An FT article titled in jocose fashion something like “beware of the beardies”, drew attention towards those elements in the LibDem Constitution designed to prevent any radical changes to the party’s relationship with other parties.

A series of obscure rules buried in the Lib Dem “constitutions” (184 pages) and “business motions” give the party’s left-leaning activists considerable clout over their leader, particularly when it comes to deals with minority governments.

The so-called ‘triple lock’ was appparently introduced under Ashdown, and leaves the leadership obliged to seek several different supermajorities in certain situations.

On the surface, such attention is unwelcome, given Nick’s superb recent efforts (also FT) to get the Lib Dems rebranded as the party that holds the sensible middle ground between nutcase spendingcutters on the Right and wishful deficit deniers on the Left.   It is no good having the most respected Shadow Chancellor in modern history and a sound grasp of the difficult dynamics of this situation (see Chris Giles’ wondeful post on this) if you can’t do anything about it, without a cumbersome and uncertain process of internal party haggling.

Martin Kettle in the conference programme makes a flattering comparison between LibDem Conferences and the ‘stage managed rallies’ with ‘heavily vetted and coached speakers’ of the other Parties. He writes:

“Among the main UK-wide parties, Liberal Democrats are the only ones whose conference is not from beginning to end a stich-up”.

And I love every minute of them. But I am not sure that a bond market investor eavesdropping upon a ferocious speech defending public spending at all costs would applaud the democracy, rather than question the maths.  From the FT article:

Richard Batty, investment director of strategy at Standard Life Investments, said: “This is a laborious process, which could take time to resolve and lead to a delay in the setting up of a coalition government. That creates short-term risks for the government bond markets.”

I agree with Liberal Vision that the triple lock needs to be neutralised for Parliamentary negotiations about taxing, spending, and repaying our creditors.  The vast majority of the voters who will be responsible for sending (we hope) 60+ Lib Dems into Westminster this spring think they are in a representative democracy, selecting a man or woman to take his or her own choices in Parliament.   They do not think they are giving something they have never heard of a final say over our credit rating, no matter how diligent and worthy the members of that body might be.  And if this worries someone like me, imagine how it could be used during the campaign.

As Angela writes, “If we want to claim that a hung Parliament is not necessarily a bad thing and that the markets needn’t panic, we at least need to have our own rules sorted out”

I would love to be able to twist this post around and say “surface impressions are misleading”.  But in this case they strike me as true.  The FT article suggests, somewhat optimistically, that Nick may be able to use a threat to ‘take it to the beardies’ as a way of gaining negotiational traction with a Conservative or Labour adversary this summer. I cannot imagine this working in the LibDems’ favour.  Pure democracy is much easier in the wilderness, and in this case it could be a good way of staying there.


11 thoughts on “‘Taking it to the beardies’

  1. So to hell with democracy, bankers have to have the last word and the hell with Party democracy too. Perhaps you should explain why you are a Liberal Democrat since you seem a more natural Tory.

    1. People who lend you money have a right to a say in the price. Borrowing £200bn per year means you have to observe this factor.

      This is not to hell with democracy, but not allowing the internal arrangements of the Lib Dems agreed circa 1998 to override what people vote for in a general election in 2010. When someone votes to send a Lib Dem to parliament, in our system he thinks that MP will be able toi represent his interests.

  2. In 1945 Labour were in the same position – the NEC, not the parly party were sovereign. And when the NEC’s Laski told Attlee not to sign a peace treaty or some such, Attlee wrote back that “A period of silence from you would be much appreciated”. Nick can say the same thing if he has to. Sure, some will leave the party whatever he does. Such is life. But what are FPC/FE/people-with-beards going to do? Expel him? Tell Twickenham to deselect Vince? If Nick has a mandate from the people of Britain, and there is a good offer on the table, Nick will take it. Period.

    1. A very good point Tim – I wish it had occurred to me to include that precedent (and marvellous quote). The de facto power ought to rest in him – and I hope that is clear before the election too. In retrospect, I thinkn the FT article muddies the water unnecessarily

      1. But Giles, earlier you say “When someone votes to send a Lib Dem to parliament, in our system he thinks that MP will be able toi represent his interests.”

        That suggest that at the very least you would want the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons to meet, consider and vote and that those who elected them two or three days before would also expect this. Would that be your position?


      2. Yes. MPs should meet consider and vote amongst themselves. Nick losing authority over his parliamentary party would be a worry – but then so it is for all the parties. And as Tim seems to imply, this is what will really happen, I hope.

  3. It’s astonishing that the establishment that applauded the Labour Party not getting to choose its own leader in 16 years should whine that the Liberals actually practice democracy. Simply astonishing. I really cannot explain how this could happen.

    1. Thanks for those (apologies for my spam filter). I look forward to them. This attention on Clegg is v welcome and overdue.

  4. I should add that I have no inside knowledge, but yes, Nick has to command the support of the MPs on a day to day basis, and of the party at large over the medium term.

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