It has been widely reported in a number of newspapers and other outlets today that Vince Cable is planning on introducing a series of radical reforms to the Liberal Democrat rulebook in an effort to re-energise the party and create a “mass membership movement”. Although some of the details appear to have been mangled in some of the reporting – most notably because journalists tend to have a chronically shaky grasp of how Lib Dem internal structures work (and Jennie Rigg of FCC has debunked them well in her blog here) – I want to tackle the principle of it, and explain why on balance, I think parts of this would be a bad move, regardless of how or when it’s introduced. I qualifiedly support a supporters’ scheme, but I do not support the party being led by a non-MP.
The first element of this would be the introduction of a supporters’ scheme, according to the reports, and it has been touted as being along similar lines as Labour’s, but requiring that a person be of twelve months’ standing before they gain the full privileges associated with it, which are implied to be leadership election privileges.
This strikes me as a half-good idea for one main reason: engagement. Membership of the party is £12 per year (or less if you’re under 26), which is the cheapest of the main parties, but the psychological barrier of “being a member of a political party” is, I would argue, more significant. The ordinary person who watches the news and has a set of opinions, but doesn’t like to associate themselves with “politics” or being “a politician” is often put off by the idea of party membership, seeing it as a step too far. The way I see it, the supporters’ scheme could be a way to bridge this gap, and give those people who are liberal and want to show support an avenue for doing so within the framework of the party. That way, we can keep in touch with them, engage with them, and hopefully persuade a few of them to end up delivering and campaigning, and maybe even joining as full members.
Where I depart from the idea, however, is the idea that we should give such supporters voting rights in leadership elections. The reason for this is not entryism (the Lib Dems are already very open to entryism with our unconditional one-member-one-vote system for determining conference policy, and entryism didn’t impact Labour’s leadership elections at all) but rather incentive: if supporters have the same primary rights as members, what is the point in being a member? My suggestion would be that supporters gain reduced or limited rights, such as half-votes at conference with special voting cards, or half-votes for internal committees, and so on.
The worst part of the ideas mooted, however, is changing the rules to allow a non-MP to become leader. It has been rumoured that this is a step to allow Gina Miller, the anti-Brexit campaigner, to become leader, but I’ve not heard any reputable person in the party give any credence to that. But regardless of who is being lined up for it, it should be fully resisted. And the reason for this comes down to what the party ought to be.
The Liberal Democrats are the youngest of the major parties in a very narrow sense, but are the formal successors to the Liberal Party, who are the formal successors to the Whigs, and thus, the Lib Dems are the modern representatives of a liberal tradition and movement going back almost 350 years, into the seventeenth century. And crucially, that tradition is a Parliamentary one. We introduced the welfare state, we expanded the franchise, we liberalised the economy, we equalised marriage – all through having MPs in Parliament as the supreme decisionmaking body for the country as a whole, and making that our primary goal. It is a goal that we should maintain. Having a non-MP as leader would shift this focus unacceptably.
From a public relations standpoint, it would also be undesirable. Having a non-MP leader would make it considerably harder to get name recognition in the media. We already struggle – having a confusing split between the person leading us in the Commons and the person leading us overall would exacerbate this. And worst of all, it would signal a lack of seriousness, a relegation to the position of pressure group or single-issue party, like the Greens or UKIP. We are neither of those things. We are the only liberal party in British politics. We have been in government more recently than Labour, and – I’d wager – it is unlikely that they will get into government before us again. It would be a betrayal of the 2.3million people who voted for us last year to pack it all in and abandon our Parliamentarism – especially if the goal of so doing would be to put someone like Gina Miller in power to defer to the Remain crowd, thus obscuring further our other policies.
So while the supporters’ scheme may have some merit and may be a good way to get more people involved in liberalism and the party, some of the specifics aren’t quite right, and the idea to allow non-MPs to be leaders is, to me, very much the wrong route. If we want a better pool from which to pick leadership contenders, then there’s only one option: we’ve got to get more Lib Dem MPs elected.