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What the plans for party reform really mean: Liberal Democrat Newswire #116

Liberal Democrat Newswire #116 came out last week, taking a detailed look at the proposals for party reform set out by Vince Cable – and including the way in which members can have their say before final decisions are taken.

You can now read it in full below, but if you’d like the convenience of getting it direct by email in future just sign up for it here:

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Earlier today Vince Cable gave his much (and frequently wrongly) trailed speech about reforming the Liberal Democrats and his own future.

Long-time readers will be very familiar with the overall story here as Lib Dem Newswire first covered a registered supporters scheme as long ago as 2015, Vince Cable’s calls for the party to be opened up back in September last year, the new party strategy for building a broader liberal movement in March this year and then details about how a new registered supporters scheme could work in June.

But both for newer readers who haven’t had the backstory and long-time readers who want to know what’s actually happening next, this edition brings a recap of the context, the details on what is being proposed and, near the end, the full text of Vince Cable’s speech from this morning.

It’s always great to hear what readers think, and all the more so on a topic such as this where there is so much to be decided, including by the Federal Board on which I sit. Do hit reply and let me know, and I’ll feature a round-up of responses next time.

I will also be at Lib Dem conference in Brighton. Do grab me and say hello if you see me wandering past head down. I’ll be the one still using a BlackBerry.

Best wishes,

Mark

In this edition:

Vince Cable quote on proposed party reforms

8 reasons for the Lib Dems to change

1. The party has been stuck at high single digits or occasionally just into double figures in the opinion polls for eight years. Our local government base, although growing, is growing at a rate that will take decades to get us back to where we used to be.

2. Even before the coalition years there were problems: our local government base was already shrinking pre-2010 (and its long-term growth had ended long before Nick Clegg became leader), our volunteer and financial resources have never matched overall the big parties we’re up against and our diversity has consistently been poor.

3. Yet there is a huge groundswell of small-l liberals, pro-Europeans who share our values yet who do not consider the Liberal Democrats a party they can fully sign up to as formal members.

4. We can learn from how to reach out to such people not only from colleagues in other countries – such as the Canadian Liberals – but also from some of our most successful local parties, such as Oxford West & Abingdon. They run de facto local supporter schemes and they work well. What’s missing is a way of rolling this out successfully across the country, and which involves, for example, party bodies who do great outreach to communities currently under-represented in the party. One scheme run across the party will make it much easier and more effective for each different part of the party to contribute to its success in their own ways.

5. There’s a bigger problem with the status quo too, as I set out in LDN #113: for every one member a local party has, party HQ on average has the email addresses for a further two people who have signed up to support at least one party campaign. We have a defacto national supporters scheme, but it is one from which local parties are mostly kept isolated: they don’t get the chance to email those supporters to involve them locally and these supporters in turn miss out on the chances to attend events near them. Changing how we do things is a chance to crack this problem and have one integrated system which benefits all parts of the party – and which focuses on what is best for recruiting, involving and energising those who are willing to campaign on our causes.

6. There is a double-urgency for change: the daily battering that liberalism is taking and, more parochially, the repeated talk of new parties and party splits. However those play out, the stronger the Lib Dems are, the more likely the outcome will be one Lib Dems are happy with – which is why we need to be stronger, sooner.

7. Organisational change is not the only thing the party needs to do to prosper, but it is important, it can generate extra resources that help bring about other changes too – and changing to be a more open and welcoming party is part of the party’s overall message too. Wanting to work collaboratively with others who share our views is part of the liberal message.

8. The party has done research which shows that a registered supporters scheme could help successfully appeal to the wider audiences we need to win over. I think there are some questions about the details of what the research shows – such as how to my reading it makes involving supporters more in our policy consultations and policy processes more important that Vince Cable’s plans set out. But the overall picture is a promising one. Whilst success is not guaranteed, the evidence from the research, from what local parties have done and from sister parties all points in the same overall direction.

What’s in the plans?

Lib Dem party reform plans

When it came to the speech, the party reform proposals were, as mentioned in the intro, as I’d trailed over the previous months and even years: build a broader liberal movement to provide the necessary wider support for the political success of the Liberal Democrats and to help fight the corner for liberalism week in, week out.

