Constitution changes: or, where leaders should tread lightly

September 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

Large, far-reaching constitutional changes can be an important way to revitalise a political movement, refashioning it for new challenges and to bring in more people or engage members better. They can also be embarrassing, gimmicky wastes of time and money that at best are never spoken of again and at worst consign political careers to ignominious fates. The stakes are by nature high – which is why it’s vital that the process for consulting and deciding on such changes is fair, open, and engages members in making fully informed decisions. Whilst the leadership have been quick to try and reassure members in general terms that this will occur, there are some specific measures that the leadership may be tempted to use to strengthen their hand within the party – but which could be unwise in practice.

One temptation might be for the leadership to call a special conference, rather than leaving the amendments until a vote at our usual Spring conference. The attractions of this are obvious; it could attract those members most motivated to vote for the policy, and would allow the whole thing to be sorted before the expected Brexit furore in March. It would however, I believe, be a significant mistake.

First, it restricts the timeframe on an issue that isn’t obviously time limited, and may mean that there will not be time to properly scrutinise and, if necessary, redraft any amendments before attempting to pass them. Introducing a supporters’ scheme is likely to require significant additional burdens on local parties (who will need to be the ones signing people up for it) and on HQ, which will need to find the funds to vet the presumably large number of people who’d sign up for a vote in our leadership elections. The constitutional, manpower, and financial implications of this move all need proper consultation and it would be unwise to rush into this without giving members the chance to fully consider them.

Second, the travel and accommodation costs of getting to an additional special conference may restrict the people there, in particular leaving out lower income, younger, or disabled members who struggle to get to conferences as it is. Passing a motion to theoretically broaden our movement in a situation where the full diversity of our membership can’t be consulted might (rightly) be seen as a strange road to take for a party that has for some years been talking about the need to commit itself to diversifying decision-making to bring in people outside a white, middle-class activist core.

Additionally, the leadership may wish to take care when it comes to surrendering the precedent that they have set of informing members that special conferences are too expensive. I was involved in negotiations with FCC in 2017 when the possibility of a special conference over Brexit policy was raised. We were then informed that the cost – estimated by FCC members we were in discussions with at £40,000 for a special conference not connected to the main conference – was an expense the party could ill afford. If the leadership now believes the party is sufficiently flush with cash to make such expenditures to accelerate a constitutional change by eight weeks, party members are likely to take them at their word and decide that issues that have recently struggled to make it onto conference agendas might just be worth gathering 200 signatures for after all.

The other risky option for the leadership would be to use a consultative ballot to find, if I may coin the term, the will of the membership. Given our stance on ensuring that opinion ballots are properly managed, this would need extremely careful handling. It would be a grave embarrassment for the party, not to mention a giant red target for satirists left, right, and centre, if those opposed to changing the status quo were not given a fair chance to make their case and the leadership won such a ballot on that basis. This possibility further emphasises the issue of time-frame too – for members to be able to make an informed choice, the member ballot needs to have enough time attached for local parties to run discussion meetings and both sides to make their case.

We await the outcome of Vince’s speech tomorrow – I will be interested to see his actual proposals in detail when they appear, and I fully hope that they’ll be ones I can support personally. Vince’s job here won’t begin and end with a single speech, though – it’s incumbent both upon Vince and on Federal Board to ensure we have a transparent, well run consultative process that isn’t seen to be bouncing members into any particular decision. Whatever decisions we make about the future of the Liberal Democrats, it’s important that we make them openly and democratically in accordance with our values, so we can move forward together to demand a more liberal Britain.

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