This week the Liberal Democrats have had a close escape. Diana Wallis’s sudden resignation as an MEP highlight flaws in the party’s rules for picking a successor.
Those rules aren’t new, but many people (myself included) have not paid that much attention to them in the past. It was only the circumstances of a resignation surrounded by controversy which brought attention to their weaknesses. Weaknesses only side-stepped by the decision of Stewart Arnold not to seek to succeed Diana Wallis.
Most of the events of the last few days are specific to the Diana Wallis resignation – the fallout amongst Liberal Democrat MEPs after they decided to do one thing in the European Parliament election and she then took a different course, the unusual situation of a wife and husband at the top of a list, the memories of the disputes over the previous selection contest (and, in particular, how the news that two candidates were married to each other was kept semi-secret) and – just beginning to pick up in the last few days – the fact that Diana Wallis would have picked up a lump sum on standing down as an MEP even if her partner then took up the very same post.
The absence of similar factors when Chris Huhne or Liz Lynne stood down as MEPs mid-term (or indeed when Louise Bloom or Lynne Featherstone stood down from the London Assembly mid-term) meant that the party’s rules didn’t come under scrutiny or pressure previously.
But when they did in the last week, they were found wanting.
Wanting because the rules said that a selection contest from several years ago should be treated as still relevant. We don’t do that in other selections.
If Nick Clegg were to fall ill, Chris Huhne doesn’t get appointed party leader without a contest. If Gordon Birtwistle were to retire as an MP mid-term, we don’t automatically make the person he beat to win selection the by-election candidate. Yet when an MEP stands down, we recount the votes from several years ago as if nothing had happened in the interim.
There is a simple answer to this: democracy.
The law, quite rightly, says that if an MEP stands down their successor has to come from the list originally put up for election. (Otherwise a party could slip in a controversial completely new candidate by putting up one person in the election and then replacing them with someone else.) But who to choose from that list?
That’s up to the party.
And in the Liberal Democrats, that should be done by balloting party members. What’s more, the knowledge that this could happen would encourage those on Euro lists to keep working in the region. A handy side-effect.
This change would be simple, effective – and can be implemented in time for the next Euro selections.
It could be. It should be.