I’m in York for the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference. The main job will be grandstanding the party’s position on Brexit. That is uncontroversial. For insiders there is a much more interesting debate about changing the rules for electing party leaders.
This has become much more pertinent because the current leader, Vince Cable, has decided to stand down in May, unless there is a new General Election. We will be choosing a new leader soon.
There are three key elements to Vince’s proposal to open up the process. The first is uncontentious: set up a registered supporters scheme to allow people a degree of participation without full membership. There is a lot of evidence that many would join, creating a wider pool of people to send appeals for money and other help. The problem is what else to offer them in order to give them an incentive to sign up and stay signed up.
Which brings us to the second element: allowing these supporters, subject to an extra payment, to vote on the party’s choice of leader. This worries many, especially after a similar scheme in the Labour Party led to the dysfunctional Jeremy Corbyn being selected. But there’s a further problem. Current rules restrict the choice of leader to MPs: and there are just 12 of them. Last time there was a vacancy only one person put themselves forward. Leadership contests are an opportunity to bring members and supporters together to decide what the party is about. A shortage of candidates undermines that process. So the third element is to open the leadership up to non-MPs. This is what other small parties do, like the Greens, the SNP and the DUP – though the latter two have devolved parliaments as an alternative base, at least in theory. This also worries a lot of members, who think that grown-up parties are always led by MPs.
If I was to judge by my Facebook feed, the conference will emphatically reject the second and third proposals. But this is highly unrepresentative of actual members and conference goers. The great and the good are lining up behind Vince.
What to make of the arguments against? I have two immediate reactions to the parallel with Labour. The first is “We should be so lucky”. Labour is not that far from actual power, which made it very interesting to entryists and others. I struggle to imagine that many people who don’t really support the party trying to sign up and influence the choice. Which leads to my second reaction: “It would be a nice problem to have”. For all my dislike of Mr Corbyn, his election energised his party and brought in lots of extra members and funds. If the Lib Dems aspire to national leadership it will need a similar influx. Anyway the party is in a different place to Labour. I can’t say that Mr Corbyn is any more dysfunctional than former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, who is regarded by the party as a success rather than a failure, and canonised after his tragic death.
And what of allowing non MPs to stand for the leadership? The arguments against look particularly thin. For example it is often said that the Greens’ practice of electing leaders outside parliament is a failure because the press does not beat a path to their door, and are much more interested in their lone MP, Caroline Lucas. But that is not true of the DUP, where Arlene Foster is their most visible representative in the media. It’s much more complex than that. Clearly there are many advantages to leading the party from within Parliament- but it won’t save the party from a poor leader. Surely the members and supporters can be the judge of this?
But is clear is that the party is stuck. Its policies, especially on Brexit, are quite popular and are not being taken up by the major parties, which are veering to extremes. But it is stuck at no more than 10% support in the polls. It needs momentum from somewhere to make it fashionable again. Opening up the leadership is one way of breaking out. It’s risky. And it may not work. But carrying on with the current ways looks more likely to condemn the party to the sidelines.