Sunday 2 December 2012

Welcome to Pyongyang

The results of the Liberal Democrats’ selection contests for the 2014 European elections have just been announced. As last time, most of the incumbent MEPs who are re-standing have racked up North Korean-style majorities.
  • In the East of England, incumbent Andrew Duff won 49% of the first preference votes, not as high as most of his colleagues but there was a bigger field of candidates than in other regions.

  • In the East Midlands, incumbent Bill Newton Dunn won 67% of the first preference votes.

  • In London, the incumbency factor was significantly reduced, for the same reason as last time. Incumbent Sarah Ludford won ‘only’ 48% of the first preference votes because the runner-up was the well-known Jonathan Fryer (25%).

  • In the North East, where incumbent Fiona Hall is not re-standing, there was a genuinely open contest and a very narrow result. Angelika Schneider (44.7%) beat Owen Temple (43.6%) by just six votes on first preferences and went on to win top place.

  • In the North West, incumbent Chris Davies won 72% of the first preference votes.

  • In the South East, where one of the two sitting MEPs (Sharon Bowles) is not re-standing, the remaining incumbent Catherine Bearder won 59% of the first preference votes. It was a close contest for the key second place, with Antony Hook (15.6% of first preference votes) beating Dinti Batstone (13.5%).

  • In the South West, incumbent Sir Graham Watson won 79% of the first preference votes.

  • In the West Midlands, despite being an MEP for barely ten months, incumbent Phil Bennion nevertheless won 62% of the first preference votes.

  • In Yorkshire and Humber, incumbent Rebecca Taylor did not re-stand, giving the other incumbent Edward McMillan-Scott a clear run; he won 67% of the first preference votes.
An incumbent MEP starts with a clear advantage, given the high profile the job provides; indeed, it would be very unusual to deselect a sitting MEP unless he/she were doing a poor job. Non-incumbent rivals are put at an added disadvantage by the truncated window for campaigning and the strict expenditure limits.

The results suggest that, in all-member ballots where there are not the resources in place to ensure a meaningful election campaign, the deciding factors are name recognition and a low turnout. This problem is even worse in the elections for party president, where it is effectively impossible for anyone who is not an MP or peer to win.

There was recently an attempt on Liberal Democrat Voice to build up a head of steam for introducing all-member ballots for the election of the party’s federal committees (the Federal Executive, Federal Conference Committee and Federal Policy Committee, where the franchise is currently restricted to conference representatives). An LDV poll indicated this would be popular, so it would not be surprising if there were an attempt at a constitutional amendment to this effect next year.

In theory, such a reform sounds more democratic. In practice, the lack of a genuine membership-wide election campaign and the consequent emphasis on name recognition would result in the federal committees being packed with well-known establishment figures. It would be much harder for new faces to break in, and the party’s committees would be less representative than they are now. Even with the present system, in this year’s contest, peers won five of the fifteen directly-elected places on the Federal Policy Committee and former MPs won four of the twelve directly-elected places on the Federal Conference Committee; all-member ballots would be likely to make this tendency worse.

I’m all for more democracy. But before we change the constitution, those who want all-member ballots for party committees must match the theory with practice. They must come up with a convincing and effective formula for ensuring genuinely open contests that are not stacked in favour of the establishment or wealthy candidates. What affordable campaign methods (whether or not online) could we develop that actually work with an all-member electorate, and which would give all candidates a fair crack of the whip?

Until and unless reformers can answer that practical question, demands for a constitutional amendment should be treated with scepticism. It is in no one’s interests for the party’s committees to become a closed shop – apart from the small number of establishment figures who would benefit.

POSTSCRIPT (Tuesday 4th December): The results of the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ European selection contest have just been announced. Incumbent MEP George Lyon has taken the Pyongyang Award, with 80.7% of the first preference votes.


  1. I can see the leadership being very keen to push something that looks 'more democratic' and actually helps to ensure they get who they want on the committees, so you're probably right.

    (However, it's worth noting that the person leading the 'campaign' failed to get elected to FCC)

    There was some discussion of this back when the committee election results came out, and I think there are steps that the party could take to encourage more actual democracy and perhaps use it to build something useful for the next general election. See here However, I doubt they will.

  2. I'm happy to do an officialised version of what I did this year for the federal elections - Q&As with candidates - and have said as much in official channels. We'll see if anything actually comes of it.

  3. For the record, the above two comments are from Nick Barlow and Jennie Rigg respectively.

    May I remind all commenters about our comments policy (see right-hand column). Please use your real, full name. If (as in Nick's and Jennie's cases) you have registered with Google using only your first name, or if you have registered using a pseudonym, please include your full name at the end of your comment.

  4. Full Democracy! Everybody should vote!

    Well we just saw how well that worked with the PCC elections. Where the new Commissioners are able to appoint their deputies without any selection process other than "I know him, he's a good friend".

    The key is an INFORMED electorate, which frankly people who haven't been to Conference and don't know most of the candidates won't be. (Not that attending Conference guarantees that, but it helps.)

  5. Simon,

    I think "Pyongyang" is really over the top. I guess you don't deal with the North Korean catastrophe on a daily basis; some people do, and it really is not a laughing matter.

    I don't think that the European selections are at all disastrous. Even the most one-sided contest still produced 20% of voters ready to support the alternative. And as we have discovered in the course of the current EP term, the ordering of the down-ticket places can make a big difference.

    But for what it's worth, despite your provocative title and your unfair characterisation of the MEP selections, I agree with your basic point. Often an apparent broadening of democracy is nothing of the kind. The classic example is the US primary system, which actually allows vested financial interests to eliminate dangerous candidates, in order to present voters in the full election with the choice between two carefully selected millionaires.


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