Should the Lib Dem president be neutral in leadership elections?

by Stephen Tall on December 14, 2007

That’s the question Jonathan Calder asked on his Liberal England blog, following Simon Hughes’s endorsement of Nick Clegg on Lib Dem Voice this week. His piece sparked a lively comments thread, and has even prompted a story in today’s Pandora column in The Independent:

Simon Hughes has found himself on the receiving end of bitter cat-calls from Liberal Democrats after wading in with his views about the current leadership contest. This week Hughes posted some comments on the political website Lib Dem Voice, in which he came out strongly in support for the candidacy of Nick Clegg. …

Hughes’s comments have provoked fury among party officials who say that, as the party’s president, he really shouldn’t be seen to be taking sides so publicly. So far, other so-called Lib Dem grandees, including the acting leader Vince Cable and former leaders Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell, have been maintaining dignified silences about their preferred choices. Although no one from Hughes’s office would comment about the uproar, supporters for both Clegg and his opponent Chris Huhne are said to be furious with the comments.

One of the likely candidates to replace Hughes as president when he stands down next year, Baroness Scott, says she would have kept her trap shut. “It is entirely a matter for the president but, personally, I wouldn’t have done it,” she tells me. “The job of the president is to act as a mouthpiece for the members. If, for example, there was a problem with the election, the president would not be seen as independent.”

For the record, Simon’s piece was submitted by Nick Clegg’s campaign team for LDV’s regular ‘Leadership Platform’ slot; so it would be a little surprising if his supporters actually were furious.

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I think the Party President should indeed be impartial – probably the only person aside from staff who should! – but I don’t think anyone who voted for Simon as President would ever have expected him to keep his mouth shut. And whoever the new Leader is, he’ll be sure to hear some ‘helpful’ comments from Simon in public before too long, because all the others always have. It’s one of the things that’s both loveable and exasperating about him.

It is, however, deeply daft that the voice of the membership to make sure things are done right can be partial, while endorsements are forbidden at ‘lower’ levels of candidacy, so good luck to all the people trying to get that overturned.

Simon, incidentally, nearly lost his bid for re-election as LDYS President in the early 1990s after being highly partial in two particularly bitter sets of Executive elections, which was a lot more unwise and divisive than in a Leadership election. Like the last Lib Dem Presidential election, he was unopposed, though the LDYS ballot paper also contained the option of Re-Open Nominations…

by Alex Wilcock on December 14, 2007 at 12:55 pm. Reply #

When does Simon’s rather insipid term of office end and, other than Ros Scott, who is likely to be in the running to replace him?

Yes, I absolutely agree that he should have kept his big gob shut on the Leadership – probably cost Nick some votes says he hopefully as an openly declared Huney.

by Iain Rubie Dale on December 14, 2007 at 1:22 pm. Reply #

“though the LDYS ballot paper also contained the option of Re-Open Nominations…”

Who backed such a disgraceful campaign? 🙂

However on the substantive point I don’t see why Simon should be the only (non-staff) party member not allowed to express a view. I was critical of a gag being imposed on the Euro candidates and the same principle would apply here.

Simon’s endorsement – given that as President he’s failed on one of his key manifesto pledges and presided over the defenestration of two leaders might not be such an asset of course….

The President could of course choose to remain silent – Diana Maddock did this in the 1999 campaign.

It would be particularly silly when the President can actually stand for leader him//herself 🙂

by Hywel Morgan on December 14, 2007 at 1:24 pm. Reply #

Simon’s term ends Dec 2008. So far Lembit, Ros Scott and John Smithson have been touting their names about, by handing out badges at Brighton Conference.

by Ryan Cullen on December 14, 2007 at 1:25 pm. Reply #

What are the rules governing the Presidents role? Seems to me that if you amend the rules to include impartiality by the role holder in such matters you wont have problems like this.

by Leon on December 14, 2007 at 1:33 pm. Reply #

Gob shut, impartial, mistake, cost Nick votes…my word some Hune supporters have gone in to spin “overdrive”
Get a grip people other than staff(much like cival servannts) anyone else who is a part of the party should be able to commeny or have an public say on what they like.
Gaging people is just stupid, if like Charlie & Ming people want to say nothing in public then so be it but to lambast Simon for backing Nick in public, come on!
I;m sure if he came out for Chris many on this site would have kept their own gobs shut.
Unless you want a president who no more then a “royal” with no thoughts of their own I suggest people let it go.
The election is all but over and lets wait and see. I really don’t think Simon has helped or otherwise in Nicks favour. If anyone voted along because of what Simon did they need to take themselves to one side and have a word!!

by big Mak on December 14, 2007 at 1:57 pm. Reply #

Oh dearie me what an absolutely over the top reaction from big mak! The election is effectively over, as he points out himself, so why the big fuss from him? Surely he doesn’t for a moment think that my comments here will change the outcome one iota?

