Who should elect council group leaders?

For just over four years I was the leader of the Liberal Democrat group in Haringey. It was a good period for the party – from winning our first three seats in Haringey through to growing to a group of fifteen at the next elections, for years on. But there is one thing about my experience as group leader that I have real doubts over. It’s the question of how the party elects its group leader.

Group leaders – especially those where we run the council or are challenging to run the council – are some of the most important people in the party in terms of real power wielded that affects people’s lives.

Group leaders vary hugely – from the leader of a small group through to the person who runs a multi-million council and has more power than many MPs – but one thing they all have in common is that party members do not get a say in who they are.

And this is my cause of doubt. I have had to campaign for votes from party members for all sorts of things during my time in the party but for group leader – it was only fellow councillors who got a say. Now – when there were only three of us councillors back in 2002, divvying up the roles of leader, deputy leader and chief whip wasn’t the most competitive or angst-ridden of processes! Between us, we were all happy with who did what. But even where there is real choice and disagreement – and where the result determines who heads up a council, one of the most important political jobs there is – party members do not get a say.

As I type this I can just imagine the thoughts going through some councillors’ minds at the idea of members electing their group leader rather than they themselves.

So – I want to take you back to the start of this year. I just want you to imagine if our party leader was elected in the equivalent way to the way in which our council group leaders are elected. That is, by the MPs alone with party members not having any say.

Imagine if we had had an election that way at the start of the year and I had then come along to the recent London Liberal Democrats conference to say how well I thought the process worked, how the leader is the leader of the MPs – so of course it should only be MPs who should get a say – and maybe made a joke or two about some oddball members and asked if you really wanted to entrust the very serious and important choice of leader to people like that?

I don’t think I’d have been very popular – and rightly so!

So instead I ask – think of all the reasons why it was right and proper that I and everyone else in this room had one vote in the selection of the leader, and then ask – why doesn’t the same reasoning apply to the leader of council groups? Of course, a council group leader needs to have support of their councillors and they are the people who know the candidates best – but that can be dealt with by the nomination rules (as with party leader where a candidate has to currently have the support and be nominated by 7 MPs).

This isn’t just a theoretical question, because think again – think of where local parties have gone horribly off the rails, falling apart into infighting and dispute. Almost always, a large part of the story is that the council group and members have gone off in different directions with splits opening up between councillors and party.

Having the group leader elected by members could be an important piece of glue holding the party together.

So it might be that this is the right thing to do not just in its own terms – democratic – but also the right pragmatic thing to do – to help head off some of the problems of division we’ve sometimes had in the past. And don’t forget the benefits too of encouraging councillors to remember how important members are, to retain them and to communicate with them – whilst also giving more members more of a say and a participation in local politics and decision making. That’s what we’re about as a party, aren’t we?

The logic of what I have written sounds pretty good to me – and the various people I’ve tried it out on seem to agree too. Yet within the party, I can’t recall any move to introduce these sorts of changes? So have I got it all wrong, or is it time we changed things?

This article first appeared on Liberal Review.