Are more term limits for party elections a good idea?

Mark Pack - FPC manifestoOver the weekend I ran a guest post from Lib Dem President candidate Linda Jack setting out her ideas for reforming the party.

Her set of four problems she wants to address is a promising diagnosis of what needs changing in the way the party is run – especially as they are all issues that have applied under multiple party leaders and so avoid the trap that some in the party fall into of responding to any discussion about party reform with ‘it’s all about Nick Clegg’.

It’s also promising to see her starting to set out in some detail exactly how she would go about improving things as the need for more detail from all the candidates is something I’ve been regularly talking about.

In amongst Linda Jack’s detail is the idea of term limits for party elections. They already exist for Party President (hence Tim Farron standing down this time) and for local party chair, and in both those cases work reasonably well (with one caveat I’ll come on to). But I am doubtful of extending them for three reasons.

First, there is a large number of party posts of similar levels of importance, leading to the risk that term limits don’t open up posts to new people but rather see the same old faces rotate around. Indeed, that’s what happens with the current local party chair term limits in England*, where often a small number of people rotate around different local party posts which keeps to the letter of the term limits but doesn’t achieve much in terms of opening up local parties to newcomers where that is needed.

Second, even in saying that I’ve slipped into repeating a commonly held view but one which I doubt is true. It’s the idea that under current rules it’s the same old faces who get elected time after time to state and federal posts. But look over several rounds of state and federal committee elections and there is a fair amount of turnover, including Vice Chairs being voted out. (Thanks to a weird set of circumstances, I hold the record I believe for the shortest-ever period as federal committee Vice Chair with electoral defeat truncating my term of office as an FCC Vice Chair almost as soon as it had started many years ago.)

The bigger problem is that for reasons such as secrecy over committee deliberations and little publicity about their work, being either a hard-working and successful or lazy and ineffective committee member makes far too little difference to your re-election chances.

Third, there is value in experience and institutional memory – especially when if the elected members don’t have it, party staff and Parliamentarians will instead dominate on those scores. Most of the time that won’t matter, but when there are tensions with such groups on different sides, it will put the direct representatives of our membership at a distinct disadvantage.

However, I do agree that reform is needed, which is why I am attracted to Linda’s points about simplifying party structures and making accountability more direct. Especially as central to doing that (although not named by her) has to be the English Party. As I wrote in Lessons from Rennard #3: the English Party needs reform:

The overall effect [of the English Party’s current structure] is to create a complicated network of power, making working out who is responsible for what and how to change something you see but don’t like rather like trying to untangle a pile of spaghetti. Which keeps on being taken away from you. The result is that the English Party has some significant powers but even many long-time party activists in England feel they don’t really know how it operates, who is in charge or what it is for.

If the Presidential contest helps hasten reform of the English Party, it will have achieved a significant result.


* The model constitution for local parties in England limits local party chairs to three consecutive terms of office.

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