A close escape – and now we should change our Euro-selection rules

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.

4 responses to “A close escape – and now we should change our Euro-selection rules”

  1. ….and we should campaign against the present party list method of electing MEPs. Even giving electors a second (supplementary) vote would allow them to express a preference between the candidates put forward by the party that they are supporting. In turn this would give greater democratic legitimacy to any candidate asked to fill a vacancy.

  2. You are of course right Mark………..However, either the Party elected Stewart as 2nd on the Y & H Regional List or it did not……………I am rather unhappy that one MEP (Chris Davies), went into instant tantum mode at the prospect of the democratically elected spouse of a retiring colleague sharing the LibDem benches. The various press releases put out by Chris on this subject do not fit well with his long service as a campaigner for Liberalism, justice, democratic freedom and electoral rights……..The BBC ran a story claiming that Stewart was to be "vetted or interviewed" by a group of our existing MEPs before taking up "his" seat………If that was true and I have no idea if it was……..then it would have been a clear breech of our Party's rules and guidelines. The correct proceedure would be to have accepted Stewart into the group and then found valid a reason to suspend him!
    So what happens if….."say", Catherine Bearder's son Ian were successful in his bid to join the South-East Euro list next time…..if he happened to be next in line and one day Catherine decided to retire……….etc.etc., etc., I am nonetheless over the moon for Bekky Taylor and wish her well.

  3. I like the points you make Mark. I also must agree with George that it is not up to the existing group to decide who are fit and proper people to be appointed.

    My issue in favour of Stewart had he wished to take up the seat is that the list we put to the electorate (posted I think on polling station walls) said that he was our second choice. It would have felt dishonest to change that list after the election.

    Rebecca Taylor comes with a good pedigree though. Although I first set eyes on her in Party HQ today her grandparents were among my key helpers when we had the Beckenham byelection in 1997 and I understand that her parents and other relations have stood for the party on many occasions as has she. So it is good to see a deserving new parliamentarian 🙂

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