Part of that is about reaching out to those who might want to join us as members, part of that is campaigning on issues which showcase our values, and part of that is about opening up the party’s rules to welcome more people into a broader Liberal Democrat family.

I’ll turn to the full details below, but first, it is worth noting that one element which was however diluted somewhat in the final revisions to the speech. This was framing the plans as being about creating a “movement of moderates”. Talking about being moderate has always been a bone of contention in the party – is the party a centrist party, between extremes of left and right, or is it a liberal party for whom left and right is the wrong frame of reference? For those who lean to the former, moderate is a comfortable word; for those who lean towards the latter, it is a grating word, at odds with the idea of the party wanting radical change.

However, away from the deployment of “moderates” when talking about appealing to pro-Europeans outside the Lib Dems, much of the rest of the speech referenced Liberal Democrats as being distinctive and radical.

I was, of course, particularly pleased at the reference to how, “we must realise the party’s ambition to build our core support” . The way this was described was in words I think most self-described radical liberals would be comfortable with: “I want to bring values back into our politics providing a rallying point for those who are committed to defend liberal democracy; challenge extremes of inequality and barriers to opportunity; uphold our civil liberties; maintain an open, outward-looking country and protect our environment.”

This question of direction for the party is part of what the debate on the Demand Better policy paper at Brighton federal conference will (or should) be about. There are many outside the ranks of Lib Dems who share our values, but what are the key redlines for who we would be happy to welcome in?

The continued possibility of MPs leaving other parties makes this an issue not only for debates over internal party rules but also one for how the party should approach the possibility of changes to our party system.

My own answer is that we should take the approach agreed at spring conference, in the strategy motion which I helped write. What’s your view?

Lib Dem members have been emailed twice with a questionnaire about a registered supporter scheme. If you’re a member and didn’t receive the email, see my troubleshooting guide here >>>

Vince Cable

No, Vince Cable didn’t stand down

Despite much misplaced media speculation, Vince Cable did not quit as party leader.

This is what he said instead:

I do not wish to emulate Gladstone who kept going into his mid-80s nor any wish to outlast Robert Mugabe.

Yet I still have four clear objectives, which I intend to see through.

I want to ensure we remain the leading voice against Brexit, demanding a People’s Vote and winning that argument.

I want to ready the party for any general election emerging out of the Brexit chaos and lead us through it.

I want to lead it to further local election success in May, rebuilding the local government base on which both community politics and parliamentary advances are founded.

And – crucially to the others – I want to begin the process of transforming the Liberal Democrats from an old-style political party into a new, open movement.

That means reports of my imminent departure are wide of the mark and now is certainly not the time for an internal election.  There is serious work for our party to do.

To that end, once Brexit is resolved or stopped – which may well take a long time – and if the new rules are agreed, that will be the time to conduct a leadership contest under the new rules.

Until Brexit is resolved? So about 2047, then…

It is also worth noting that both Jo Swinson and Layla Moran, the two people most frequently talked about as possible successors to Vince Cable, have been very positive about the plans. This is not just a passing idea; it is a plan for a long-term sustained change.

Leading Change: consultation paper cover

The details and what happens next

The proposals in Vince Cable’s speech are just that, proposals. Alongside them, the party has published a consultation paper going into what the plans comprise, how they might be implemented and what the next steps are. On that it says:

[These proposals] will be discussed in a special session at federal conference in Brighton led by Vince Cable, on Saturday 15 September at 1300, in the Balmoral Suite (this replaces the Federal People Development Committee’s session on a registered supporter scheme; a separate session on this will take place on Sunday at 1815 in Syndicate 2).

All local parties are encouraged to discuss and debate these proposals after conference, and to send in responses :whether you support or oppose them, and whether you would like to propose any modifications to them.

In the spirit of becoming a member-powered movement, every member should be able to express a view. To that end, Vince will ask the Federal Board to conduct a ballot of all party members in the autumn, asking them whether they support or oppose a final package of proposed reforms, reflecting the consultation results. This could become a model for the party taking big decisions on policy or its own constitution.

