I’ve come back from the Party’s Spring Conference in Liverpool worried. My concern is about Party unity in the face of another unclear General Election result. The Party’s processes can be arcane but they really matter: Here’s why.
Article 15 of the Party’s constitution, sets out who needs to be consulted during negotiations to support a government. It is not clear whether or not this applies equally to confidence and supply arrangements as it does to coalitions or even to a one-off vote or abstention on government formation (I think it should).
The Liberal Democrat negotiating team currently includes four Ministers; Danny Alexander MP, Steve Webb MP, Lynne Featherstone MP, David Laws MP and one peer, Baroness Parminter. Assuming that the four MPs hold their seats and are able to take up their places on this negotiating body, the group will be broadly representative of the wider Party, combining different views across the Lib Dem spectrum.
In the event of another hung parliament, this five strong team, appointed by the leader, will conduct negotiations on behalf of the Party.
The problem arises with that group’s accountability: Under article 15.3, the quintet must report regularly to both the leader, and to a reference group of “no more than 9 individuals”. Article 15.2 explains that the reference group should be drawn equally from the Federal Policy Committee, the Federal Executive and the Westminster Parliamentary Parties (acting jointly).
What is unclear is both what is meant by “regularly” (not the focus of this post) and how the FPC, FE and the parliamentary parties should select their representatives to the reference group.
While gender, ethnic, sexual, geographic and other diversity characteristics are undoubtedly important, I would argue that what is most important, is for the reference group to reflect the (weighted) political diversity within the Party. We only need to open twentieth century political history books to appreciate the importance of unity to the Liberal Party cause; particularly when the Party was involved in questions about supporting other parties or remaining in Government.
Late last year, a Lib Dem Voice survey reported that 60% of respondents classify themselves as social liberals. Indeed, the top descriptions included ‘progressive’, ‘social liberal’, ‘reformer’, ‘centre-left’, ‘radical’. Fewer than 30% describe themselves as ‘economic liberal’ or ‘centrist’, with ‘libertarian’, ‘free marketeer’ and ‘centre right’ bringing up the rear with 16%, 13% and 10% respectively.
We are a political party: By definition we are partisan. Not tribally so, but for the sake of ensuring the country retains a united liberal voice, I would call on the decision-makers in the FPC, FE and parliamentary parties to ensure political views are the first filter when choosing their reference group nominees.
It would make sense for two thirds of the negotiating team and reference group to be formed of social liberals and, because we are liberals, for those groups to lead by consensus. Two of the three representatives from each of the FPC, FE, and the parliamentary parties should be social liberals. To counterbalance the vested interests of those who may benefit from office, those selected from FPC and FE should not be parliamentarians at Westminster. The Party President, Baroness Brinton, is a member of all three groups and if she takes a place on the reference group it would be unclear which group would be left with two of their three slots to fill.
In summary, the important questions to be answered well ahead of the 8th May are:
If some/all of the MPs are not returned, which MPs are on the leader’s reserves’ bench?
If the leader is not returned, and some of the negotiating team are not returned, then who appoints the remaining spaces on the negotiating team? Convention has the Deputy Leader acting as the interim leader but Malcolm Bruce MP is not re-standing so we won’t have a Deputy Leader on the 8th May. I would suggest the new parliamentary party in the Commons vote quickly for a successor.
How are FPC, FE and the Parliamentary parties selecting their 3 candidates for the reference group?
Will FPC, FE and parliamentary party members get a vote or will the Chairs/leaders of those groups simply ‘appoint’ as Nick has done for the negotiating team?
Several federal committee members are suggesting solutions to these problems to Baroness Brinton (Chair of FE), Malcolm Bruce MP (Chair of FPC), and Annette Brooke MP (Chair of the Parliamentary Liberal Democrat Party) as well as to Lord Wallace of Tankerness and Nick Clegg MP. It is vital that we resolve these issues, as far as possible in advance, to avoid an unnecessary argument at an unhelpful time. In the immediate aftermath of the election, activists will be exhausted.
I am a social liberal but I have no desire to exclude those from different places on the Liberal Democrat political spectrum from crucial decisions about the future of our Party. For any future government involving the support or presence of Liberal Democrats to succeed, however, the large majority of the Party needs to feel represented in the negotiation process. I very much hope we are.
Naomi Smith is Chair of the Social Liberal Forum