This is an expanded version of a piece for AdLib, both co-written with party president, Tim Farron:
Liberal Democrats are well used to arguing for changes in how our public elections are run, because we know the rules you use for a contest have a big impact on how desirable its outcomes are. That isn’t just about the voting system (important though that is!) but also a question of who gets the vote, how much influence those with money to spare can wield and so on.
It is just the same with the rules for our own party elections, particularly those where we select candidates for public office. How you write the rules heavily influences the sort of people who win in the end. Yet we often don’t talk about the implications of this.
It is easy to say the rules should be fair, treating all candidates equally. What does that really mean? After all, if you want every candidate to be treated equally, the best system is to put all the candidates’ names in a hat and pick out a winner at random. That would be a level playing field for every candidate – but not a good system!
We need rules that let would-be candidates demonstrate the skills and competences that we need them to have if and when they end up facing the wider electorate and fighting the other parties.
For example, we generally let candidates call on members to win over their support. That means those who are best at winning over doubters with one-to-one personal conversations are more likely to win selections – and a good thing too as that is just what we need from our candidates in public elections.
That is how our rules should work: not giving everyone a lottery-style equal chance but instead giving those with the attributes we particularly want a chance to demonstrate that and win as a result.
Put against that test, some of our selection rules look less welcome. For example, some candidates do fantastic jobs leading our local fundraising. They are wonderful – and also far too few in number. Yet is it any surprise that they are too few in number when the selection rules we have don’t encourage such skills?
It is right that the rules stop a rich person buying a selection by throwing cash at it. But the rules could permit candidates to raise donations up to a small cap – and then spend the money on their campaign. That way we would end up with more candidates who have learnt to be good fundraisers – and so with a stronger party.
Similarly, the laudable desire to protect selection campaigns against someone packing the electorate with questionable new members means we do not let would-be candidates display and benefit from their recruitment skills. At the moment our rules dictate that if you join the party today, you could vote tomorrow for Leader or President (not minor posts!) but could not vote for 12 months in a selection for a candidate for public office. It is not just new members held under suspicion, so too lapsed members rejoining who have restrictions on them too – though it is great that the English Party has been relaxing the rules on this a bit.
There have been genuine problems in a few cases with people trying to pack the electorate and it is right to have rules to protect against that. However we already have rules to judge people’s individual membership applications. To instead have a blanket ban indiscriminately applied to many completely innocent people is just the sort of crude blanket prohibition that if it was the Home Office proposing we would be shouting out about!
Far better to relax the rules, judge questionable membership applications on their individual merit and encourage candidates who are good at membership work – and end up with more members as a result – and so a bigger and healthier party.
We suggest that it’s time for the Liberal Democrats to champion electoral reform…within the Liberal Democrats!