If the ballot wins support for the package, Vince will then invite the Federal Board to submit the necessary constitutional amendments to Federal Conference, and ask the Federal Conference Committee to ensure they can be debated and voted on.

Should the consultation process and the ballot show support for this proposal (the result of the ballot on this proposal should be counted separately for each state), Vince will recommend their adoption to the relevant state party bodies.

The full consultation paper with all the details is here and includes details of how people can submit their views. Do please also let me know your views – I’m very interested to hear them.


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Bank notes

Reforming tax, improving rights for parents and fixing social care

 

As well as talking about party reform, Vince Cable has been talking about tax reform – in particular replacing business rates with a land value tax. His deputy, Jo Swinson, has been pushing legislation in Parliament to improve arrangements for shared parental leave and parental pay whilst her colleague in the House of Lords, Judith Jolly, has been setting our plans to tackle the crisis in social care.

Layla Moran has been getting media coverage for setting out what is wrong with the Conservative education policies in England, and Ed Davey has been doing similar on immigration – and also admitting the party didn’t get its immigration policy right during the coalition years.

Nick Clegg has pointed out how Brexit will actually take power away from people in Britain and Norman Lamb has been warning about how Brexit will damage British science. But Willie Rennie, the party’s leader in Scotland, is increasingly optimistic of the chances of stopping it – as is Vince Cable too.

Finally, former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik has had his Parliamentary pass withdrawn.

Liberal Democrats out campaigning with the Demand Better slogan
Lib Dem out campaigning in Lambeth Council by-election, complete with new party slogan being put to work. Photo via Cllr Mo Saqib on Twitter.

Got a photo to feature in future editions of LDN? Just hit reply and let me know.

Lib Dem party name spelled out in Scrabble pieces

I first started pushing the benefits of a registered supporters scheme for the party in a pamphlet co-written with former Cambridge MP David Howarth in 2015. Our core votes strategy set out how such a scheme can be a key part of a coherent overall plan for rebuilding the Liberal Democrats and taking the party on to greater success than ever before.

You can read our pamphlet in full and for free here.

Post-it note - "In case you missed it"

The secret portable lavatories required for Brexit

In case you missed them the first time around, here are the highlights from my blog over the last month:

New Parliamentary selections in the last month have included Martin Wrigley and Beki Sellick. For a full list, including an explanation of what the acronym ‘PPC’ is all about, see my running PPC tally.

By-election contests have returned to more promising form for the party after the dip last month, although there are still many areas where the party has left seats uncontested for years and even with a by-election is not yet putting up candidates:

Outside of elections, however, the Liberal Democrats have been picking up council seats through people switching to the party in Hertfordshire, Shropshire and Tower Hamlets, although there was also the loss of a councillor to independents in Kingston.

Since I started systematically tracking such switches earlier in this Parliament, there has been a definite uptick in the net movement to the Lib Dems. As with council by-elections, it is an indication that although the party is not yet leaping up in overall popularity, the circumstances for doing so are becoming more promising.

In the polls, double-figure results for the Lib Dems are becoming common if not yet universal, as my round-up of the latest poll from each of the polling companies shows:

Polling scorecard September 2018

To get the full council by-election results every week, sign up for my blog posts digest and for updates about new opinion polls, sign up for Polling UnPacked.

To be prepared for a council by-election in your patch, see my 7-step guide to getting ready in advance.

Liberal Democrat constitution booklet

One of the most important decisions Lib Dem members have to make in Brighton

Fellow Federal Board member Alice Thomas’s piece on Lib Dem Voice was about one of the most important set of decisions Lib Dem members have got to make at federal party conference in Brighton this month.

Whilst there will be plenty of consultation on party reform plans, there are also decisions to make about other elements of the party’s rulebook. That definitely can sound less than exciting (!). But these changes would be to the party’s disciplinary processes. Getting those procedures wrong can (and has) made a massive difference to people whose lives are affected by them.

The recent and current experiences of other parties, such as the SNP, Greens and Labour, are a warning to add to our own party’s experiences of the importance of having robust, fair systems that can resolve cases in good time.

Yet as Alice wrote:

Back in 2013, Helena Morrissey produced an independent report on the processes and culture of the Liberal Democrats. This was followed by the disciplinary review by Ken Macdonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions, in 2016-17, which in turn incorporated the recommendations from a separate review of party handling of complaints of sexual impropriety by barrister Isabella Parasram.

