The immediate reaction of some Liberal Democrat activists angered at the decision by Lib Dem peers to elect Chris Rennard as their representative on the Federal Executive has been to say ‘we should abolish peer reps on these committees’.
The anger is unsurprising. As I told the International Business Times:
Chris Rennard’s election to a party post by any group in the party would be controversial, but all the more so given that it has come from a group of people – the party’s peers – who are appointed for life and so all the usual lines of accountability to voters and party members don’t apply to them.
The proposed action, however, is is to get the issue back to front. The gap between the perspectives of the 40 Lib Dem peers who voted for Chris Rennard and the perspectives of the many Lib Dem activists angered by their actions shows that what the party needs is closer, not looser, links between its peers and the rest of the party.
With peers appointed for life to an institution that has remained extremely resistant to democracy, they are not accountable either to party members or the electorate.
For MPs of all parties there is often a tension between the relative importance of party members and the wider electorate in that accountability question.
But for Lib Dem peers, needing neither reselection nor reelection, neither applies and hence the perennial danger of the peers drifting off into being a high profile but largely unaccountable face of the party – and all the more so now there are just 8 Liberal Democrat MPs.
Whatever else the fallout from the FE rep election, the smart move is to strengthen, not weaken, the links between Lib Dem peers and the other 99.8% of the party’s membership.
UPDATE: On the question of what should then be done, here are some starters.
- Finally introduce the much delayed plans to strengthen the degree of democracy over how Lib Dems end up in the Lords.
- Be clearer that there are three levels of possible ‘offence’ – criminal acts, which are for the police; acts deserving expulsion from the party; acts for which a lesser degree of party sanction is appropriate. For example, if a local party treasurer consistently fails to file their financial returns on time due to incompetence, expulsion may well be too harsh (depending on the full circumstances) but banning them from holding local party office would be appropriate. For more on this see Lessons from Rennard #2: the party needs to recognise three levels of misbehaviour.