Nestling near the top of the second page of the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive’s consultation paper about how the party’s new members of the House of Lords are appointed (pdf) is a little three letter word which is central to the issue.
It talks about the party’s current Interim Peers Panel system, whereby conference representatives elect a group of names – of which I was one last time round – and to which are added a group of people by dint of previous offices they have held, such as former MPs.
That little word is “can”, as in this is a list “from which the Leader can” select who to appoint to the Lords, rather than “shall”.
In that small word is the heart of the issue. The original system was intended to be one which the party leader must follow (with allowance for the party leader to pick one name of their own to add to the list). The ‘can’ versus ‘shall’ debate was central to the many controversies the creation of the Interim Peers Panel system generated. Preserving large discretion for the party leader either means, depending on your viewpoint, preserving sensible flexibility, especially to bring in new expertise and new blood to the party, or it means preserving the leader’s powers of patronage by letting them personally decide who is going to get to sit in Parliament until death.
Therefore it is a shame that the consultation paper says so little about the late 1990s controversy around the creation of the system. That is not only a comment from the historian in me, bearing in mind how many party activists are new to the party since then. It is also a comment from the political realist in me – because there is very little value in having a system which is not then implemented.
Whether current and future party leaders can be forced, enticed or persuaded to follow a particular future system is central to that future system’s impact. However, the consultation paper says almost nothing on this central issue. For example, in judging the relative merits of different ways of electing the panel, the consultation paper does not directly address the question of what will give the list the highest public and party credibility in a way that raises the odds of it also being a meaningful list. It is those sorts of questions which need to be asked and answered.
There is much useful and important detail discussed in the consultation paper, but unless the consultation tackles head on the question of ‘what will future party leaders actually do?’ it will be a consultation that misses the main question.