Acually, if Simon had come out for Chris I would have made the same comment. It’s called believing in a principle. I also think David Steel and Paddy Ashdown should have kept their opinions to themselves and, as I’m sure folk will be aware, they both backed diferent people.

by Iain Rubie Dale on December 14, 2007 at 3:01 pm. Reply #

Why should Paddy Ashdown and David Steel have kept quite surely we can’t exspect former leaders to take a life time vow of silence just because Ming and Charles have done this time?

by Simon on December 14, 2007 at 3:17 pm. Reply #

You think that’s over the top, you should hear what he’s like in private 🙂

Is the president still responsible for the running of the election? If so, then neutrality seems a reasonable requirement. If not, then have at you sirrah!

by Andy on December 14, 2007 at 3:23 pm. Reply #

The traditional role of the President in party organisations is as “Guardian of the constitution”. In this role, the President may need to intervene and make a decision on disputes. For this reason, I think the President does have a duty to stay neutral in party elections – it was a mistake for Simon to declare.

by Matthew Huntbach on December 14, 2007 at 5:05 pm. Reply #

I am a Huhne supporter and I support Simon Hughes in having the right to publicly express his leadership preference.
After all, he previously stood for leader himself, so does being impartial mean that you cannot stand? I think that would be absurd.
I do not like rules to prevent people in the party from expressing an opinion, I think that being in a political party is all about expressing your opinion. Personally I do not even like the concept of collective responsibility where politicians have to behave like sheep, but I accept that we have no choice but to agree to that.
I find it ironic that there is no shortage of Liberals who argue that they dislike the state telling people what they can say, but not (in this case) the party.
Simon’s membership goals may well have been hubristic at the time, but are we going to criticise Clegg and Huhne for their great ambitions for the party that they have now? How many new members is Ros Scott or Lembit Opik going to suggest we recruit? In any case, Simon could not have known that after his election we were going elect as leader someone who would totally fail to capture the imagination of the electorate (apologies for being harsh, but that is how the electorate responded).
Whatever the membership targets for the party nationally, it is not Simon’s personal responsibility to recruit every one. Local parties have to do that.
I would propose that the next president should phone up local party chairs and ask them what plans they have for their local party, including membership drives, and how a local party and the national party can help each other acheive their objectives. That way we can have realistic membership targets rather than numbers plucked from the air (OK, that is a criticism of Simon). Problem is that this would be a full time job, not something an MP could realistically do.

by Geoffrey Payne on December 14, 2007 at 5:09 pm. Reply #

“President may need to intervene and make a decision on disputes”

We have a Federal Appeals panel for that with it’s own chair.

by Simon on December 14, 2007 at 5:33 pm. Reply #

Iain @ 7 how is that over he top? telling you lot to shut it and let it go, read between the lines my friend.

by big Mak on December 14, 2007 at 8:21 pm. Reply #

OK Guys

The fact that we are having this debate demonstrates that there is not an issue. If Simon has broken any written rule why has he not been had up for it? If he has broken an “unwritten rule” what is that all about? I am sorry to sound like a flippin broken record, but get a life! Are we or are we not a liberal party??? Do we or do we not cherish freedom of speech? So all credit to those who would always be well behaved cardboard cutouts, not daring to sneeze incase they upset someone somewhere, but give me a radical who will take risks any day. It is oh so easy to take the easy road of least resistance, never to upset a soul………but that old maxim comes to mind, to make an omlette you have to crack a few eggs.

by Linda Jack on December 14, 2007 at 9:46 pm. Reply #

To balance out Geoffrey’s comment, I am a Clegg supporter who thinks that Simon shouldn’t have expressed a view.

