A new party or an umbrella organisation of the like-minded?

Umbrellas CC0 Public Domain

Writing for The Independent Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable set out a new model for how the Liberal Democrats, the Independent Group and indeed others might end up working together:

There is no question of a “new centrist party” or of the rebels being swallowed up in my party or the Lib Dems being swallowed up by them. I see the way forward as a collaborative arrangement, a confederation of groups who have a lot in common but wish to maintain their identity.

The concept of a political party is deeply embedded in the way in which politics is regulated in Britain.

It’s a default assumption of how political finance transparency works. So much so that despite not being a party the Independent Group has voluntarily signed up to follow similar rules as shown by its donation policy. Being a party makes things like access to the electoral register for fighting elections more straightforward, especially outside of immediate election time.

It also is central to how Parliament works. Or rather, people who agree to group together are, as that’s how the allocation of speaking slots in debates, time for Parliamentary motions, slots at PMQs and even access to offices and state funding all work.

As with local councils, however, there is some scope for flex. Just as the council group for party X sometimes includes a councillor who isn’t a member of that party, and so that larger group then gets to bank various organisational benefits, so in Parliament a grouping could include MPs of various parties and none and bank benefits from that.

Which makes for two key organisational points, touched on by Vince Cable’s comments.

First, being the third largest ‘party’ in the House of Commons brings significant benefits. That is currently the SNP, with its 35 MPs. The magic number, therefore, is 36 .

A combination therefore of 11 Lib Dem MPs, one currently whipless Lib Dem and 8 Independent Group MPs needs another 16 in some form. Or another way to think of it – there are major gains that come from a grouping which has two or more non-Lib Dem MPs in it for each Lib Dem. That is a good reason, perhaps, for Lib Dems to welcome the idea of some sort of relationship that is a little more distant than ‘hey, just join us’ as to get to 36 would result in the existing Lib Dem MPs being rather swamped in our own party. A very high wire act.

The second organisational point is ballot papers. They are more important than you might think.

As I highlighted when I wrote The easiest way to set up a new pro-European centrist political party:

The Liberal Democrats … bring many strengths that a new party would struggle to match. A still large local government base – much smaller than in the past yet still big enough to dwarf the Greens, for example. A large membership – once again, well ahead of the Greens. A decent fundraising machine, raising more money from private donors most quarters than Labour for several years now (it is trade union funding which propels Labour to its greater riches). And an established organisational framework, including campaign software, big data analysis and local volunteer teams across much of the country.

But the choice isn’t just new party or join the Lib Dems. For there is another route too:

There is, however, a solution that those looking to create a new party which sidesteps many of these issues. It’s to make use of a detail in election law created to help the Co-operative Party.

This allows a candidate to stand as the joint candidate of two different political parties, with the news that they are a joint candidate reproduced on the ballot paper.

That ballot paper point is crucial because it means that right at the point of voting, people know exactly which candidates have the backing of parties. No messing around with hoping people will look up preferred candidates on a tactical voting website. Instead you get the message right in front of every single voter at the point at which they vote.

Yet by backing candidates of existing parties you also get the benefits of their existing organisations and voter loyalty.

So, you create a new pro-European political party, but rather than try to make it in a fully functioning traditional party, you instead make it an umbrella coalition. Offer any candidate of any party the chance to get an official endorsement from the new party if they agree to a certain number of basic principles (European policy most obviously). If a candidate signs up, give them the right to use the logo and name on the ballot paper.

This idea of group acting as minor political party in order to win coverage on the ballot paper and hence increase its electoral leverage – both to get candidates to agree to its policies and then to win votes for those candidates who do – is something aficionados of American politics may recognise. It is what US political parties such as the Working Families Party do, with a few wrinkles due to the different electoral law their but the same underlying purpose and method.

There are, as I set out, some detailed wrinkles to get right.

The key point, however, is simply this: election law provides a powerful way for candidates to cooperate at election time without having all to be in the same political party .

An umbrella of the like-minded is a very plausible route to take.

(Though I’d still like far more of those like-minded to join the Lib Dems, pretty please, and for the party to create a registered support scheme to help welcome in even more.)

9 responses to “A new party or an umbrella organisation of the like-minded?”

  1. Seeing the mechanics of forming a loose coalition with the independents Mark and taking the Labour Co-operative as the example it would make sense, the Lib/Dems have an up and running party machine.

