REVEALED: What Lib Dems really think of letting non-members elect their next leader
Vince Cable has proposed radical reforms to the Lib Dem membership system in a bid to find the next Emmanuel Macron. But what do party members really think?
Three years after departing government, the Liberal Democrats are struggling for attention. Their eight-seat showing at the 2015 election and their little-improved performance last year naturally saw their column inches fall off a cliff. It is a sorry state of affairs when party leader Vince Cable has to resort to absurd sexual language to get any attention - telling Brexiteers their dream was nothing more than an “erotic spasm” in his keynote speech (although in the end he fluffed the climactic line).
Indeed, many journalists may not have bothered coming to the annual party conference in Brighton this year without the hope of furious rows over a set of sweeping rule changes announced by Cable in the preceding weeks. The 75-year-old wants to modernise the party by creating a new type of membership: a ‘supporters’ scheme. Cable wants supporters to be able to join the party for free - but despite paying nothing at the door he wants them to have voting rights in Lib Dem leadership elections. And he doesn’t stop there. Cable thinks non-MPs should be able to stand as candidates in any future leadership race.
The thinking comes primarily from Canada, where internal reforms to the previously dwindling Liberal party saw current PM Justin Trudeau thrust to power. Indeed, the Lib Dems have contracted a number of Canadians who devised the plan for the Liberals to help them work out how it could be done in the UK. The plans have been dubbed ‘Project Ozark’ by insiders. The party hopes finding its own Trudeau - or Emmanuel Macron, the French president whose centrist movement cut through the middle of the old party system - will help it to seize power in Britain.
But questions loom over whether the proposed reforms - which may well be out for consultation for up to a year - could work under the First Past the Post system of UK elections, and whether making the party too open could invite entryism, as Labour MPs will be quick to warn.
Other members are concerned about the system undermining the powers of the existing membership. “Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas - we are not going to give away our membership rights,” conference attendee Ann Morrison, 64, from Birmingham tells PoliticsHome. “I’m happy to work with like-minded people because they nearly always end up joining us. But if they are going to vote they had better join.” Morrison argues the reforms will fail to get the two-thirds backing required at a federal party conference to pass - noting that the party is “the most democratic party in the UK”.
Carshalton and Wallington MP Tom Brake however says some non-members can earn their right to have as much say as their paying counterparts. He says there are some unsubscribed supporters in his constituency who are more active than “armchair members” who “contribute their subs - which is very welcome - but don’t have the time or the inclination to get involved”.
Other Lib Dem members are more enthusiastic about the proposals. Tony Lloyd, 54, from Lewisham, says he was unsure at first but the plans “have massively grown on me”. Clad in an EU flag hat and t-shirt, he adds: “There’s a definite feeling that once we get our claws into people, suck them in, then it’s a nice easy gradient to corrupt them, to draw them to the orange side.”
Lloyd says he has thought for years about a non-MP taking the leadership, as the “Westminster parliament is not the be all and end all” - but he notes that such a system must come with safeguards to ensure the party cannot be hijacked by entryists or an unpalatable candidate.
It’s a sentiment shared by the upper echelons of the party. James Gurling, a long-standing member of the ruling Lib Dem Federal Board, admits there could be a “Boaty McBoatface” attempt to transform the movement - in reference to the democratic naming process for a polar research vessel which ended in farce - but argues supporters must be trusted.
“Provided people take the nomination process seriously and don’t do what they did when they were lending nominations to get Corbyn onto the ballot paper I don’t think it’s such a threat,” he argues. But he notes that “failsafes” would be needed - including a possible tightening up of the nomination process.
Edinburgh West MP Christine Jardine also insists the vetting process for nominations must remain sharp, and says a non-MP leader would ideally find their way into parliament after being elected to the top job. But she says: “If there is someone out there who has vast experience, knowledge, ability and is interested in leading the party then I don't think we should preclude them from it.”
Finding a person with all those skills plus an already high profile and a willingness to do the job could prove difficult. The party suffered a setback during the conference when darling of the Remainers Gina Miller - whose successful legal action against the Government forced ministers to trigger the Brexit process through parliament - ruled herself out and even revealed she was not a party member.
Kingston and Surbiton MP (and former Cabinet minister) Ed Davey raises a different concern: that the party must budget for a non-MP leader to ensure not only the rich can afford to take on the job. He notes that MPs already have a salary, and argues: “We have to make sure that this is not just an invitation to rich people.”
But the former Energy Secretary was enthusiastic about the proposals on the whole, and in fact wants to see an even greater transformation. “If I have a criticism of the reforms it is this: they don’t go far enough,” he tells PoliticsHome. He suggests members should be more involved in the policy-making process, including using virtual conferences to source policy ideas, and says MP hopefuls should be selected through open primaries.
Vince Cable is at risk of going down as a blip in the history of Lib Dem leadership. If he manages to get his proposed party reforms through, the changes will become his crowning moment. Whether or not they revive Lib Dem fortunes - or lead to a fatal implosion - will be his legacy. At the very least, the plans will win the party some much-needed attention in the meantime.