vote works
Thanks to the work of Mike Tuffrey and colleagues, London Lib Dems received a special dispensation from the English Party to let party members of less than 12 months standing vote in the list selection.
As a result, the post-election surge of new members were able to vote – and this worked well.
There’s no reason to avoid this for other similar selections in future, and the default should change. All members should always have the vote, unless there are special circumstances which require a different rule. (A simple percentage trigger to introduce this in cases where a selectorate’s membership has grown unusually quickly just before a selection is the obvious way to do this.)
But the logic is also to go further: encourage lapsed members to rejoin and vote. That will give the party a membership boost each time there is a selection and as this is about lapsed members, it does not raise a problem with entryism.
To really make that happen, selection candidates should be given lists of lapsed members in good enough time that part of their campaigning can be to win members back to the party. At my prompting the Federal Executive agreed this for the leadership contest, but it seems not to have happened in practice – the people in both leadership camps I have asked were not aware of the information ever being provided to their teams.
In future it should be the norm.
5. Too many people start too late
It is far from uncommon, especially in London, to find me in a room ahead of a Liberal Democrat event starting leafleting the chairs with a flyer, usually advertising a certain book about winning elections, my poster on what the Liberal Democrats believe and Liberal Democrat Newswire.
It is also the norm that I am the only person doing so, and at events without chairs and hence no leafleting, it is also pretty common for me to be the only non-local member dodging the raffle ticket seller right up until just before selections formally start and even after that kickoff.
Too many candidates treat winning a selection contest as the equivalent of waiting until the Prime Minister goes to the Palace to start a general election campaign. You can leave it that late, and if you are simply doing it for some practice and experience there may even be a good case for leaving it so late.
But if you want to win, leaving it so late is a matter of shooting yourself in one foot, then clobbering the other with a sledgehammer, slinging on a backpack full of all those flyers I’ve distributed over the years and then expecting to win the marathon. Against Haile Gebrselassie.
If you really want to come from ‘nowhere’ to a high, winnable place you need to start early, and find a good route to publicising yourself that isn’t just about self-puffery but also about helping others. Step forward Rob Blackie, now number four on the GLA list, one of my few fellow leafleters months back and provider of regularly excellent digital campaigning advice.
With electorates for regional/national lists typically being in the several thousand, just do the maths about how many members you can meet and talk to per week: lots of weeks are needed to win over people. More weeks than there are available in selection campaigns themselves.
Mostly early starting is up to candidates. The party can do one thing: start widely publicising roughly when selections will be well in advance, rather than leaving it to bloggers to break the news.
Outline timetables for selections can and should be publicised well in advance – even years in advance – so new and lower profile would-be candidates can plan the necessary long-term campaigns.
6. Money is an issue – and the answer is better fundraising
Money matters. Those who did well in the London list selections were all people who made good use of the ability to spend money on posted literature to members. Add to this my point about how starting early is essential, and it may seem that money talks too much. But that’s to misread the situation twice-over.
First, because you need both a long campaign and spending money to have a chance of beating incumbents and other well known names. Without some ability to spend money, selections are too closed to newer people.
Second, because even for a long campaign that then spends up to the selection limit, the total sums involved are modest compared to the sorts of fundraising ability the party needs its selected candidates to have.
The problem, rather, is that very few candidates fundraise for selection contests and even fewer do it well. It’s that which gives the advantage to people with private means, an advantage which anyway can and should easily be curtailed by a cap on the size of individual donations.
Beyond such a cap, the answer is to have more and better fundraising to level the playing field. Indeed, the party needs candidates who are good at fundraising. Testing out this skill in selections is good.
Moreover, fundraising is not a zero-sum game. Getting someone to donate to your selection campaign is not a matter of taking money away from donations to help the party fight public elections – they are different asks, made at different times and for different purposes, and therefore which do not compete against each other.
It is also worth remembering the problem if campaigning was curtailed by heavily cutting the amount of spending allowed. Even with the sort of expenditure limits we saw in London, the amount of information that each member receives about candidates is pretty limited: healthy democracy and good decision making requires a good volume of information, not a miserly minimum – especially as typeset words in an A5 manifesto about your own brilliance come easily without any fact checking.
So in addition to introducing a cap on donation size, there should be more fundraising training for individuals – skills which are useful both before and after selections.
One little step could be taken, in addition, to reduce the costs for those who are new to everything, starting from scratch and looking to win future selections after getting some initial experience. That funnel of new talent is an important one, so we could improve it by simply saying that during selection campaigns, shortlisted candidates cannot be charged for attendance at party events. That would ease the crunch on new people and help more go from the inexperienced to the serious.
7. There is not enough good advice provided on how to win list selections
And finally… of course I think those I have given advice to on list selections over the last 16 years have got good advice (!), but I do wonder about the overall quality of advice others get when you see the number of odd campaigning decisions, poor campaign messaging and late starting campaigns (although the London selections this time coming so soon after the membership surge in May makes them a less good example of the latter than other previous selections).
Of course, there’s no book, pamphlet, blog post or training course to turn to for good advice on list selections. There have been some really good training sessions for would-be female MPs on winning selections (Ed Fordham and Jeremy Browne recounting how they duked it out with each out for a selection was a particularly good session a few years back).
More widely there seems to be a big gap in good advice, especially if you are not plugged into the flow of female Westminster selection advice. Perhaps it is time I finally got round to writing that pamphlet I have had on the backburner for years…
Regardless of that, party bodies who want to change the make-up of people who get selected could do with taking a careful, dispassionate look at which advice and training they can best provide – and when. With European selections less than a year away in England, a good test is this: are you already helping people line up their selection campaigns for these? If not, then it’s time to get your collective skates on.
One simple mechanism for this rests with the Federal Executive: ask all the Associated Organisations (AOs) and Specified Associated Organisations (SAOs) before Christmas what plans they have in place for helping candidates and publicise the results. There’s a much wider onus on members involved in party bodies to take up the cause, and a little publicity will at least help make clear who is and isn’t really trying hard.
None of the lessons I’ve talked about above will magically transform the party. Added together, though, they are all carefully based on existing evidence of what does and does not work and the cumulative impact will both push the party in the right direction and make much clearer where any remaining obstacles really lie.
Here’s the list in a quick summary form:
- Extend diversity rules to all selections where more than one candidate is being selected at once, covering both gender and BAME characteristics.
- Collate, publish and worry about turnout figures in all internal selections and contests.
- Allow endorsements in all internal selections and contests.
- Let new members vote in internal selections and contests, subject to a safety trigger if there has been a unusually large growth in membership just prior to the selection.
- Provide selection candidates with lists of lapsed members then can re-recruit in time to vote.
- Outline timetables for selections should be publicised well in advance – even years in advance – so new and lower profile would-be candidates can plan the necessary long-term campaigns.
- There should be a cap on individual donations to selection campaigns, including from candidates to themselves.
- Personal fundraising training should become the norm at federal conference and elsewhere.
- Make attendance at party events during a selection free for shortlisted candidates.
- Get AOs and SAOs to publish what their plans are for helping candidates before Christmas.
Hat-tip: thank you to Simon McGrath who prompted the idea for this post.