  2. There seems to be a problem with this as regards the Liberal Democrats. In that under article 3.7 of the constitution. Membership [of the Lib Dems] MAY be revoked on the grounds of ….
    membership of or support for another political party in Great Britain.

    “May” I guess is an operative word but it would still technically be risk. Would you as a federal board member bring forward clarification by the federal board that should such an “umbrella” party be formed and it was “certified” in some way by the party/federal board that membership of such a party would not be grounds for revocation of someone’s Lib Dem membership? Of course as regards elections, the Lib Dems as a party would have to agree to the joint description etc. as well on ballot papers

    • Michael, surely existing Lib-Dem members would not, or at least would not need to, become a member of the umbrella party. Their “membership” of it would simply happen automatically by virtue of their being Lib-Dems – much as being a UK citizen makes you an EU citizen too. I can’t see any risk of Art. 3.7 being invoked against the entire Lib-Dem membership!

  3. I’m all for the proposal of an umbrella coalition party, and for the Lib-Dems to be a distinct component of it. Nevertheless, once things have shaken down, there is much to be said for the Umbrella becoming the principal organisation, with the Lib-Dems either fading away, or just becoming a sub-group with a particular view on a few issues on which the Umbrella has no consensus. After all, the Labour party itself was originally an umbrella party of the Co-operatives, the Fabians, and trades unionists. You don’t hear much in Parliament from the Co-operatives or Fabians today, do you. I think it would generally be much easier for people to leave the other parties for the Umbrella than for them to be open to the charge of defecting to a traditional “enemy”. Presumably it was that that helped En Marche in France to its early recruiting successes.

  4. I hope we don’t spend much of the York Conference getting into detail about constitutional niceties about “The Merger that’s not a Merger”.

  5. Mark, Michael has a point, but such an amendment needs to be passed by Conference I think. There is still time to get an emergency motion in, for York, and I would be glad to sign it.

  6. The answer to Michael’s query might be that a “political party” that we’d joined, while retaining our identity, would not be “another” party. It might also be ruled that although the Whatever Coalition presented as a political party for electoral law purposes, it was not a real party. I suspect something like the provision he quotes existed in the rules of the Liberal Party, but did not stop co-operation with the SDP.

    This solution does appeal to me because I can see common causes with the Labour anti-Corbyn rebels, but faced with the creation of a new fully-fledged Centre Party, would almost certainly not join it.

    There is a potential problem. What if a candidate of the new arrangement who was basically Blairite was standing in a local election against a sitting Independent or Green with whom we had good relations?

    As for the rebels, it will be very interesting to see what happens in their constituencies where there are local elections on 2 May.

  7. There are a number of possibilities. But the Co-operative party on which Mark is basing is essentially a fully functioning political party. It has an electoral pact with Labour and allows people to be members of Labour party (but not other parties).

    The proposal I am thinking of is similar but people could be members of basically any political party. A “People’s Vote” party that essentially had one policy – a EU referendum and didn’t stand its own candidates. People could then stand as “Lib Dem and People’s Vote”, “Green and People’s Vote”, “Labour and People’s Vote” etc. People would NOT have to stand on a joint description or be a member if they were a Lib Dem member who disagreed with a referendum. And you could have in a particular constituency Labour, Greens, TIG, Lib Dems, Tories etc. standing on “their party and people’s vote” indicating that candidate would support a people’s vote if elected. Although it is unlikely that Labour and the Tories would agree to it nationally (which might be an advantage of such a proposal). It would also enable some joint organising across the parties – especially locally but having the structure of a political party might be useful. Potentially a national campaign by the People’s Vote party etc. Easier to put out leaflets etc. in support of a referendum etc.

    I THINK to allow a joint description under Electoral Commission rules it would need to be a FULL political party. The registration of a joint description would need the Lib Dems co-operation nationally. And as I state there is a possibility at least at the moment of there being an issue about people’s Lib Dem membership. But this could be clarified by the national party. Equally we might not want people to be members of a “People’s Vote” party if it didn’t meet our standards.

    Obv. no such “People’s Vote” party exists and . But it is somewhat chicken and egg – if the current political parties’ rules don’t allow it. But one could foresee the Greens, the new independent group party and the nationalists etc. allowing it.

    It might well NOT ultimately be a good idea but it needs some discussion within the Lib Dems and if it were to go ahead some work by the national party.

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