Each of them consulted with party members with experience of the pitfalls and flaws in the existing process, and in each case they came to the same conclusion many of you have: the current disciplinary process fails people.

There’s a chance to put that right in Brighton with the new system being proposed.

So I would very much recommend other party members taking a look at Alice’s piece – and happy to try to answer any questions about the proposals. (I’m one of the Federal Board members who has been involved in drawing them up, though credit for the bulk of the hard work definitely goes to others, particularly Alice.)

In full: Vince Cable’s speech

We returned this week from Parliament’s long summer recess.

I used the break to give some thought as to the role my party should be playing in the British political system.

The country is bitterly divided (over Brexit) and the politics of the main parties leaves millions of voters, broadly those in the ‘centre ground’, feeling ignored while they get on with their internal civil wars.

And little attention is being paid to some of the big long-term challenges around climate change, an ageing population, new technologies and stagnant productivity.

To be sure, the sense of political malaise is not unique to the UK. Ever since the global financial crisis, frustration over the failure of market economies to deliver rising living standards, and a sense of unfair rewards, has fed the politics of extremism. Parties in the liberal and social democratic traditions have struggled.

Liberal democracy itself is under threat notably in the USA, in Eastern Europe and perhaps here. Authoritarians and extremists of both right and left are on the march and are coordinating their tactics and propaganda: an Illiberal International.

The problem is obviously not the same everywhere and in some countries – France, Canada, Ireland – there are encouraging counter-currents and we need to learn from them. But in Britain, there is the additional problem of a first-past-the-post voting system which entrenches the position of the two established major parties.

This system has worked after a fashion when politicians aimed for common ground. But when, as now, the main parties are driven by their party fringes, politics become dangerously polarised.

And when democracy also seems unable to deliver, the frustration opens up a space for various forms of ugly populism. The summer of 2018 offered us verbal attacks on Muslims and Jews as the staple of political debate. And, of course, wall to wall Brexit.

It is a worrying picture. So, as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, I have naturally asked myself how I, and my party, can help protect, and develop liberal democracy in Britain, at a time when it is in grave danger. Perhaps the gravest since the 1930s.

I see two big steps we need to take. First, I want to bring values back into our politics providing a rallying point for those who are committed to defend liberal democracy; challenge extremes of inequality and barriers to opportunity; uphold our civil liberties; maintain an open, outward-looking country and protect our environment.

My colleagues and I have sought over the last year to demonstrate how we can put those values into action in respect of the economy and tax policy, the housing crisis, schooling and lifelong learning, the new data technologies, the governance of companies, and much else.

And it reassuring to know that these instincts are shared not by a few in this country but by many. In fact, recent research indicates that about 40% of voters share the essential values of the Liberal Democrats.

Secondly and crucially to making those things happen, I want to work with our party – its governing board, and the membership – to transform the way we work with people so that we engage more actively with the millions of voters who currently share our values but feel disenfranchised.

We start from a low base after the disappointing 2015 and 2017 elections. These in turn stem from the political damage done in the years of Coalition – which was good for the country but bad for the party – and from the relentless squeeze on third parties in the current ‘first past the post’ system.

But undaunted we have battled on.

In the year since I took over the leadership we have made impressive strides to restore our position in local government – with the best results for fifteen years – and better ones are anticipated next year.

Despite the limited opportunities offered in Parliament and in the conventional media, we are registering some improvements in our overall rating and I am confident that, if we continue on the present trajectory, we will make definite progress in numbers of seats.

But I came into the leadership just over a year ago with great ambitions for the party. I want us to do better than ‘steady as she goes’ slow growth. And given the unhappy state of the country’s politics it would be unforgivable simply to sit tight and hope for gradual improvement.

That requires us to remake ourselves in the public mind.

We must realise the party’s ambition to build our core support, by opening our arms to that huge swathe of the electorate which shares our values. We must invite people in.

I see our party as the vehicle for giving voters real influence every day as part of a new movement.

Let me say a little about what I mean.