As the other figurehead of the federal party he should remain impartial. He is also (I think) the official returning officer. Plus, it is probably ill advised in case his preferred candidate didn’t win.

To be fair to Simon there is nothing in the rules that bars him from doing it, and last he was a candidate anyway. Perhaps the rules need to be changed.

by Anders on December 14, 2007 at 10:06 pm. Reply #

Of course he should be impartial.

by David B on December 14, 2007 at 10:37 pm. Reply #

Simon came out in favour of Nick weeks ago, so why the sudden uproar now?! I personally think it’s a good thing that Simon has put his head above the parapit on the leadership. He’s a tremendously influential figure with the grassroots in the party and one of the few of our MPs who really inspires. He’s a liberal to his core and i am very happy to be advised on the way forward for the party from someone who cares so passionately about liberalism and the Lib Dems.

by GRIMOND1 on December 14, 2007 at 11:41 pm. Reply #

But a president is a president. He/she is the guardian of the party’s soul and should not take sides in contests such as this.

by David B on December 15, 2007 at 4:25 pm. Reply #

Anders: IIRC the Chair of the Federal Appeals Panel is the official RO.

by Will Howells on December 15, 2007 at 4:46 pm. Reply #

Agree with 9.
Simon Hughes has a particular and PRESENT role as president and supervisor of the process, so should have been impartial.
Paddy and David Steel and Shirley Williams unfortunately broke cover, and it really diminished them as elder statesmen to show their partiality. But I thought Vince and Charles did the proper
thing and remained silent.
Still, having listened to Dennis Skinner on the radio 4 Week in Politics, whoever wins might have a poisoned chalice in the Commons beargarden.

by Elizabeth Patterson on December 15, 2007 at 5:27 pm. Reply #

I read the intro for this column again, and I really think everything is getting out of proportion.
How come Clegg supporters are also supposed to be “furious” when thanks to Simon, Nick produced the most effective campaign video so far, in Simon’s constituency where he actually recruited new BME students into the party? We saw the video on LDV, why did no one complain about that then?
If the president is supposed to be impartial, why did no one propose a constitutional amendment saying so after Simon went one further and stood as a candidate the previous time?
Why are we so anxious about what senior members of the party think anyway? The idea that we want them to “shut up” seems somewhat illiberal to me.
I find it bazarre that for most of the time people post comments on here about how they want to be free to do what they like, but all of a sudden the etiquette of “collective responsibility”, which is only supposed to apply to shadow cabinet members of the Parliamentary party in Parliament now seems to apply to all sorts of people, even to people like Linda Jack who is not even an MEP yet.
I think politics would be much more interesting if more politicians of all parties were free to say what they think. Do we really want to go the way of New Labour with their identikit Blairite candidates that always have to be “on message” 24/7?

by Geoffrey Payne on December 15, 2007 at 7:02 pm. Reply #

14. Linda, ignoring your one woman assault on the English Language, you make some important points. I think Simon was wrong to intervene in this manner, however, can we doubt his right to do so? I’m told from time to time by some of my councillors that as an employee I should or should not have.. Invariably this is because I have said something they disagree with. But, I’m a card carrying member of the party and I reserve the right to speak, with due attention, on any matter when I see fit.

by Martin Land on December 15, 2007 at 9:53 pm. Reply #

The point is that Simon’s specific role as President probably ought to preclude him. As Jonathan Calder noted in starting this discussion, it’s not a role that is properly defined, but the general idea seems to be that having a symbolic leader as well as an actual leader means the symbolic leader has a position as a final arbitrator and master of ceremonies which means not getting involved in active support of one side over another in any party debate.

I also think it is not good for the acting leader of immediate past leader to openly support a leadership candidate – doing so means the contest immediately becomes “party establishment v. rebels” and means it can’t be approached with an open mind.

I don’t think restriction should go much further than that, probably not leaders before the resigning one, or other holders of party office. So the criticism of Simon for making an endorsement is not a call for a general ban on any senior members from doing so.

Also, as to why now make the criticism than previously, it is a mark of our respect for Simon and our wish for this NOT to be made an issue in the current campaign that those of us who have felt uncomfortable about it have left it until now to say.

by Matthew Huntbach on December 17, 2007 at 10:10 am. Reply #

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