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The English Party gets it right – but also demonstrates why it needs reform

June 20, 2015 4:46 PM
By Mark Pack in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

You may wish to sit down before reading on.

You may wish to sit down before reading the next paragraph.

A few days ago I blogged about the Lib Dem Federal Executive (FE) making a good decision. Now it's time to blog about the English Party making one too.

On Saturday 13 June, the English Council agreed to London Region's proposal to let new members vote in the Mayor and London Assembly selections, waiving the usual 12-month rule which deprives members of a vote in such selections for their first year of party membership. As I wrote of London Region's plans:

The sensible way to treat a new member of a political party is to welcome them warmly. Yet often the rules of the Liberal Democrats treat new members as second class citizens, automatically lumping them all together into the 'suspicious' category to be deprived of voting rights in internal party contests with the all too frequent provision that you can't vote unless you've been a member for a year.

No assessment of individual cases or evaluation of risks in different scenarios; instead for many of the contests everyone new is labelled second-rate and deprived of the vote in a way that if, say, Ukip suggested new citizens should be treated - banned from voting in elections for 12 months - party members would be outraged about.

The party has had problems with suspicious mass membership applications at the last moment before a very small number of selections in the past, and some selective, carefully targeted safeguards against that are wise (such as in the case of a very large growth in membership in one area).

But instead we have the crude blunderbuss of blanket bans - even if it's a case of someone who was a member for decades, lapsed a couple of years back and now rejoins.

So three cheers for London Region, and especially the leadership shown by its chair Mike Tuffrey, for proposing a change in the rules for who gets to vote in the selection for the party's London Mayor and Assembly candidates.

With the selection going ahead in the summer after the general election, the previous 12 month bar on voting would have meant new (and rejoining) members during [and, as it turns out more relevantly, just after] the general election would have then immediately had the group profiling of 'new = suspicious = strip of voting rights' applied and not been allowed to vote.

Would have meant - because if this change goes ahead, instead the electorate will be all party members, regardless of whether they've been a member for 1 month or 1 decade. One member, one vote - for all members.

That's great news and hopefully will encourage those responsible for other sets of rules through the party to look again at the other uses of the 12 months bar.

The English Party agreed that the English Candidates Committee (ECC) could in future recommend to the English Council Executive (ECE) waiving the 12-month rule for other selections that it sets the rules for too (Westminster seats, directly elected Mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners etc.).

A good move - but also one that shows how much the English Party needs reform.

The alphabet soup of EC, ECE and ECC is not only complicated, little known by most members and devoid of direct accountability to party members. It's also overall a very conservative structure, as evidenced by the default in its decision: a blanket ban on all members having a basic democratic right… unless one committee recommends to another committee that they can have it.

That's back to front and moreover the English Party's standard selection rules still include such old-fashioned notions as banning endorsements during selections. That's not only another blanket piece of illiberalism (saying you're backing X is a matter of freedom of speech and so should only be restricted in case of absolute need), it's also almost impossible to apply to a world with social media (asking if a retweet is an endorsement is just the simplest of many complexities it throws up).

The Federal Party's rules have got increasingly more sensible on such matters - due in part to my regular campaigning on this - leaving the English Party looking rather antiquated in its approach.

It's another example of why the English Party needs wider reform:

A slightly unkind, but still mostly true, explanation of why the English Party exists at all is that it was created at the time of the party's formation in order to keep the Scots and Welsh happy. They insisted on meaningful power being given to the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, which meant there was a bundle of issues left in England that needed a home - hence the creation of the English Liberal Democrats.

However, members in England identify far less with England as a distinct entity in the party than members in Scotland and Wales do with their own state parties - and all the more so since the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

Matters are further exacerbated by the indirect method of election to the English Party's key committees and posts, along with the frequency with which posts are filled uncontested.

The overall effect is to create a complicated network of power, making working out who is responsible for what and how to change something you see but don't like rather like trying to untangle a pile of spaghetti. Which keeps on being taken away from you. The result is that the English Party has some significant powers but even many long-time party activists in England feel they don't really know how it operates, who is in charge or what it is for.