We must make it easier to get on board. One example we should look positively at is that of the Canadian Liberals who rose from being a distant third party to becoming the party of government, in one leap.

Even within the outdated first past the post system, their party engineered a massive increase in their public recognition and participation by turning themselves into a broadly based ‘movement’ which then became the basis for general election campaigning.

Of course, Canada is not Britain and although their political system is closer to ours than – say – France, we cannot simply adopt a ‘copy and paste’ approach.

What I’m setting out today is a starting point for that endeavour, and it is one on which every Liberal Democrat member will have their say. I see essentially three steps to reforming the party.

The first is to widen membership with a new class of ‘supporters’ who pay nothing, but who sign up to the party’s values. They should enjoy a range of entitlements, including the right to vote in leadership and to shape the party’s campaigning online.

The Lib Dems already have an army of voluntary helpers and deliverers, as well as 200,000 online supporters over and above our 100,000 members, who loosely identify with us and campaign with us but currently have no say.

The party is already consulting with its members on opening up a supporter scheme, starting at conference next weekend.  There are necessarily tricky issues balancing the entitlements of members and supporters.

Like many leaders before me, I may be asking the party’s structures to go further and faster than their natural pace – and there will be a dialogue about how best to make such a scheme work.

Whatever rights our new supporters gain, we as a party aim to be in constant conversation with them, engaging them in campaigns and urging them to begin campaigns of their own.

Now groups like More United, 38 Degrees, Avaaz and Change.org, have shown us how these regular conversations can happen, how we can engage hundreds of thousands of people online.

What I want is for our party to do that, and to offer our movement a political arm within Parliament. So, it is not just a protest group on the outside banging at the door, but a mass movement with a voice on the inside – our parliamentary party.

Liberals pioneered this model at a local level as community politics in the latter half of the twentieth century; now I want us to use the power of technology to pioneer it online in our national political system too.

I appreciate that we are not the first party to have sought to adapt in this way. The Five Star Movement, now in government in Italy, started like this. The Labour Party’s Momentum movement has been highly successful in mobilising and engaging young people.

But the way in which the revolutionary left hijacked the Labour Party, and used Momentum for its own purposes, is a salutary warning. But it isn’t mass movements which cause extremism: now the Tories are being taken over by extremists even with their narrow, exclusive, membership base.

Of course, we have to be careful but we cannot be afraid of opening windows lest a few flies get in.

In any case, the Liberal Democrats are different. We are not a socialist party concerned with extreme-left entryism, or a right-wing party trying to keep extreme right-wingers out. We are a centre-ground, pro-European, liberal and social democratic party, welcoming like-minded supporters.

This will be a Movement for Moderates!

Second, and in the same spirit, the party should in my view be more open to new members or converts from other parties playing an active role as candidates. At present we have a delay of up to 12 months before a new member can apply to become a parliamentary candidate. This leaves people frustrated – at the moment of their greatest political enthusiasm, we erect an arbitrary barrier to their progress. If they are good enough, and can get approved, they should be able to stand for Parliament on a Liberal Democrat ticket and to do so without delay.

In addition, there are over 9,000 council seats to contest next year, so I want to make it easy for those who share our values to stand as candidates at that level too.

A third step is to open up the party leadership to a wider field than MPs by allowing party members to put themselves forward.  There would, of course, be an approval and shortlisting process, run by the party, to make sure that anyone putting themselves forward shared the essential values of the party and had the political capability for the job.

I am lucky to have excellent parliamentary colleagues, any one of whom could lead the party in future – and I believe none of them has anything to fear from a big, open field in which to compete.

The truth is that there are many talented people with proven leadership ability – in the professions, the armed forces, the voluntary sector and business – and who share our values but who have not pursued a parliamentary career.

I have served in Parliament for two decades, been a candidate ten times, a winner five times and am proud to represent my constituents.

But I can understand why many others are deterred from trying to follow suit. And the present parliament, where large numbers – perhaps a majority of MPs – are voting on Brexit against their own judgement and their assessment of the national interest is not exactly a good advertisement.  The fact is that our current parliamentary system is severely damaged, if not broken, and a forward-looking party has to look outside as well as inside.

