In their pre-democratic origins, British political proto-parties were collections of Parliamentarians. They had as their members whoever they wished, and if people outside Parliament didn’t like who was in the current faction – well, then they were always free to go and support someone else instead.
But in a modern democracy, political parties are the collective property of all their members, not just a select few. Who can stand in the party’s name is for the party collectively to agree on – though for obvious issues of practicality, Athenian style direct democracy selections are out and processes and rules are in. The law too reflects that. To be a “Liberal Democrat” on the ballot paper and to have the party’s logo next to your name requires the formal approval of the party itself.
However, traditionally the Liberal Democrats have left the decision about who gets to call themselves a Liberal Democrat after election to the rest of the group to which they’ve been elected or, in the case of the House of Lords, appointed. Someone can stand as a Liberal Democrat with the party’s backing, but it’s up to the colleagues in their group as to whether they can continue to act as a Liberal Democrat once there.
Given the experience of the Labour Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it is understandable how many of those involved in forming the merged party were happy to stick with tradition – a tradition that the Liberal Party too had followed.
But politics has moved on from the battles of the early 1980s, and we face new problems now.
As an embarrassingly large number of cases have demonstrated in the last few years, leaving decisions over who gets the whip to a smaller group has served the party, its elected / appointed representatives and people with a complaint against them all badly.
One problem is one of power. The smaller the group, the easier it is for someone to exercise disproportionate and undue influence over their colleagues. The smaller the group, the bigger the risk that decisions about who should or should not have the whip are not decisions made well or in line with our values.
Another is that the Liberal Democrats are one organisation in the eyes of the public. Although the public does not hold the behaviour of every individual against the party as whole, it does do so to some degree an awful lot. The decision that one group makes has an impact on the rest of us too.
And then there is the particular problem of the unelected Lords. MPs, councillors, members of devolved bodies and others can at least point to the fact that the public can vote them out if they make poor decisions over group membership or anything else. The Lords are there until death or until reform, with death usually the favourite to come first.
If the only reasons ever for withdrawing the whip from someone were reasons that hit the threshold of severity for expelling someone from the party, then there wouldn’t be a problem. But as the practical decisions that get made up and down the country year in, year out show they aren’t.
That means decisions over withdrawing or not the whip need to be done fairly, competently and with enough independence from the direct participants in any complaints to be both fair and credible.
That is no reason to remove the power over the main decision making from where it currently lies – but it also means there should be an option of appeal to the wider party, such as to the Federal Appeals Panel, to ensure that the key liberal principles of fairness and a fair hearing to all sides features in decision-making over issues that can destroy people’s careers.