My intention therefore is to ensure that the next leader is chosen from the widest possible pool of talent and to put him or her at the helm of a far bigger, more open, movement than any previous leader has been.

I recognise the potential difficulties of resourcing a leader from outside the Commons, and of having someone who is not based on the doorstep of the Westminster media. But we should not let operational matters and long-held constitutional traditions constrain our thinking and our choices.

Instead, I want to work with the party through the coming consultation to ensure we have solutions to the problems people raise.

We also have to engage in party realignment: we have to recognise that – despite our best efforts – the Liberal Democrats may not be the only centre-force in British politics in the coming years. It’s the worst kept secret in Westminster that political disquiet in the two big parties is provoking some people to consider the formation of a new party of the centre ground, or several.

This requires us to demand better than the usual tribalism…of ourselves and of our partners. The biggest challenge will arise if a significant number of Labour or Conservative MPs leave or are forced out of their parties.

It is patently clear from the open contempt shown for many Labour MPs by Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left supporters that a schism is likely. Some Conservatives are in a similar position.  Meanwhile, there is a smattering of business people around talking in hushed tones about a new party.

I have met with some of these people to argue the case that it’s easier in our electoral system to work with existing party structures, and with people who have a set of shared values, than to try to compete. We hang together or we hang separately.

Indeed, there is a danger in becoming like the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the Judean People’s Front refuses to work with the People’s Front of Judea for the most petty of reasons.

But this is not a Monty Python sketch, it is the future of our country.

History will not forgive anyone whose vanity and self-importance causes them to turn away the hand of friendship.

That means we in the Liberal Democrats are open to working together with those in other parties or none, who share our values.

But by opening up our party, I hope to convince those who agitate for a new force that there is already a strong movement for open, centrist, and internationalist politics: it is the Liberal Democrats.

My invitation is for them to join us in a party where we are ready to work with people of similar values, even where we don’t agree on everything. Join us in a force which already has a foothold in the first past the post system, a nationwide organisation, and an army of hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers mobilised against Brexit.

By drawing in a broad range of supporters, encouraging new voices to stand for political office, and re-imagining the leadership of our party, the Liberal Democrats can become a voice for millions of British voters working together in a positive political movement.

To conclude, I am determined to lead the Liberal Democrats through this, turning us into a genuinely remade, new force.

From the fourth party in the House of Commons, to the first party in the minds of the country – and a contender once again for government.

But in calling for such change in political thinking and practice I am aware that the question will be asked as to whether this is my ‘last hurrah’.

I do not wish to emulate Gladstone who kept going into his mid-80s nor any wish to outlast Robert Mugabe.

Yet I still have four clear objectives, which I intend to see through.

I want to ensure we remain the leading voice against Brexit, demanding a People’s Vote and winning that argument.

I want to ready the party for any general election emerging out of the Brexit chaos and lead us through it.

I want to lead it to further local election success in May, rebuilding the local government base on which both community politics and parliamentary advances are founded.

And – crucially to the others – I want to begin the process of transforming the Liberal Democrats from an old-style political party into a new, open movement.

That means reports of my imminent departure are wide of the mark and now is certainly not the time for an internal election.  There is serious work for our party to do.

To that end, once Brexit is resolved or stopped – which may well take a long time – and if the new rules are agreed, that will be the time to conduct a leadership contest under the new rules.

I invite all those who believe in a big centre-ground, liberal movement in British politics to join us. You could be the leaders of tomorrow.

Whoever is chosen in the future will lead not a small party, but a big movement.

And the Liberal Democrats will offer a force for good. A Movement for Moderates, battling against Brexit, and standing up for fairness and opportunity against power and privilege in our country.

So I invite all the millions of liberal, centre-ground voters out there who share those values, and who want to change our politics, to sign up on our website today.  So that we can fight for liberal values together.

This is a battle we must wage for the good of the country, and it is one I am determined we will win.

And finally…

If you have read down this far, there is a good chance you also like reading these newsletters. In which case, a quick request: with readership having more than doubled in the last two years, the costs of running this service are also going up. Could you make a small regular donation to help cover the costs?

If you are one of those who have already done so, many thanks: your support is much appreciated.

Best wishes till next time,

Mark

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